Thursday, April 29, 2010

PETA: A Hurdle for Vegan Advocacy

This was a letter I had written to the PETA administration in my thoughts about there extremism and marketing tactics. As someone who has advocated for the vegan lifestyle, I have often been faced with people mocking the cause by mentioning PETA's campaigns such as "Sea Kittens" and their games such as "Cooking Momma: Momma Kills Animals The Unauthorized Addition". Unintentionally, I feel like some of PETA's more extremist campaigns have gone past a purpose and more of a shock factor, and these tactics have now become a hurtle to not only them, but all vegan activists alike. Either way, this is my letter to them, and I'd love if you'd share your thoughts also.

I would like to personally start off by saying that PETA gave me great information while I made the transition between going from a flexitarian, to vegetarian, to vegan while also hindering my cause when trying to share information with others.

The efficiency of Peta is absolutely amazing. I get vital information texted to my phone and email when ever the administration posts or sends anything, the amount of information and pamphlets is great, the efficiency in which I had received this information in my mail was amazing, the graphics and photographs are very professional, and their ability to attract attention to the cause of animal rights and welfare are better than any cause I have ever seen.

However, I feel that there are a few things that also make Peta the biggest threat to the cause in which it tries to fight for when it comes to marketing its ideas.

I think that the most bipartisan issue would be the Peta ads featuring women insinuating that they are naked. I, myself, see the human body as a beautiful thing and support the display of pornographic material, seeing that it is only natural and inevitable when sexual drive coexists with the digital age. I also realize that featuring such ads, undoubtably, creates a lot of attention and is great for marketing, after-all, the public wants to see a naked celebrity more than pretty much anything these day. But, I believe, that this is incredibly counter-productive. A majority of the time, it is very hard for minors to convince their parents to allow them to become vegan, or even vegetarian, with the amount of false dietary information mass-marketed to the public. With the naked women on billboards, tvs, magazines, and the internet also available to these parents, their opinion of a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle turns sour from the start. This crosses out a whole entire marketable group of clientele, and maybe the greatest. People probably most apt to turn to the aforementioned lifestyle are those not influenced by the culture and values of the Reagan Administration, seeing that the USDA underwent a huge turn in marketing and administration during the 1980's. By turning off their parents, Peta inherently erases a huge market.

Whenever I mention that I am vegetarian, especially that I am vegan, a lot of times I hear about absolutism and PETA, even people mockingly mentioning the "Sea Kittens" campaign. This has not only been a problem that I have been faced with, but one the whole vegetarian community, whether ovo-lacto or vegan alike. The treatment of animals is something we all care about undoubtably, and it is horrible that there is such a division in a minority. What we are faced with is the split between abolitionists and welfarists, and this will always exist; however, (as cliche the saying as it may be) with the amount of power Peta has, comes a great amount of responsibility, meaning the lives and welfare of animals, the planet, and the indirect meals able to be fed to the hungry due to this lifestyle, are resting in its hands. Bruce Friedrich, VP of Peta, also has stated in a recent post that being an absolutist is the worst way to attract people to this cause. The members of Peta should, of course, not give up their strong convictions of remaining not only meat free, but egg and dairy free, but being that Peta is so big, I believe that it is the organization's responsibility, with all of its money, resources, and recognition, to advocate in such a way that helps the most amount of animals being that this is its perceived cause.

I would also humbly recommend, as that the cause is the mentioned, that Peta interact and support the whole spectrum of organizations interested in animal welfare, a big one including Meat Free Mondays. This, again, is helping support animal welfare in the way appealing to the most amount of people possible, and also could be viewed as a gate way to vegetarianism and so forth if possible.

I can honestly say that Peta has done an amazing job at marketing, and like any project, there will always be debatable discussion, details, and mess ups. Like all people in this community, both Peta and I just want to, and are strongly convicted to, the cause of helping the well being of animals. Thank you so much for your time in reading this and helping facilitate action hoping to help a worthy purpose.

My regards,

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"I used to be veg*n, but..."

