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

The Importance Of Mercy

I’m doing some reading as I try to frame a book project that will attempt to change the way we see (and therefore treat) animals, and there is an interesting, religious-based argument, that is not about animal rights so much as a plea for the exercise of mercy (which would makes us better humans, and better honor whatever God one believes in). In that context, I came across this prayer from Saint Basil in 375 AD:

Oh, God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail.

It appears to me that 16 centuries (and free markets powered by industrialization) has brought arguably more cruelty and less shame. But even though I am an atheist I like very much the concept of “fellowship with all living things.” In fact I would extend that idea of fellowship beyond living things to living ecosystems, and the living planet and all its environments. From fellowship would flow respect, moral consideration and compassion. Then the voice of humanity would indeed be a beautiful song instead of a terrible groan.

 

Sustainable Is Also Healthy

In my recent Outside story about sustainable eating I didn’t get into the question of whether foods which are easier on the planet are also healthy (or healthier). So this Washington Post story, which looks at whether there is scientific consensus or disagreement, on a number of dietary choices, caught my eye.

Check out this summary chart. Looks to me as if there is pretty solid scientific consensus on the health benefits of a more plant-based, low environmental footprint diet.

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It reinforces what I believe about plant-based foods. They are a three-fer: 1) Good for you; 2) Good for the planet; and 3) Good for animals.

I find that logic overwhelming, which leaves taste and habit as the only real barriers to a plant-based diet. And good recipes (and chefs like Dan Barber) can easily obliterate those barriers.

Diet And The Planet

1920px-ecologically_grown_vegetables

After writing about eating seafood more sustainably, my editor at Outside and I figured we might as well go Full Monty and broaden the question to take a hard look at eating more sustainably in general. So I dove into lots of research on how our food choices affect the planet, and you can read the results here.

Key takeaways:

  • your food choices are the easiest way for you to dramatically shrink your environmental footprint
  • eating less or no meat has the biggest impact on dietary sustainability
  • if you want to maximize both your nutrition and the environmental benefits of your diet, eat more pulses/legumes: lentils, beans, etc.
  • we worry way too much about whether we are getting enough protein. We get plenty, even if we are vegetarians, and eating more protein than we need is very costly to the environment
  • going vegetarian can halve your impact on climate, and land and water use; going vegan can reduce it by around three-quarters (I was impressed by the extra environmental bump you get from going from vegetarian to vegan).
  • eating organic has a demonstrable benefit to soils, waterways and climate.
  • one of the biggest environmental tragedies related to diet is food waste–which in the US is a shocking 40%. That also makes reducing food waste in your home a huge opportunity to shrink your environmental impact.

So, to sum up, if you really want to eat more sustainably: Eat less or no meat, and eat  organic and locally whenever possible. Stop eating so much protein, and stop eating so much in general (overeating is costly to the planet and your health). Oh, and stop wasting so much food!

Humanely-Raised Chickens Is An Oxymoron

Here’s what Jim Perdue says about the chickens he sells:

Here is what a chicken farm that follows Perdue’s guidelines to the letter looks like:

How can there be such a discrepancy? Well, industries spin the facts, of course. And more important, consumers misunderstand the labels used by the industry, and the standards that do exist are mostly set by the industry:

Perdue sells its chicken with a label that says both “humanely raised” and “raised cage free.” The former claim seems debatable, especially considering how nearly one million of its birds are being raised each year—whether within the company’s guidelines or not. And the latter is arguably misleading, because it applies to virtually all chicken meat sold in the United States. Egg-laying birds are often raised in cages, but broiler chickens—those raised for slaughter—are not. In that sense, marketing that chicken meat comes from chickens that were “raised cage free” isn’t all that different from touting the fact that coffee beans were not grown in Siberia (coffee beans, for the record, are not grown in Siberia).

The problem is that these claims, however misleading they might be, are actually pretty effective sales pitches. A recent survey showed that the vast majority of consumers prefer cage-free “humanely raised” labels, according to Kristof.

Compassion in World Farming isn’t shy about placing some of the onus on the USDA. The government does have a list of labels that must meet certain requirements in order to be used by meat producers on their packaging, such as “organic,” “free range,” and “no antibiotics.” But the terms that Perdue is using, like “humanely raised” and “raised cage free” aren’t regulated by the government in the same way. Instead, they are based on The National Chicken Council’s animal welfare guidelines, an industry-created standard.

