A Novel Christmas Gift: Going Vegan

Tis the season. So this is a good time to revisit this story:

It started with Christmas.

And what happened was what always happens: I did no shopping.

I have on one or two occasions experienced the slightly awkward moment on Christmas morning when the gifts are finally all opened and it becomes apparent that none of them are from me. This general awareness is something I try to avoid, and sometimes, if I have the sense that the need for some kind of public admission is approaching, I have to think quickly. That’s what happened with the vegan thing. It just came to me — in the nick of time. The oranges were barely out of the stockings when I blurted out my entirely spontaneous idea. I told my 30-year-old daughter, who is a committed vegan, that her gift was six months of my being vegan. I said I’d give it a try.

Read on

Do We Really Need To Reinvent Food?

There are two basic approaches to diminishing or eliminating the environmental, health and animal welfare impacts of easting animal protein.

One is to reinvent meat and animal protein by creating plant-based substitutes, and Kate Murphy in the New York Times takes a look at all the venture capital and brainpower that Silicon Valley is throwing into this approach:

Call it Food 2.0.

Following Steve Jobs’s credo that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” a handful of high-tech start-ups are out to revolutionize the food system by engineering “meat” and “eggs” from pulverized plant compounds or cultured snippets of animal tissue. One company imagines doing away with grocery shopping, cooking and even chewing, with a liquid meal made from algae byproducts….

Venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Closed Loop Capital, Khosla Ventures and Collaborative Fund have poured money into Food 2.0 projects. Backing has also come from a hit parade of tech-world notables including Sergey Brin of Google, Biz Stone of Twitter, Peter Thiel of PayPal and Bill Gates of Microsoft, as well as Li Ka-shing, Asia’s wealthiest man, who bought early stakes in Facebook and Spotify.

“We’re looking for wholesale reinvention of this crazy, perverse food system that makes people do the wrong thing,” said Josh Tetrick, the vegan chief executive of San Francisco-based Hampton Creek. His company has created an egg substitute using protein extracted from the Canadian yellow pea, incorporating it into Just Scramble, Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough, which are starting to find their way onto grocery store shelves nationwide.

I’m pretty much down with anything that can help people move away from meat and animal protein. But replacing the flavor and texture of meat or dairy is very, very hard to do. I’ve tried most of the Food 2.0 alternatives that are for sale and while some aren’t revolting, or have a bland, neutral taste and feel, none taste anything like the thing they are trying to replace. And they are highly processed and packaged.

The second approach is to simply move on from meat and animal protein without trying to replace it. There is a world of good food out there that is all-natural vegan and vegetarian. When I went vegetarian, and then vegan,  I missed meat and I missed Half and Half in my coffee. I quickly discovered that there were no true substitutes, and that instead of vainly seeking to find a perfect substitute I would waste less time, and experience less disappointment, if I simply adopted new cuisines and recipes (Indian, Asian, Latino) that don’t rely on meat or animal protein. They are out there, folks. And they are delicious.

And you know what happened? I stopped missing meat and cream, and started craving two things: vegetables (though my wife can’t believe that I sometimes want to eat brussels sprouts for breakfast) and unprocessed food. And that makes eating pretty enjoyable and easy.

And sorry Silicon Valley: no Frankenfoods are required.

The Meat Files

“The fact is that the blue planet is literally being destroyed by meat production.”

That’s a slightly more edified version of my blunt mantra: “Meat is killing the planet.” (It’s also killing lots of people, but even that doesn’t seem to get a meat-lover’s attention).

Think it’s hyperbole? Not really–though it is a very hard reality to accept:

Burgers vs. The Climate

Salon magazine taps into the most important truth about climate change, which is that the single greatest change any human can make to help reduce greenhouse warming is to eat a lot less meat:

In their report, Goodland and Anhang note that when you account for feed production, deforestation and animal waste, the livestock industry produces between 18 percent and 51 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Add to this the fact that producing animal protein involves up to eight times more fossil fuel than what’s needed to produce an equivalent amount of non-animal protein, and you see that climate change isn’t intensified only by necessities like transportation and electricity. It is also driven in large part by subjective food preferences — more precisely, by American consumers’ unnecessary desire to eat, on average, 200 pounds of meat every year.

If you find it demoralizing that we are incinerating the planet and dooming future generations simply because too many of us like to eat cheeseburgers, here’s that good news I promised: In their report, Goodland and Anhang found that most of what we need to do to mitigate the climate crisis can be achieved “by replacing just one quarter of today’s least eco-friendly food products” — read: animal products — “with better alternatives.” That’s right; essentially, if every fourth time someone craved, say, beef, chicken or cow milk they instead opted for a veggie burger, a bean burrito or water, we have a chance to halt the emergency.

