The biggest change anyone (vegan or not) can do is to take more responsibility for one’s food.
If you one is eating industrial-scale, out of season, non-local fruits and vegetables from the grocery store, one is still supporting the deaths of many animal, insect, and native plant species.
However, any gardener, vegan or not, will need to cause insect deaths at times, although on a much smaller scale and hopefully without the use of chemicals. It would be “species-ist” to think that those deaths matter less than a mammal’s or bird’s.
Many gardeners have come to appreciate the benefits of combining animals and plant-raising on a small scale. For example, chickens, ducks, and pigs help till the soil, feed on many garden-destroying bugs and weeds. This can turn small-scale food raising into a self-sustaining poly-culture when done with care (worlds away from factory farms and pesticide-ridden crop mono-culture). And no- one does not have to support large hatcheries or even stop being a vegan to reap the benefits of of having these types of companion animals in the garden (although it would be a shame to put any eggs to waste, unless another companion animal such as a dog could enjoy them).
However, meat and other animal-based foods are *not* unhealthy – indeed, in many climates that is the most reasonable type of food to use, and has been done so sustainably by many different cultures for thousands of years.
Traditional populations of very cold and arid climates should not be expected to live entirely on a plant-based diet (where there are some, but not enough, types of calorie-rich native plants that are digestible to humans) nor would it be a good idea to encourage them to change their traditions and live off of fare from grocery stores full of trucked-in goods.
I realize that almost everyone reading and posting here lives within Western civilization, where agribusiness is out of control and both plants and animals have been turned into anonymous cheap commodities for one to toss into a shopping cart. This naturally leads many of us to seek a change in some way or another.
Maybe the answer is not to put food groups into different categories of “good” and “bad”, but to realize that we as animals (unlike most plants) must take nourishment from other forms of life to live, as other animals do.
A plant’s life and plans for growth and reproduction is, in most cases, halted by our need for them as food sources, just as much as a fellow animal’s. Plants do not have a central nervous system, but they do react to stimuli and distress, as animals do.
It would be “species-ist” to take for granted these amazing forms of life (and anyone who has raised or foraged plants for food is constantly humbled by individuality and acts of these forms of life – and by the knowledge that their lives must also be interrupted so we can eat them).
While we all have to eat, many of us in modern (often urbanized) civilizations have many choices about what to eat. It is indeed appealing to reduce harm with this but again, all industrialized fod production – be it for animal products or vegetables and fruits – cause enormous amounts of animal suffering, death, and destruction of the ecosystem.
If you are able to do this, please think about your climate and where you live. Are you eating foods that came from nearby? If you did not produce that food item, who did? How did they produce or grow that food item? What was involved, who was involved, and how far away?
Remember that simply because something is a plant item, it is not necessarily harm-free to humans or other animals. For example, tropical plantations growing things like bananas, coconuts, palm, etc., are well-known for killing off native animal species and exploiting human workers. A “Fair Trade” sticker may help to alleviate the guilt of a grocery store shopper as they throw those bananas in the cart, but that shopper will never really know what the story was behind that item, as long as there is such a disconnect with one’s food.
Can you produce what you eat – at least a little bit? There are wonderful resources out there for producing food in small spaces, even without a yard or conventional garden.
In the meantime, can you put a face to the farmer who produces your food? Farmer’s markets and CSAs are ways to put money directly into the hands of those who made that food possible, as opposed to the shockingly low prices they receive for their goods wholesale from the supermarket industry. Realize that supermarket food in the U.S. is artificially cheap, thanks to subsidies on mono-culture crops that feed us and factory-farmed animals.
Visit small farms – see how the plants are grown, and see how the animals are raised, and then make up your mind, regardless of whether you identify as a vegan or not.
I think if more people had a closer relationship to their food, many types of health and emotional problems surrounding food will fall away. Labels such as “vegan” and “omni” won’t perhaps create divisions as everyone will begin to appreciate and revere the life cycles that keep us alive.
Ultimately, maybe the goal should not be just about being a better “shopper”and “eater”. Any diet that must rely on industry in any form is not one that is helpful to us in the long run, and will not help us learn to be reliant on our own skills and on the resources of our immediate environments.