The USDA doesn’t approve the label so much as verify that it meets the standards the industry decided it should meet. Samuel Jones, a spokesperson for the USDA, confirmed the process. “Some companies pay the USDA to verify that they’re meeting specific processing points,” he said. “If it’s cage-free, and they want us to verify that they are meeting their set guidelines, that’s what we do.”

It would of course be nice if the USDA actually set much better and stricter standards for the raising and slaughter of livestock (while there is one decent independent certification, I don’t think any standard can actually make the process “humane”), instead of being a rubber stamp for the meat producers and processors.

But I mainly put the onus on consumers. These days, with all the video and reporting that repeatedly exposes the tortured lives of the animals the public consumes with such gusto, you have to be willfully blind to not be aware that if you are eating meat, eggs, or dairy you are almost certainly the last link in a very profitable chain of misery.  Or you have to be a person who DOES know the truth but somehow can’t bring yourself to the ethical and logical conclusion that you should stop eating meat.

Nick Kristof, for example, did indeed write a great op-ed about Perdue and the Perdue farmer who blew the whistle on how Perdue’s guidelines added up to chicken-abuse. But just when you think Kristof is about to bring his column to a logical conclusion and tell his millions of readers that chicken is now off his menu, he comes up with this:

Perdue’s methods for raising chickens are typical of industrial agriculture. So the conundrum is this. Big Ag has been stunningly successful in producing cheap food — the price of chicken has fallen by three-quarters in real terms since 1930. Yet there are huge external costs, such as antibiotic resistance and water pollution, as well as a routine cruelty that we tolerate only because it is mostly hidden.

Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.

I don’t know where to draw the lines. But when chickens have huge open bedsores on their undersides, I wonder if that isn’t less animal husbandry than animal abuse.

You think? And I think the line is pretty easy to draw: stop eating chicken. James McWilliams wrote a brutal and scathing takedown of Kristof’s lack of moral courage, that is well worth reading. I’d only add that if the facts can’t get a smart, thoughtful columnist like Nick Kristof to stop eating abused animals it’s a pretty discouraging indicator of how meat-eating and the meat-eating culture somehow detaches us from ordinary moral calculation. And that’s a bad thing for billions of animals.

Cory Booker Takes Out A Trial Membership In The The Vegan Club

Photo: The Daily Beast

 

A long-time vegetarian, Booker says he’s trying veganism through the end of they year. He tried and failed once before. Hopefully, this time it will stick. Because he knows that vegetarianism doesn’t quite resolve the moral issues involved in animal production:

There’s tension in vegetarianism, though, since many of the reasons we have to give up meat—the animal death and suffering, the negative environmental impact, the health consequences—are still problems when we look at milk or eggs. The milk industry tacitly supports veal production, since lactation requires frequent pregnancies and something has to be done with the calves. The egg industry, too, takes a staggering number of lives—every male chick is killed shortly after it hatches, and egg-laying hens are killed at around a quarter or fifth of their natural lifespan. Even more, animal agriculture produces a startling proportion of our greenhouse gas emissions (by some accounts nearly 20 percent) and consumes ashocking amount of water. The environmental consequences of animal agriculture don’t change whether a cow is grown for dairy or meat nor whether a chicken is raised for poultry or eggs.

Booker also expressed concern about his own health. “African-American males have some of the worst health data out of any sort of gender-race combination in our country,” he said. “Do I want to be an exemplar of good health and health outcomes, or do I want to participate in things that are making me unhealthy?”

Hard to argue with that. And if he sneaks some Ben & Jerry’s every once in a while, no one should think the worse of him.

Veganism: it’s a wave that’s building…

Chris Christie Weighs Morality Against His Political Ambitions

“Yo, Chris. I know I don’t have a vote in Iowa, or a Super Pac. But sure would be nice to be able to move around a bit.”

 

The legislators of New Jersey have seen fit to ban cruel gestation crates for pigs, and the pig industry of Iowa demands a Christie vet. Its presidential ambition versus basic compassion and morality, with a deadline of Dec. 1, and I suspect I will not be surprised by which way Christie will go.