Here’s more from Goodland, who says that even the below video underestimates the massive contribution meat consumption makes to greenhouse warming. And the Daily Dish notes that others, like Mark Bittman and economist Tyler Cowen, are on board.

So it would be better to stop buying burgers than it would be to keep buying Priuses. Plus, you’ll be doing your heart a favor, too.

Is Humane Slaughter Humane?

This has always been a question I have puzzled over. I don’t have any doubt that the lives and deaths of livestock at factory farms involve suffering and cruelty.

But meat-eating friends argue that if they buy meat from organic, humane, farmers who allow livestock to lead natural lives and slaughter the animals with care, then they are addressing the moral issues around meat-eating (note: it doesn’t deal with the environmental impact).

So, if an animal leads a reasonable farm life, and is slaughtered with care, is that cruel? Or is it humane? Writer Mac McClelland set out to answer exactly that question by witnessing the slaughter of cows at the Prather Ranch Meat Company, which produces some of the most humanely raised and slaughtered beef in the country:

Technically, humane slaughter became law in the United States with the 1958 Humane Slaughter Act, intended to prevent the “needless suffering” of livestock during slaughter. Compliance, though, historically has been hit-or-miss, and in the intervening decades, after sensational undercover investigations and Internet animal cruelty videos and activist PR campaigns, eaters have begun to demand information about the way meat meets its maker.

If Prather Ranch’s callers are any indication, that concern is growing into its own movement. And while it’s one thing to understand slaughter practices on a theoretical level, it’s another to be in the same room when a cow dies.

To that end, I wanted to find out about slaughter from the most progressive part of the meat industry. Are big slaughterhouses as bad as we imagine? Should we be paying as much attention to how animals die as to how they live? Even under the best circumstances, just how humane can slaughter ever be?

Here’s McClelland’s description of the key moment:

Early the next snowy morning, we enter a compact room in the Prather slaughterhouse. All the available space is taken up by one hanging cow being sliced, another hanging cow being skinned and a third, just-stunned cow hanging and being cut open while 5 gallons of blood gush from its body a few feet away from me. Moments ago, we heard this very cow mooing from the knock box on the other side of the wall.

Mary had warned us that “vocalization is not necessarily a good thing,” yet there are low, deep, booming bellows echoing off the walls. Grandin—whom the Rickerts have met, and who sits on the Scientific Committee behind the nonprofit Certified Humane label—considers this a sign of distress. Mary says that Grandin once told her Prather cows might moo because they smell blood and get hip to the scheme.

The next cow, the cow I watch die, is quiet. It is black. It comes casually down a walkway. It steps into a squeeze chute, the metal hugging cage that closes in on the cows’ sides to calm them. Scott Towne, the guy in charge of the killing, hits it with a CASH Knocker, a blank shell shooting from a metal apparatus at the end of the long, wooden-handled device and into the front of the head above the eyes, denting the skull but not penetrating its brain, rendering the animal insensible. Instantly the cow’s eyes close. Its neck is lax and its mouth open, easy as a child asleep at the dinner table, or a businessman asleep on a plane.

So, is this humane, moral, acceptable? McClelland decides that he can live with it (though I seriously doubt that all the meat he eats comes from Prather). And, certainly, it would be a revolution, and greatly reduce the inhumanity and cruelty of meat-eating is all meat was raised and slaughtered to the Prather standard (as unrealistic as that possibility might be).

For me, though, the scene McClelland describes remains too brutal, too raw. I have reached the point that I can’t be comfortable with the idea of food that involves hanging a live animal from a chain and slicing its throat open, even if it is insensible.

And even if slaughter didn’t involve any pain or suffering whatsoever (which I don’t believe it can), what about the social and emotional connections between the slaughtered cow and the rest of the herd? There are too many alternatives that don’t even raise a question of cruelty (in addition to the health and environmental reasons to shun meat, even if slaughter were perfectly humane).

Regardless of where you come down on the question of whether slaughter can be “humane,” McClelland has asked, and tried to answer, a very important question for all of us. (Interestingly, the photo editor and photographer Michael Friberg seem to have reached a different conclusion than McClelland, at least judging from the photos they chose to publish with the article, some of which I have included here).

Seeing Is Important: Slaughterhouse Transparency Trending

The New York Times catches up with the Ag-Gag problem:

But a dozen or so state legislatures have had a different reaction: They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.

