Knowing Your Food

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The Meat-Eating Goat Rescuer

A few months ago, I was working with the pigs at Poplar Spring during the Montgomery County Farm Tour. The farm tour brings in a lot of people that not only aren’t vegetarian, but don’t have any concept of an animal sanctuary or why a farm with animals would exist if not to make money. That event is an interesting opportunity to interact with meat-eaters and tell them things about food production they never knew.

While in the pig area on that particular day, one woman came up with her completely bored-looking husband. After I talked a little bit about the pigs’ history and how they got to the farm, she mentioned that she did goat rescue and brought the newest goat to Poplar Spring a few weeks earlier. She went on to discuss the goat slaughter industry and how it was tied to consumption of goat milk. I figured, ah, good, a visitor who “gets it.” Then, she said, “I guess you’re vegetarian?”

I replied, “Yes, vegan. You?”

She replied, “No. I probably should be, but I like the taste of meat too much.”

I had to pick my jaw up off the ground.  Not only was I hearing the most annoying (but also the most truthful) reason, but I was hearing it from someone who should know better. It’s like hearing that someone that runs a farm sanctuary still eats meat: it just doesn’t add up.

She continued, “Plus, I could never get him to go for it,” pointing to her husband, who was leaning against a wall. A few seconds later, he asked, “Can we go yet?”

I decided to pretend I was Gary and turn this into an outreach opportunity. I told her, “There are so many great fake meats out there, it’s incredibly easy to transition to vegetarianism these days.”

She countered with, “Well, we know where our meat comes from. We had a cow that we raised for the meat, so when we look at our hamburger, we know where it’s from.”

At this point, I gave up. You see, it can be headache-inducing to deal with an omni that refuses to consider your position. But even worse, I think, is dealing with a person who announces that they “know where [their] meat comes from.” Like that’s some kind of good excuse for not being vegetarian despite knowing all the facts. I look at a person who “knows where [their] meat comes from” more critically than I do someone who buys the packaged stuff.

The “Pig Mother”

A couple of weeks ago, there was a frustrating article printed in my CSA’s newsletter. The brief piece was written by a woman on an “eco-friendly” farm that raises animals for meat. She starts the article off discussing how she was wished a “Happy mother’s day!” when a co-worker pointed out how her chickens and pigs were like her children.

The author also discusses her time at a farm where both meat animals and vegetables were raised. This, she explains, was where she became an “ex-vegetarian”…

… after spending a season helping raise animals from little ones, some from birth, to observing and some participating in the slaughtering, which took place on the farm, and with the knowledge of the good life they led and their importance in the farming system.

After discussing how she believes in naming the animals she raises and how she can tell them apart because of their individual personalities, she ends the article with an astoundingly heartless turn (emphasis mine):

I’m not a pig mother but a pig raiser who cares deeply for the pigs. It’s been an amazing and challenging experience from devising crazy tactics to get the pigs to stay out of their water trough or to get feed into their feed trough, worrying when a pig was not eating or acting a bit down, trying to stay standing as the pigs use me as a scratching post, and learning to always wear pants that can get dirty or are already dirty. I’ve loved raising them and will also love to eat them.

Here we have someone who names animals, recognizes their individuality, and was an ethical vegetarian, yet now feels just fine about killing an animal and eating it after it’s outlived its usefulness to the “farming system.” Pigs, to her, have become nothing more than edible cogs in a wheel.

To me, the cognitive dissonance here is even greater than with someone who buys their meat in styrofoam packages. To look into the eyes of an sentient being every day for months and then to have no qualms about killing her takes a special knack for rationalization. It’s a level of mental disconnect that I have a lot of trouble understanding.

Animals as Property

My CSA has also started a practice recently that really bothers me. For a while now, they’ve been selling the eggs from chickens that are kept on the farm. At the end of the season, these chickens were then sold off for meat. Now, though, they’re selling the chickens for meat throughout the season, increasing the number of chickens that are killed each year. The chickens are sold primarily to Vietnamese and Hispanic immigrant communities.

This really bothers me because I love my CSA and I love what it stands for. The people that run it are friendly and generous and the recipes they print in their newsletters are 98% vegetarian. But, there’s still this deeply ingrained view of animals as property to be bought, raised, sold, and killed for human use rather than as sentient beings with self-interest and a will to live. It’s frustrating, and I really don’t know the way around it. In one sense, they promote the eating of fresh, locally grown vegetables in such a way that probably reduces the amount of meat being eaten, yet they still benefit directly from the use and death of animals.

What to Do

I’m continually baffled by how to proceed with people who should understand (and generally do) about veganism and should logically embrace it, but don’t. Hearing phrases like “it’s all part of the natural cycle of things” ring in my ears as a giant cop-out and reading articles like the one mentioned above really dishearten me. It’s painful knowing that there are people that love spending time with the animals and appreciate their individuality, but still kill them. These are the people that should be our allies. But instead, they wear even thicker blinders than most.

