Thursday, July 26, 2007

" ...uh, but what do you do for protein...?"

Having not posted in a little while, I suppose I ought to write something a little bit academic.

But, as it's summer, I think I'll stick to personal anecdote - an anecdote that I think most vegans (and, to a lesser extent, vegetarians) out there ought to be able to identify with. This week, I went in to the dentist. Unbeknownst to me, however, my mother had called in an hour before then, to have the doctor talk to me about my diet. So, after my mouth was poked and prodded for an hour, in comes the dentist. After introductions, he launched right into a conversation I'm pretty sure I've had about 50 times before:

Dentist: "You know, it's impossible to get enough protein on a vegan diet, because only animal protein is 'complete' protein."
Me: "Actually, soy is a complete protein."
Dentist: "Oh, I didn't know that. Did you know that eggs are really healthy for you?"
Me: "I've heard that. But I'm a vegan for ethical reasons, not health reasons."
Dentist: "Uh huh. You see, eggs have lots of protein..."
And so on.

We could all probably argue endlessly about whether or not veganism is a healthy diet. There is certainly plenty of evidence that vegans are in fact very healthy, and plenty of detractors who say they're not. But what my dentist - and it seems like much of the world - don't get is that, for this vegan, health has very little to do with it.

After all, why be strict about being vegan if I'm only interested in health? Why not indulge in one of those protein-laden eggs every once in a while; is it really going to kill me? Is it really possible to argue that no animal products - zilch, nada - can be part of a healthy diet?

I'll dodge my own questions for a moment and offer another personal anecdote. I work in a criminal law office. We represent a lot of sex offenders. Interestingly enough, pedophilia is a lot like animal agriculture - it's the non-consensual exploitation of another's body for one individual's pleasure or satisfaction. What I find interesting from reading through pages and pages of psychological reports, though, is that many pedophiles believe that sexually abusing minors is necessary for them to live a healthy and happy life.

Even if their claims were correct, few people would then roll over and say that pedophilia is an appropriate alternative lifestyle. My point is that the meat eater who claims they have to do it for health reasons is analogous (not identical - so please, don't respond with a comment to the tune of 'OMFG did you just call meat eaters pedophiles?'). Each is doing what they think is best for themself, irrespective of how it harms others. People can make all sorts of claims about what is healthy for them, but they are all missing the point. Even if my dentist could convice me that I'd be healthier as a carnivore, it wouldn't much matter.

Veganism is not about what is best for the individual human. If ethical systems really stemmed from self-interest, there would have been no reason for Southern Whites at the top of the racial hierarchy to march alongside MLK in Selma in the 1960s, no reason for dominant husbands to concede that their wives really did deserve to be treated as equals during the women's liberation movement in the 1970s, and no reason for heterosexual congressman to allow funding for AIDS research when HIV was concentrated among homosexuals in the 1980s. Campaigns that push veganism only as a way to lose a few pounds only perpetuate the attitude that, in the end, all of our decisions are to be weighed on moral scales that consider only ourselves. In contrast, a just - and by extension, vegan - society will invariably be one in which we are willing to look past what is best for ourselves towards what is best for others.

Tell that to my dentist. Meat eating: it's wrong, healthy or not.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Movement

The animal protection movement is extremely fragmented. On the extreme end, underground groups like the Animal Liberation Front use physical force to liberate animals and intimidate animal exploiters--something PAWS would never advocate. While this might seem impossible to some, PETA is actually moderate in comparison. PETA uses provocative tactics to draw attention to horrific situations that people would otherwise ignore and pressures companies to adopt more animal friendly policies. Even more moderate is The Humane Society of the United States, a mainstream animal welfare organization that fights for more humane treatment of animals used for food, clothing, entertainment and testing. Gary Francione, who spoke at Princeton last year, is an outspoken critic of both HSUS and PETA, arguing that the welfare reforms they fight for actually hurt the animal liberation movement.

Take the poll at the right to vote for the type of animal protection that you believe in.

Update: Results!

PETA: 35% (5 votes)
HSUS: 28% (4 votes)
Gary Francione: 28% (4 votes)
Animals? You mean my dinner?: 7% (1 vote)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Unnatural Veganism?