Critics call them “Ag-Gag” bills.

Some of the legislation appears inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a business advocacy group with hundreds of state representatives from farm states as members. The group creates model bills, drafted by lobbyists and lawmakers, that in the past have included such things as “stand your ground” gun laws and tighter voter identification rules.

One of the group’s model bills, “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” prohibits filming or taking pictures on livestock farms to “defame the facility or its owner.” Violators would be placed on a “terrorist registry.”

Officials from the group did not respond to a request for comment.

Mercy For Animals argues that this sort of exposure is an example of how the factory farm industry’s pursuit of ag-gag laws is an over-reach that is backfiring by drawing MORE attention to the conditions of slaughterhouses (one can hope, I guess):

In response to a spate of undercover investigations that have uncovered horrific animal abuse and shocking food safety problems in meat, dairy, and egg production, the factory farming industry has been furiously lobbying to pass “ag-gag” laws designed to keep its cruel and unsanitary practices hidden from public view. But that effort seems to be backfiring, as scores of media outlets nationwide are throwing back the curtain on Big Ag and shining a bright light on the industry’s sickening practices…[snip]

…Here is just a sample of the ag-gag news coverage in only the last few weeks:

Associated Press: Bills Seek End To Farm Animal Abuse Videos

Mother Jones: Flies, Maggots, Rats, and Lots of Poop: What Big Ag Doesn’t Want You To See

Nightline: ‘Ag Gag’ Bills Target Hidden Cameras

Raw Story: Business Lobby Moves to Criminalize Filming Animal Abuse on Factory Farms

Bakersfield Californian: Cattle Industry Must Rethink ‘Ag-Gag’ Bill

Food Safety News: “Ag-Gag” Bills Getting Hearings Today in Nebraska, Arkansas and Tennessee

Salon: States Seek “Ag-Gag” Laws to Silence Farm Whistleblowers

Vice: Beat Your Meat: Factory Farmers Want to Choke Their Chickens in Private

Huffington Post: Why Everyone Should Be Angry About Factory Farming

Lowell Sun: Agri-farm Bills Would Weaken Oversight

The Daily Aztec: Only We Can Stop Inhumane Factory Farming

Herald Times: Bill would shield farms, factories from cameras

Public Source: Bill would limit whistleblower activities on PA farms

Ironically, as the factory farming industry more desperately tries to hide its cruel practices, the more they are exposed.

You can see why a farm owner might prefer that this sort of imagery be criminalized (instead of the behavior it shows).

But if this op-ed contributor to the Times got his way, I think we could definitely conclude that the ag-gag initiative backfired. He calls for a Continue reading “Seeing Is Important: Slaughterhouse Transparency Trending”

H7N9 Avian Flu “Contagion” Threat Level: Orange

Initially, worries about deaths from H7N9 in China were dismissed as paranoid. But now H979 is at starting to live up to the hype:

Six people are dead from the H7N9 strain of avian flu. The number of infected has grown to to 14. A new scare just hit Hong Kong. The United States has begun early research for a vaccine. And now China has slaughtered 20,000 chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons — and shut down its live poultry markets — to try and cut off the health risk at the source. So: Is it time to panic yet?

Well, not exactly.

We’re not doctors, obviously, but the people at the World Health Organization said on Friday that they still haven’t found proof of “sustained human-to-human transmission” of [H7N9], reports Reuters. That’s the key difference between this latest scare going from a relatively isolated virus incident into full-fledged Contagion panic. In Hollywood terms, we’re about at the stage where the pig has left the farm but not yet arrived at the table with Gwyneth Paltrow. And while [H7N9] isn’t thought to be quite horror-movie bad, we might be at the point where Kate Winslet is about to get called in: The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta is already working to develop a vaccine, CNN reports, although U.S. and Chinese scientists still haven’t exactly accounted for how humans developed the virus.

In order to stem the tide, China has culled tens of thousands of birds along with a poultry-market shutdown. And while 20,000 animals might seem a lot of stock, well, Mexico had bird flu fears of their own last year and killed 8 million chickens in August as a precaution. So, that’s another good takeaway — provided you are not a duck, goose, or chicken hanging out in Shanghai.

I’d rather see “proof” that there isn’t “sustained human-to-human transmission.” Because absence of proof does not mean absence of  transmission, which presumably why the CDC is going all Kate Winslet and thinking about a vaccine.

Again, whether this plays out as feared or not, get used to this sort of scare. We’ll see it again and again because our livestock practices are nicely set up to create it. Is meat really worth it?