But Matthew Scully, a lonely and articulate voice on the right calling for compassion, weighs in with a plea for Christie to ignore the lies and spin he is being fed from Iowa and do the right thing:

Being immobilized for all of their existence, lying and living in their own urine and excrement, the sows are sick, sore, atrophied, usually lame, crazed or broken in spirit, and kept alive in these torments only by a massive and reckless use of steroids. The confinement of the sows, presented in terms of solicitude for the piglets, is among the causes of the welfare problem it purports to solve. And the piglets in any case are taken from their mothers in short order to begin their own lives of merciless confinement, mutilation, privation, and fear, in a process, from birth to slaughter, utterly devoid of human compassion.

I saw all of this myself once on a visit to a mass-confinement hog farm in North Carolina, the kind of investigative tour that would now be a crime in Iowa, taking in scenes that anyone not numbed to the sight of animal suffering would find abhorrent and deeply disturbing. (Let’s just say that Joni Ernst’s celebrated campaign ad, shot in a sunny, straw-filled showcase instead of a typical industrial hog farm, would have lost its sassy charm had the backdrop been the real thing.) The particular issue of the crates may seem a small matter, these extra few inches for a lowly pig, so miserable already and doomed to a nightmarish end. But that’s not a thought I’d stress if I were one of those guys from the National Pork Producers Council talking to Governor Christie. It only draws attention to the sheer pettiness, the unfeeling, unyielding, unchristian spirit, of anyone who would refuse so minimal a comfort to an afflicted animal.

If you and I made a living doing things like this to weak and defenseless creatures, we’d want to steer clear of legal scrutiny too, protesting against intrusions into our private commercial pursuits. But the argument that the bill on Governor Christie’s desk would constitute an undue regulatory burden on hog farmers, by directing the state board of agriculture to write new rules forbidding gestation crates, falls apart the moment you pause to think about it.

Yes, yes it does. And the unspeakable cruelty of industrial pig farming is not an issue that should be ignored for any political purpose.

PS: Here’s Jon Stewart’s take:

Counterarguments: Do Vegetarians Kill More Animals Than Meat-Eaters?

“Hey, all you vegetarians! What about me?”

Yes, argues an Australian professor Mike Archer:

To produce protein from grazing beef, cattle are killed. One death delivers (on average, across Australia’s grazing lands) a carcass of about 288 kilograms. This is approximately 68% boneless meat which, at 23% protein equals 45kg of protein per animal killed. This means 2.2 animals killed for each 100kg of useable animal protein produced.

Producing protein from wheat means ploughing pasture land and planting it with seed. Anyone who has sat on a ploughing tractor knows the predatory birds that follow you all day are not there because they have nothing better to do. Ploughing and harvesting kill small mammals, snakes, lizards and other animals in vast numbers. In addition, millions of mice are poisoned in grain storage facilities every year.

However, the largest and best-researched loss of sentient life is the poisoning of mice during plagues.

Each area of grain production in Australia has a mouse plague on average every four years, with 500-1000 mice per hectare. Poisoning kills at least 80% of the mice.

At least 100 mice are killed per hectare per year (500/4 × 0.8) to grow grain. Average yields are about 1.4 tonnes of wheat/hectare; 13% of the wheat is useable protein. Therefore, at least 55 sentient animals die to produce 100kg of useable plant protein: 25 times more than for the same amount of rangelands beef.

Well, it’s definitely an interesting argument. But it relies on a number of factors, which don’t always apply. For example, the numbers would be much different for grain-fed beef (i.e. the majority of beef), because the grain being produced for cattle feed will also kill lots of mice and other field species.

Also, while Australia may be rich in natural grasslands, there has been enormous clear-cutting and habitat-destruction involved in creating landscapes around the globe that are suitable for livestock production.

This argument also assumes widespread use of poisons and pesticides in the plant farming. Organic farming almost certainly kills many fewer animals.

It focuses on wheat, and wheat protein. More protein dense crops, such as soy or quinoa, would alter the balance.

In short, this article compares the least-cruel, least-destructive form of cattle farming against the most-cruel, most-destructive form of plant farming.

Still, the central point–that even a vegetarian or vegan diet is not cruelty or blood-free–is correct. I have never assumed my vegan diet somehow means my eating habits are free from murder. But I have little doubt that being vegan is much less cruel than eating the factory-farmed meat that gets slapped down on the vast majority of plates around the globe.