Thomas Perry:

"...To me, veganism is an ultimately imperfect but rational decision to repudiate the cruel, ruthless mass exploitation of animals by modern agribusiness and not benefit by unnecessary cruelty and death. The question, in our society at least, is not what is natural but what is least harmful - to animals, health and environment. Sure, eating meat the way indigenous people practised it was 'natural', was necessary for survival (as was/is cannibalism - see Dr Tim Flannery's book on New Guinea), but how many in our society would seriously consider chasing game with stone-age implements and living in a bark humpy?

Judging by indigenous lifestyles, veganism cannot be called 'natural', but neither can buying a cellophane-wrapped lump of chemically-laced muscle from a genetically-engineered factory farmed animal encased in a fluorescent-lit supermarket display.

What is true in our artificial, technologically-cocooned, sedentary society is that a diet rich in fibre, vitamins, Omega 3 fatty acids, anti-oxidants and phytoestrogens (to name a few), and low in saturated fat, sodium, harmful bacteria, chemical residues and without cholesterol, i.e. a plant-based or VEGAN diet, is much better for human health, takes much less land and agricultural inputs (water, fuel etc.) to produce equivalent food value, and causes, by far, the least amount of cruelty to animals. This may not be 'natural', but it is certainly a lot saner, sustainable and compassionate than the alternative. And if we humans cannot use our gift of intelligence to better our lives and our world, then we do not deserve it."

I can't figure out which Thomas Perry this is, but I love that quote nonetheless.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Unsafe, Untested, and Tasty

Let’s talk about cannibalism for five minutes. It’s one of those absurd concepts that simultaneously roil your stomach and keep you from looking away. The Donner party of 150 years ago is still worth a dark joke, and Hannibal Lecter has been good for four movies so far. Meanwhile, at Princeton, I can frequently count on a friend to remark—after sorting their extra food into the garbage—that it seems rather strange to feed pigs to pigs. They’ve just tossed the remains of a ham sandwich (or some sausage and eggs) into the garbage can, but the fact that the food in the can is fed to pigs is not worth much thought.

I am not here saying that pigs are about to have some sort of moral revulsion to eating a fellow pig, the way that you or I would hesitate before biting into our roommate. (Even if they leave laundry everywhere.) What I am saying is to think about the health consequences of eating meat when the meat industry feeds pigs pigs and cows cows.

Several years ago, there was an outbreak of mad cow disease. Mad cow was caused by cattle being fed other cattle. More interesting was the apparently related new disease, known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which literally liquefied the brains of those who were infected with it—CJD was a new human variant of mad cow. The news played images of hellish funeral pyres for thousands of cows; mad cow cropped up in a much smaller proportion in America; and the Red Cross still has strict restrictions on blood donations from anyone who may have come in contact with any of that meat.

The reason that mad cow was a problem in the first place is that cattle crammed into feedlots need to be fed cheaply; they need lots of protein; and one cheap way to do that is to feed the animals leftover chunks of their dead brethren. Of course, on a simple biological level, cows—along with chickens and other food animals—are meant to be herbivores. Cows have four stomachs so that they can break down the cellulose in grass, not eyeballs.

Until a few years ago, every time you had a hamburger, the several thousand cows that constituted that burger had grown up eating the corpses of household pets purchased from animal shelters, along with sawdust and the remains of sick, dying cows that couldn’t go straight to meat.

Faced with the threat of mad cow, the FDA drafted regulations to ban the feeding of animals to other animals. The meat industry vehemently objected, and the final ban did prevent cows from being fed other cows, sheep, goats, or dogs—with the exception that cows can still be fed the blood, liquefied bone marrow, and tallow. The ban also placed absolutely no restrictions on what could be fed to hogs, poultry, pets, or animals in zoos.

Studies in Europe showed that pigs and other feed animals were fully susceptible to different variants of mad cow disease. Stricter European bans that completely prohibit feeding ruminants (goats, sheep, cattle, elk, or deer) to other ruminants have not proven totally sufficient to stop the spread of mad cow. America’s own Center for Disease Control has called for America to follow Europe’s suit with an identical ban—at a bare minimum.