Meat And Antibiotics (Round 646)

Whenever an industry resists disclosing pertinent information about how its practices impact public health, it seems likely that those practices are problematic.

And when it comes to the rampant use of antibiotics in meat production, even former FDA Commissioner David Kessler is fed up (no pun intended):

In 2011, drugmakers sold nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics for livestock — the largest amount yet recorded and about 80 percent of all reported antibiotic sales that year. The rest was for human health care. We don’t know much more except that, rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another’s waste.

It may sound counterintuitive, but feeding antibiotics to livestock at low levels may do the most harm. When he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his discovery of penicillin, Alexander Fleming warned that “there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.” He probably could not have imagined that, one day, we would be doing this to billions of animals in factorylike facilities….[snip]

…It was not until 2008, however, that Congress required companies to tell the F.D.A. the quantity of antibiotics they sold for use in agriculture. The agency’s latest report, on 2011 sales and also released in February, was just four pages long — including the cover and two pages of boilerplate. There was no information on how these drugs were administered or to which animals and why.

We have more than enough scientific evidence to justify curbing the rampant use of antibiotics for livestock, yet the food and drug industries are not only fighting proposed legislation to reduce these practices, they also oppose collecting the data. Unfortunately, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, as well as the F.D.A., is aiding and abetting them.

The Senate committee recently approved the Animal Drug User Fee Act, a bill that would authorize the F.D.A. to collect fees from veterinary-drug makers to finance the agency’s review of their products. Public health experts had urged the committee to require drug companies to provide more detailed antibiotic sales data to the agency. Yet the F.D.A. stood by silently as the committee declined to act, rejecting a modest proposal from Senators Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, both Democrats, that required the agency to report data it already collects but does not disclose.

Kessler should be very familiar with this problem. The FDA has been intimidated into inaction an antibiotics for decades, according to this excellent timeline.

Just another day in the life of a corporate democracy. I mean, what could go wrong?

Did China’s Meat Production Practices Create The Possibility Of A New Pandemic?

Laurie Garrett (free sign-up required) at Foreign Policy thinks the answer may be, “yes”:

Here’s how it would happen. Children playing along an urban river bank would spot hundreds of grotesque, bloated pig carcasses bobbing downstream. Hundreds of miles away, angry citizens would protest the rising stench from piles of dead ducks and swans, their rotting bodies collecting by the thousands along river banks. And three unrelated individuals would stagger into three different hospitals, gasping for air. Two would quickly die of severe pneumonia and the third would lay in critical condition in an intensive care unit for many days. Government officials would announce that a previously unknown virus had sickened three people, at least, and killed two of them. And while the world was left to wonder how the pigs, ducks, swans, and people might be connected, the World Health Organization would release deliberately terse statements, offering little insight.

It reads like a movie plot — I should know, as I was a consultant for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. But the facts delineated are all true, and have transpired over the last six weeks in China. The events could, indeed, be unrelated, and the new virus, a form of influenza denoted as H7N9, may have already run its course, infecting just three people and killing two.

Or this could be how pandemics begin.

We all know (or at least by now should know) about the cruelty and environmental impact of industrial meat production. And we know that there are personal health implications related to heart disease. What most people don’t know is that factory farms and modern livestock practices create ripe scenarios for new viruses and antibiotic resistant bacteria. The H7N9 virus may turn out not to be the pandemic health experts have feared might emanate from livestock. But even if it is not, it is a reminder that we have knowingly created conditions which probably will at some point produce a deadly pandemic. A definite “reap what you sow” situation, and an example of a modern threat that is much more worrisome than all the traditional threats (terrorism, for example) that we tend to spend time and money on.

This is yet another powerful reason that vegetarian and vegan practices would make for a lot safer, more inhabitable, planet in the future. (h/t Earth In Transition, for flagging Garrett’s piece).

Just one more environmental note on China, and an example of why China might end up wondering whether it was really so wise to try and emulate the western development and consumption model. Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China:

Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total, according to a new summary of data from a scientific study on leading causes of death worldwide.

Figured another way, the researchers said, China’s toll from pollution was the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population.

That’s a big price to pay, no matter how you look at it.

Rise Of The Vegans

At least according to this cool Google Trends analysis of searches using the word “vegan” 2008 to the present. It was created by Compassion Over Killing, and, yes, it starts on the coasts (especially the PNW and the NE), but watch as it slowly spreads into the heartland.

There are holdout states, of course (I’m looking at you, Wyoming), but if Google searches are destiny then veganism is an idea and way of life whose time is arriving.