Note: This article will not actually examine some of the more philosophical arguments against veganism, but rather some of the more practical ones.
I'm vegan, but that wasn't always the case.
A few years ago, I experienced personal suffering because of mental health and social anxiety and those experiences, I believe, allowed me to empathize with other human as well as nonhuman animals.
So as someone who cares about reducing suffering on this planet, going vegan made a lot of sense to me. However, I do believe there are some arguments against veganism that are worth considering. Additionally, part of being intellectually honest is examining our beliefs, behaviors, and seeing how reliable and effective they are. I like to think that you learn more by trying to understand why you might be wrong as opposed to why you are right.
1: Trying to be 99% or 100% vegan can be difficult.
Examining products for small amounts of possibly animal-derived ingredients can use a lot of mental energy that might be better off being used in more productive ways. What's a diglyceride, anyway?
Many vegans will put a lot of energy into maintaining a type of "vegan purity". This can be helpful as it reinforces their vegan identity and make them less likely to go back to eating animal products, but it can portray veganism as burdensome and inaccessible, and that ultimately harms animals.
So, go easy on yourself. It's not about purity, it's about sustainably reducing suffering in the long term.
2: Lacto-vegetarianism might be fairly equivalent to veganism and much easier to adhere to.
Many vegans attribute a lot of suffering to dairy production, sometimes without reliable scientific evidence. I believe this is partially because of how we are social and familial beings and the exploitation of dairy cows seems especially horrendous.
However, according to Nick Cooney in his book Veganomics, the average American omnivore is responsible for the death of two dairy cows over their lifetime of eating dairy products. That means that a vegan likely only spares a couple of cows by abstaining from milk and cheese. Because of this, I think there is a decent argument to be made for lacto-vegetarianism.
Yes, the lives of two cows matters, but that's a lifetime of dairy consumption which results in the two cow deaths. A slice of vegetarian pizza once a month isn't really going to cause much harm, even though people who would do that would not be considered vegan.
Note: Some argue that dairy cows suffering a lot during their lives. I haven't found too much evidence that they suffer nearly as much as hens used for eggs or chickens used for meat, but I'm open to the possibility.
Additionally, the death of "bobby" cows (killed for veal) is not taken into account.
3: Effective animal charities are incredibly effective at helping farmed animals.
Vegetarians spare approximately 30 farmed animals each year. How much would it cost to spare a similar amount of farmed animals through a donation to an effective animal charity?
The answer will surprise you. Even using low-end estimates, the 30 animals spared is roughly worth around 30 cents. That's right, less than half a dollar can pretty much "offset" the harm of not being vegan or vegetarian.
To put it another way, someone who donates $100 a year to a charity like The Humane League can potentially spare 10,000 animals from living and suffering in industrial animal agriculture.
This doesn't necessarily mean you should stop being vegetarian or vegan. It does mean you should probably prioritize donations above personal purity, though. Are you paying extra for fancy vegan cheese? Consider it a treat, but the reality is that such types of purchases might be indirectly harming animals. Though I'm no saint when it comes to ultra-minimalism, I'm just acknowledging some of the trade offs we make.
The effectiveness of some charities also has implications for career choice, as taking a slightly higher paying job could help a lot more animals if you have more money to donate to effective charities.
4: When considering wild animal suffering, there might be certain animal products that are net-positive.
Brian Tomasik recently calculated how rainforest beef production affects wild animal suffering, specifically the suffering of insects. In their in-depth, yet still fairly uncertain, examination of Brazilian beef production, Brian concludes that:
Rainforest-beef production probably reduces wild-insect suffering. In fact, purchasing one kg of Brazilian beef prevents 3.0 * 10^5 insect-years of suffering as a median estimate and 6.7 * 10^6 insect-years in expectation.
So depending on our personal reasons for being vegan, there might be a case for consuming Brazilian beef, which would obviously not be a vegan thing to do but might actually reduce suffering more.
This doesn't mean everyone should go out right now and buy some Brazilian beef, but rather it shows that the world is a complex place with lots of suffering. Only considering how our actions affect farmed animals is ignoring the suffering of many other sentient beings. Being aware of and open to information like this is a crucial part of being honest with oneself and one's intentions.
Veganism and embracing anti-speciesist behavior and beliefs is a fairly important thing to do and stick to. The signalling value might be just as important as the actual amount of farmed animal suffering that is reduced.
So, while I do believe these arguments against veganism have some merit, I personally will remain vegan for the foreseeable future (maybe with the occasional bit of dairy) However, and again, part of being intellectually honest is being able to acknowledge arguments that might contradict our behaviors, belief, or identity systems.