You could write these facts off by pointing out that there hasn’t been a violent outbreak of CJD, and that there haven’t been hundreds of people dying with their brains liquefied—yet. But the fact that these practices continue, added to the fact that your meat is already contaminated with vomit, urine, and feces from kill lines that travel too fast—no matter how much you cook it, disinfected poop is still poop—might make you want to reconsider that next bite of meat. The fact that the USDA doesn’t actually have statutory authority to demand that meat factories recall contaminated meat when it’s discovered might make you hesitate. The fact that not much is actually known about the human variant—including the incubation period—so an epidemic could still be forthcoming, is startling.

Finally, much of the justification for acceding to the meat industry’s protestations against stricter feed regulations stemmed from the fact that American cattle haven’t had severe outbreaks of mad cow. But, it’s rather hard to know if American cattle, or other animals, have mad cow disease if we don’t test them—and we are rather lacking in that department. For example, from 1990 to 2001, the US slaughtered 375 million cows, and only tested 15,000 for mad cow. Belgium has a cattle herd that is one-thirtieth the size of America’s, and tests 400,000 a year.

The joke about hot dogs is that no one really knows what’s in them. The sad truth about meat is that you have no idea what’s in it anyway.
Jordan Bubin '09
PAWS member

Friday, July 06, 2007

'Live Earth' Sells Death

The Live Earth concert this Saturday (7/7/07) is a 24-hour, seven-continent concert designed to generate publicity about global warming and encourage people to take global warming mitigation into their own hands.

Top on the list Live Earth suggestions to reduce your carbon footprint is “Green Your Diet: The international meat industry generates roughly 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions,” and the very first suggestion in the NY Times article about the companion book to the Live Earth concert states, “Whenever possible, replace meat with soy or other vegetable protein in your diet. It takes eight times as much energy to produce a pound of meat as it does a pound of tofu.”

So will they be serving meat? Of course! Concert-goers need their carbon and methane heavy burgers to be happy. Hey, they’re paying a lot of money to go to this concert, they should get to eat what they want!

In the meantime, Live Earth founder Al Gore, a follower of the meat-heavy Atkin’s diet, still seems to be ignoring the link between meat and his favorite cause.

I'm glad they're doing this concert and perhaps it will bring about more good than the harm it's producing, but still - shouldn't Live Earth be able to take a stand and say "no meat"?

P.S. Live Earth is coming to DC in a last minute change! If anybody is around here and wants to hand out pro-veg literature with me and Compassion Over Killing, let me know! (The DC concert is free.)

Monday, July 02, 2007

Mitt Romney, Diarrhea, and Torture

Fifteen years ago Mitt Romney strapped his Irish setter to the roof of the family car before taking a 12-hour drive. The story is meant to be an amusing anecdote: The animal was so terrified it was stricken with thunderous diarrhea; Romney’s children, in the backseat of the car, complained about the mess over their heads. Dear old Dad just pulled over, hosed the dog, and the car off, and kept going, bravely salvaging a family vacation.

I’ll just avoid the inane debate over whether or not it was really cruel to the animal, and leave the evidence from the rear windshield as proof enough. What’s more interesting about the situation is that, in avoiding the simple act of compassion it would take to let the dog at least ride inside the car, Romney broke the law. A simple, paltry law to be sure; but it’s illegal to even ride with a dog in the open bed of a pickup, much less strap it in a kennel to the roof of a car for 12 hours.

In the interests of disclosure, I too have broken the law—just about every weekend, like much of campus, I commit the crime of drink. But what irritates me about Romney is that, as governor of Massachusetts, he surely knew of the law, and didn’t mind acknowledging that he publicly broke the law—instead, it was worth a grin and probably a couple votes. When Jon Corzine, governor of NJ, was critically injured in a car accident, he had the simple character to ask the state police to issue him a ticket for not wearing his seatbelt.

Small gestures like that can be important. In the current “War on Terror,” plenty of politicians are showing little disregard for the law. The debates over the use of extraordinary rendition and “enhanced interrogation” are two sad, pertinent examples. Of course, the same Romney who caused his dog to dump its bowels on his windshield is an advocate of those 'enhanced techniques' that have killed dozens of prisoners. It’s not a matter of someone who inflicts cruelty on animals probably also inflicts it on people; it’s an example of someone who has little disregard for the law, whether it applies to animals or to people. And this is a man running for the presidency, the highest office in the nation sworn to uphold the law. Fantastic.

Jordan Bubin '09
PAWS member