I’d love to hear about your similar experiences and how you’ve dealt with them. What does it take to push someone that has all the information they need and exhibits the necessary level of compassion, yet still doesn’t take that simple, final step of actual action?

Vegan bullock’s muscle

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I really enjoy Paleo-Future, a blog that showcases “yesterday’s tomorrows,” visions from the past of the future (our present). One recent post highlighted a 1969 piece from the Jamaica Daily Gleaner envisioning what food would be like in the Year 2000:

Milk that never saw a cow, fruit that never grew on a tree or in the ground, and steak bearing no relation to a bullock — in other words, fabricated food. It sounds a little distasteful and perhaps unbelievable but, according to eminent scientists studying food science it is inevitable and will be soon on our tables.

Take the steak for instance. Soya beans can be woven to resemble a bullock’s muscle, the fat presents no problem nor do vitamins, colouring is simple and flavour can be injected to order. The stuff can be even made to suit the taste buds of an institutional canteen or those who like to see blood.

The development is not a new one – vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists have been eating this type of meat for the past forty years – but it is developing rapidly in recent years, and could hang a large question mark over the future of beef herds. Here in Jamaica it might solve the problem we have of having to import so much beef though I doubt if a patty would ever taste the same again.

This reminds me a bit of a discussion Gary told me he had with one of the “humane meat” presenters after the presentation at TAFA. Gary pressed the farmer, “Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where we could have the taste and texture of meat without killing animals to do it?” That’s the vibe I get from this 1969 piece (aside from the last sentence and the “for those who like to see blood” part).

Of course, we do live in a world where you can get the taste and texture of most animal products without the suffering of animals. Buddhists have been mocking up meats for thousands of years, even earlier than the Seventh Day Adventists mentioned in the above article.

So, perhaps this the challenge we need to press meat-eaters with. Start by presenting how great a world it would be if we could have the things we like about meat (taste, texture, nutrition) without killing living beings. Few would be able to disagree with the concept. Why, then, aren’t more of us moving towards meat analogs? That’s a challenge that might really make people think.

Pass the wheat gluten-shaped bullock’s muscle, please.

TAFA

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I spent part of Sunday (and, yes, it’s taking me this long to blog about it) at the Taking Action for Animals conference in DC. I didn’t attend any sessions, as I was just there to help Josh out at the Herbivore table (did I meet any of you there?). Nevertheless, it was hard not to hear about the hubbub surrounding the presentation by humane farmers like Neiman Ranch who were brought in by the Animal Welfare Institute. Reportedly, these farmers showed slideshows that featured photos of cute animals that were all raised oh-so-well. Noticeably absent were photos of these animals meeting their demise. Needless to say, it angered a lot of people in attendance.

What surprised (and disheartened) me most, though, was that nearly half of the crowd at that presentation was ooh-ing and aah-ing at the pictures and stories of the animals, completely falling for the whole “humane meat” thing.

Should we be demonizing farmers who raise their animals in a more humane way than their factory farm counterparts? I’m not into demonizing. But should we be inviting them to speak, unchecked, at an animal rights conference? Should we give them a free pass by clapping and openly praising them? They make their money directly from the slaughter of animals, so I’d say, “Probably not.”

At the very least, we should be inviting these folks to be part of a panel discussion where they can be challenged. A short period of open questions after a presentation isn’t nearly enough.

The AWI argues that TAFA isn’t an animal rights conference and that we shouldn’t “close our minds” when it comes to hearing such presentations. The thing is, these farmers presumably were paid for their appearance. Since they were unchallenged aside from a few audience questions, it amounts to animal advocates paying someone who financially benefits from the slaughter of animals to come and do a marketing spiel.

That’s not too cool with me.

I’d love to hear some more about others who may have attended TAFA, particularly that presentation. After doing a quick blog search and checking in at a few vegan forums, I saw almost no post-discussion of the conference, which surprised me a bit. This is something we need to talk about.

I’ll close with a picture:

Vegans Eating Meat
SCANDAL: Vegans standing in front of a seafood/chicken restaurant in DC.

Pictured: Gary (from Animal Writings), Deb (from Invisible Voices), and Josh (from Herbivore).

There’s another photo with me in it, but this one’s better.

Why we need to rethink welfare

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My opinions on animal welfare campaigns have definitely changed over the last year or so and articles like this high-blood-pressure-inducing piece from Food and Wine illustrate the main reason my position has changed.

Let me start by stating what should be obvious: I’m not against better conditions for animals.  Welfare improvements are fine and dandy in theory because, hey, “less bad” is better.  But many times, as with “free range” eggs, the supposed welfare gains are nonexistent.  Instead, what we get is consumers feeling ethically better about their choice to eat eggs and an industry that can charge more money for their products.  You can bet the industry is making more profit, too, or they wouldn’t be making these changes.  We’re doing the industry’s marketing for them when we tout these supposed welfare improvements as “victories.”  The industry looks better for supposedly treating animals better, consumers feel less guilty about their consumption, and it does nothing to convince people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of eggs.  Yes, they may buy a few fewer because of the cost, but their fundamental thought process about animal products isn’t being challenged.

