Friday, February 5, 2010

On Veganism

By the power of social networking, I've recently reconnected with a good friend from my childhood. We'll call her KP. A day or two ago, she posted the following to her Facebook page:

"As a vegan, I find myself often attempting to silence my beliefs around my friends and family members in an attempt to not make them uncomfortable - I truly believe that everyone has the right to make their own choices, and that what is right for some is not right for all. However, many of you ask questions - number one being WHY VEGAN? And I think this video by Sir Paul McCartney answers that better than I ever could. Warning: Like all videos of this nature, it is graphic. 

The point for me is not that this video is all that original - there are many more out there just like it. I find it just a very clear to the point argument against supporting this kind of behavior by purchasing and eating meat and animal products. It is not that I believe that the eating of animals is wrong, fundamentally or in any other regard. It is that I believe that the view of animals as a product, vs a living being, and therefore the ability of large companies to treat these products with cruelty and violence and disrespect, is something that I am against wholeheartedly. 

I am a person that believes that every time we spend a dollar, we are voting. Every time you support something with your money, you are saying Yes, I support this, this will continue because I choose to make it profitable for the company providing it for me. And I refuse to vote YES to this kind of treatment. I agree with Sir Paul - if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian."

So I asked her for her thoughts on buying local and/or organic animal products, instead of avoiding them altogether. Last summer, we started shopping at our local farmer's market for our produce, eggs, bread, and a variety of other products. Primarily, I wanted to support the local farmers because the economy was tanking so hard. But I was also really interested in the quality of our food and knowing where/who our food came from after reading Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food."  As s Southern girl, born and raised, I don't know that I could ever give up eating meat, eggs, and dairy. But I do make an effort to only buy them from quality sources. KP responded:

"I love questions like this and I feel like as a vegan, I need to be able to answer them or I am not living an honest life. The first thing I want to recommend to you is to read a book called "The Omnivore's Dilemma" By Michael Pollan. He is THE most respected agricultural writer of our times, and has a massive understanding of the food system in our country. One of the things he talks a great deal about is the organic movement. Please don't misunderstand me - I support organic agriculture 100%, and buy organic whenever possible. But organic has changed a lot in the past 15-20 years. When organic was first coined as a term, it was a movement. Now it is an industry. 

There is a pastoral storytelling that goes on to try to make consumers feel the way that you feel - an image of chickens stretching their feathers in the sunshine, living a happy life as they provide us eggs for our yummy breakfasts. Unfortunately this is not the case. For instance, the truth about "free range" chicken is very interesting. The information is there, but you have to want to look for it - the agricultural companies don't readily put it out there. Free range chickens are not allowed free range access for several weeks, due to their age, immune system, and other factors. Then after several weeks, a small door is opened that leads to a small outdoor area where they can roam. However, at this point, the chickens are afraid to exit the building, and the truth is that most of them never walk out of that small door. Even the ones that do are typically slaughtered within the next two weeks. Most "free range" chicken meat comes from a chicken that has never seen the light of day. And even "free range" chickens are kept in cramped quarters, over fed improper diets so that they will grow quicker and be able to be slaughtered faster. And when they are slaughtered, they go to the same slaughterhouses as the non free range, and undergo the same abuse. 

I was a vegetarian long before going vegan, and am not trying to disparage the great good that vegetarians inflict upon this world with their choices. I eventually went vegan for several reasons, which I won't go into heavy detail about bc it would fill up pages, not a comment block on Facebook. But for instance - diary cows are so infected and sore from the way they are milked by machines that the percentage of udder pus and discharge in milk is so high that once you read it, you might be sick. And I found out that chickens that provide eggs are treated the same way - meaning kept in overcramped cages, in the dark, with their beaks pecked off, and their legs breaking underneath them - as meat chickens. 

And the more research I did, the more strongly I felt about it. And then I was lucky enough to be around a great vegan, who had done it for years, and I realized that it took much LESS discipline and effort to be a vegan than I ever thought possible. There are so many fantastic alternatives out there - I eat yogurt every day! Coconut milk yogurt! It tastes the same as cows milk yogurt- even has the healthy bacteria in it for your tummy. And I drink milk, every day! Coconut milk, rice milk, oat milk, almond milk, soy milk, hemp milk... and man. They are getting better with fake meat every day. I make tofu scramble that tastes like scrambled eggs, and "sausage" and hashbrowns and ketchup for breakfast every weekend. I eat chocolate chip cookies and have ice cream on top of my apple pie. Being vegan is so easy once you have the tips and understanding of what it entails. 

The last thing I will say in this huge response is that I applaud your efforts to buy local. No matter how wonderful organic may be, local is ALWAYS better. Local food has a lower impact on the environment (less fuel in transport), is better for you (fresher and less preservatives), supports your local economy, and is the way farming and food was MEANT to be done. It takes the power out of the hands of these frightening agro giants, like Monsanto. So keep buying local! And even if you never feel like you can give up meat, try giving up meat even one day a week. Have a "vegetarian day" or a vegan day once a week - if everyone in this country did that, the difference it would make would be astounding. 

And thank you for asking questions! I hope I answered them thoroughly. If you enjoy reading, at all, pick up The Omnivores Dilemma. Michael Pollan is not a vegan, nor a vegetarian! So the book is not a biased argument to become either. He is an agricultural expert and researcher, and will open your eyes so much to where the food you put into your body every day comes from, and what it took to get it from the source to your plate. You will really appreciate his chapters on the organic agriculture industry, and how to be able to sift through the labels and advertising and get to the truth."

Ultimately, what we agreed was that the primary source of the problem is size. As soon as a farm gets too big, they start having the problems KP discussed. I'm sure there are exceptions, but it's been my experience that small growers/farmers don't engage in the kind of practices KP mentioned. If I could get all my produce from local growers, I would do it. If I could find a small dairy farm in our area, I would patronize it exclusively. But the problem is that there are too few local growers and competition from bigger farms forces them to start doing these things or risk being crushed altogether.

So my advice to you is to BUY LOCAL! Organic is great, but local is always better.. especially when farmers will let you come to their farms and see their crops/animals yourself. Buying local provides you with fresher, healthier food; it lessens the impact of agriculture on the environment (food doesn't have to be trucked across the country); and it helps our neighbors to provide for their families. 

And as KP said, "Every time you support something with your money, you are saying Yes, I support this, this will continue because I choose to make it profitable for the company providing it for me." So, let your wallet speak for you and see what a difference it can make.

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