And while I have always understood that there are forms of livestock farming that are much less cruel than factory farming, the proportion of meat produced globally with these methods is vanishingly small. More important, while some forms of livestock farming are much less cruel than factory-farming, there is another perhaps even more compelling reason to favor plants over meat (which is not addressed by the argument Archer is making): the disproportionate impact on the climate of meat-eating.

Climate change is arguably the greatest killer of all. And that is a very powerful argument against meat-eating even if the immediate cruelty trade-off is not quite as obvious as most vegetarians and vegans might assume.

A Scientist Combats Climate Change (A Bit)

Eric Holthaus quit flying to reduce his carbon footprint:

This week marks one year since I last flew on an airplane. To the likely dismay of Fox News, which called me a “sniveling beta male,” my decision didn’t result in a dramatic tailspin of self-loathing or suicide, the ultimate carbon footprint reducer. Quite the contrary: It’s been an amazing year.

My decision was prompted by a science report that brought me to tears. It wasn’t that the consensus statement was particularly new or noteworthy—we all know by now that climate change is one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced as a civilization—but that, for the first time, I realized that my daily actions were powerful enough to make a meaningful change.

Folks, we are in trouble if a scientist just now realizes that his daily actions are powerful enough to impact climate change. And chooses to quit flying instead of digging deep enough to discover that if he really wants to make an impact he should also have quit meat.

He comes to many of the right conclusions:

What the math behind climate science is asking for is nothing less than a revolution. Anderson thinks scientists like him should lead by example. “I think we have to start to actually act accordingly with our own analysis. That lends credibility to our work.” This holds true for nonscientist advocates, too, he believes. “Al Gore’s probably got an emission footprint similar to a small African country, and he’s wandering about the planet telling other people that they should reduce their carbon emissions.”

Still, Anderson admits that it’s a big ask to broaden the efforts from a few passionate scientists to broader society. But without that, the chances of maintaining a stable climate are slim. Still, Anderson remains about as optimistic as his research permits him to be.

“I think we will fail, but I don’t know we will fail. There’s a very big difference between those two.” Anderson continued, “It’s likely we will die trying. But if we don’t try, then we will definitely not succeed. I work in this area because I still think there’s a thin thread of hope.”

Well, maybe less than a thread if a dude can write an article about how we need a revolution, how personal choices have an impact, notes what incredible climate hogs Americans tend to be, and somehow misses the most carbon intensive choice he makes every day that he reaches for a bacon burger.

We all need to make changes. And, sure, reducing air travel can make a difference (you should have seen my wife’s face when I told her I thought we should fly only once a year, and explore the area around DC instead of immediately hopping on planes whenever we wanted to go somewhere).

But the most important and impactful first step in this personal revolution, apparently missed by both these scientists, is simple: stop eating meat. (Do that, and you might even be able to fly a little!)

And if everyone did the same, and scientists who wrote articles about climate change followed the numbers wherever they went, then we might have a little more than a “thread of hope.”

Sylvia Earle Does Not Eat Fish

And here she explains why:

Except for those living in coastal communities — or even inland if we’re talking freshwater species — for most people, eating fish is a choice, not a necessity. Some people believe that the sole purpose of fish is for us to eat them. They are seen as commodities. Yet wild fish, like wild birds, have a place in the natural ecosystem which outweighs their value as food. They’re part of the systems that make the planet function in our favor, and we should be protecting them because of their importance to the ocean. They are carbon-based units, conduits for nutrients, and critical elements in ocean food webs. If people really understood the methods being used to capture wild fish, they might think about choosing whether to eat them at all, because the methods are so destructive and wasteful. It isn’t just a matter of caring about the fish or the corals, but also about all the things that are destroyed in the process of capturing ocean wildlife. We have seen such a sharp decline in the fish that we consume in my lifetime that I personally choose not to eat any. In the end, it’s a choice.

There are few people on the planet who have thought more about that choice, so Earle is worth listening to (though she isn’t quite willing to tell people not to eat meat as well; attention Cowspiracy).

And, since we are on documentaries today, you can hear a lot more about her and her work in the Netflix doc Mission Blue.