By Anna E. Charlton 

Every year, we kill and eat 80 billion land animals, and an unknown number—probably at least a trillion—of sea animals. Think about that for a second. We kill more animals in a year for food alone than the total number of human beings that have ever inhabited the planet. 

And the number of animals being consumed is increasing as the population increases and as people become more affluent.  

So what do we do about that? 

We have two and only two choices. 

The first choice is to focus on treatment and support campaigns to make animal exploitation more “humane” and “compassionate.” This is the choice of most of the large animal charities. They talk almost exclusively about factory farming and have campaigns that seek to eliminate the “abuses” of intensive agriculture. 

This is the wrong choice. If it is wrong to exploit animals, then it’s wrong whether we do it more or less “humanely.” We shouldn’t be doing it at all. Moreover, can we really eliminate the “abuses” of factory farming? Putting aside that the entire institution of using animals for food (or any other purpose) is wrong, the “abuses” of factory farming are largely the practices that have developed given the economic reality of trying to produce animal foods in the cheapest way possible. 

Remember that animals are property. It costs money to protect their interests. We will protect those interests to the extent that it makes economic sense to do so. The standard of animal welfare will always be low. Don’t take my word for it: Look at the history of animal welfare. As long as there is a demand for animal products, any significant level of animal welfare is an economic and political fantasy. 

So animal welfare, which assumes that we can use animals as long as we treat them “humanely,” fails on its own terms. The primary value of animal welfare is to make humans more comfortable about continuing to exploit animals, and creating campaigns for welfarist animal charities—and that includes just about all of the large animal groups—to use for fundraising purposes. “Cage-free,” “grass-fed,” “free-range”—we’re just looking for a right way to do the wrong thing. 

The right choice 

The second choice—the right choice—is to focus on use and not on treatment. Rather than spending our time focused on making the supply of animal products supposedly more “humane,” we should focus on the demand part of the equation and persuade people to stop eating and otherwise using animals as commodities. We should focus on educating people about veganism, or the refusal to participate in any animal use to the extent that is possible. 

At this point, you are saying, “Yes, that’s fine, but it’s not practical because educating people takes a great deal of time.” 

That’s certainly true. But it’s our only choice.  

Before you throw your hands up in despair consider two facts. 

There are approximately 90 million vegans worldwide. If every one of those people convinced just one other person to go vegan in the next year, there would be 180 million vegans. If every one of those vegans convinced one other person to vegan, there would be 360 million the next year, and then 720 million, and then 1.44 billion, and then 2.88 billion, and then 5.76 billion, and then 11.52 billion. Given that the earth’s population is (presently) 8 billion, we could have a vegan world in seven years even if population increases dramatically!  

Now, that isn’t going to happen, but it could happen, unlike stopping the suffering of animals used for food, which will never happen. 

Moreover, social scientists estimate that if 10% of the population embraces an idea strongly and seriously, that can serve to effect social change. So if 10% of the population were of the view that animal use, however supposedly “humane,” was morally wrong, that would at least change the social discussion from whether animal treatment is “humane” to whether animal use is morally justifiable. The result would be a very different social discussion about animal ethics and would itself serve to get veganism more seriously considered by people. 

So that leaves us with the individual responsibility to become vegan educators. We have the responsibility—as individuals—to speak out, write, teach, cook, grow—anything that communicates the moral imperative of veganism. And we can all do it despite shyness or a bit of discomfort. It is our obligation.  

There is nothing more powerful or effective than speaking to those within your circle of friends, who presumably think you have the right ideas on other subjects, about how important you think veganism is. 

Vegan education is the only choice we have if we want to change the world for animals. And, unlike the animal welfare choice, it is actually practical.   

Those who are friends of animals—and Friends of Animals—stand by vegan advocacy as the most important form of activism. 

Anna Charlton is adjunct professor of Law at Rutgers University School of Law. She served as Co-Director (with Gary L. Francione) of the Rutgers Animal Rights Law Clinic/Center from 1990-2000. She has written extensively in the area of animal ethics, and is the co-author of “Eat Like You Care: An Examination of the Morality of Eating Animals” and “Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach.”