I used to think getting people to eat free range eggs, organic milk, etc. might be a “stepping stone” to veganism.  These days, though, I’m becoming more and more convinced that they’re steps backwards as we see more and more former vegetarians going back to meat.

Even former vegetarian cookbook authors are jumping the grass-fed, free-range bandwagon:

Even chef Mollie Katzen, author of the vegetarian bible the Moosewood Cookbook, is experimenting with meat again. “For about 30 years I didn’t eat meat at all, just a bite of fish every once in a while, and always some dairy,” she says. “Lately, I’ve been eating a little meat. People say, ‘Ha, ha, Mollie Katzen is eating steak.’ But now that cleaner, naturally fed meat is available, it’s a great option for anyone who’s looking to complete his diet. Somehow, it got ascribed to me that I don’t want people to eat meat. I’ve just wanted to supply possibilities that were low on the food chain.”

This is infuriating on so many levels.  For one, people are going to read this and think, “Wow.  Mollie Katzen, former vegetarian cookbook author, is eating meat again.  I guess vegetarianism isn’t that necessary of a goal after all.”  Trust me, Mollie, I’m not saying, “ha ha” at this.

Also frustrating is the implication that a vegan diet is “incomplete” when she says, “[N]aturally fed meat is… a great option for anyone who’s looking to complete his diet.”  We don’t need dead animal on our plate to be complete and as a vegetarian cookbook author, she should realize this.

It’s bad enough when people that are considering vegetarianism or veganism don’t go all the way because their moral sensibilities are sated by the promise of happy meat, but it’s even worse when we have former vegetarians (and vegetarian role models — even though it pains me to type that phrase) backsliding and speaking out about it.

The article’s author, Christine Lennon, closes with this: “Convincing those people that eating meat can improve the welfare of the entire livestock population is a tough sell.”  Allow me to close with a response:

It’s a “tough sell” because it’s cop-out reasoning that’s used to justify the consumption and commodification of animals for our tastes.

What is the solution?  Should we put an end to all welfare campaigns?  I don’t have the answers, but I know I won’t spend my own time or resources promoting such ideals.  I spend enough time already trying to counter the message that too many people are taking from these campaigns: that welfare alone is enough.  It’s not.

Anti-Fat Sentiment in Animal Rights

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I’ve talked about this briefly before, but one of the things that most frustrates me about the animal rights movement is the continuing focus on fat and weight loss as reasons to go vegetarian. We mostly see this from the national organizations (though I’ve also seen it used in smaller scale activism, too), like in PETA’s abhorrent new campaign addressed to Michael Moore:

Michael Moore, for those of you not familiar with him, is a fat, bearded dude who makes political documentaries and occasionally angers conservatives.

PETA is challenging Michael Moore to reduce his risk of fat-related illnesses by taking PETA’s 30-day Veg Pledge. The idea is that if people didn’t make themselves unhealthy in the first place by eating meat products that are known to cause heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes, the situation would easier for everyone.

Read Ingrid Newkirk’s full letter (PDF).

PETA has run similar anti-fat campaigns in the past. This angle is troubling because it represents a dangerous approach to vegan activism: insulting people to get them to give up animal products. Not only is it not going to work, it’s misguided.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “fat and fit” before. The idea is that fat is not necessarily an accurate indicator of overall health. There are plenty of people that are fat but who actually eat well and get proper exercise. And on the flip side, there are plenty of skinny couch potatoes. Kate Harding says it well when she notes that “no one knows how to make a naturally thin person fat any more than they know how to make a naturally fat person thin.”

But what about all that research that shows how the United States is in the middle of an obesity crisis of epidemic proportions? Similar to how we can often trace anti-soy research back to the dairy industry, much obesity research is somehow tied to diet companies.

But let’s put that aside for the moment. Even if fat always equaled unhealthy, what right does anyone have to criticize someone else for being fat or unhealthy? It requires making an awful lot of assumptions about someone you don’t know. Do we know why someone is fat? Do we know it’s not a genetic issue or because of a medication they’re taking? If someone eats an unhealthy diet, how do we know they’re not a junk food vegan? Really, it just amounts to shallow stereotyping. Shallow as those terrible stock news clips of faceless fat people walking around during a story about obesity.

I’m not saying we should back off the health arguments for veganism. Go ahead, advertise ’em. But don’t attack people or physical traits. Attack diseases or conditions. “Reduce your risk of heart disease,” not “lose weight and look great!” Many of us already have enough of a complex about our appearance already, we don’t need to use it as a tactic in our activism.

Added: Over at the Big Fat Blog, user Kreeli has posted a great comment on the subject of being a fat vegan.