There's a question I've been asking myself lately:

Why do so many people go veg*n but don't stay veg*n?

We're up against powerful forces: generations of tradition, powerful lobbying and a hidden food system. But it's easy to reach out to people -- we have national organizations that give us free literature and videos, there's hours and hours of evidence of cruelty to animals on YouTube, the UN and the World Watch Institute have the most up-to-date research on the environmental aspect, and celebrities like Ellen and Oprah aren't afraid to talk about the issues.

While many people go veg*n as a result of documentaries, leaflets, books and conversations, many do not stick with it. When out tabling or leafleting, or when acquaintances/friends find out I'm vegan, I regularly hear "I used to be veg*n, but..." When I politely inquire about what they had trouble with I hear a range of answers:

"I just felt weak and tired all the time."
"I know it's bad but I just missed meat too much."
"I just don't care anymore."
"I don't know why... I should start doing it again."
"My parents wouldn't cook or buy veg*n food for me." (Haven't heard this much because I'm on a college campus but I know this is a problem for many teens).
"The cafeteria doesn't have enough veg*n options." (While our cafeteria has meager options for veg*ns, I know many veg*ns that have stuck with it despite this. So why does it affect others so much? Next school year this is going to be our top priority).

Some people quit because they say they felt weak and tired all the time, yet I meet some people that are so glad they made the switch because they feel better. If one is trying out veg*nism and they don't feel so healthy, a quick google search returns thousands of results, and I may be wrong, but I'd say most people have a friend/acquaintance that is veg*n to consult if they have questions. Most pro-veg literature has detailed information on eating a balanced veg*n diet or at least links to websites that focus on veg*n health.

Is it a real problem that maybe some people just can't feel healthy without meat? That notion seems so strange to me because I'm very active and rarely sick, but everyone is different and this may be a very real problem for some. I have a friend that used to eat mostly vegan with the occasional animal product. She knows her stuff about nutrition and how to eat a good, balanced vegan diet, but when she started eating more meat/dairy she said she actually started feeling better. It wasn't at the request of a doctor or parent, she just wanted to try it. She still eats lots of vegan food, but more meat/dairy than she used to and says she feels better.

Two years ago I would've said a big problem is that people don't stick with it because they're not involved in a veg*n community or don't have any other veg*n friends, but even though we have a large community at my school, a lot of friends/acquaintances haven't stuck with it or have been on and off despite there being a well-established veg*n community.

When people say they just missed meat too much, I think there's more to it. Every year being veg*n gets easier and more mainstream, so if someone became veg*n several years ago, why is it more difficult for them now?

When it comes to just not caring anymore maybe it's because as people get older they become less idealistic and focus more on their career and starting a family. They may even feel jaded that their idealism in their youth didn't "change the world" like they thought it would. I know this is a blanket statement and obviously there are thousands, if not millions, of exceptions, but I have met many people that say "I was veg*n when I was younger" or used to be involved in a social justice issue during high school or college but have stopped.

What have you found in your experiences and conversations? Has anyone out there reading this fell on and off the wagon in the past? If so, why? And what made you "get back on"? What do you think the problems are? Obviously we know how to expose people to the issues and how to interest them in going veg*n, but why do so many not stick with it?

Are there any articles out there similar to this one that I could read and get ideas from? is a website that addresses these issues but focuses more on raw diets and such (but does talk a great deal of veg*nism).

I'd love to hear what people think and get some discussion and ideas rolling, and figure out the best ways to approach these complex situations.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Clearing up the Confusion about Cows and Climate

*Sigh*. Where to begin? I have already gone into about as much depth as a blog allows one to, detailing the effects of animal agriculture on the environment. But misinformation seems to have no end, and this Earth Day it is again time to refute some of the newest “findings”.

Telegraph, UK: Cows Absolved of Causing Global Warming

AFP (Wire): Eating Less Meat Won't Reduce Global Warming: Study

UK Times: Tofu Can Harm Environment More Than Meat, Finds WWF Study

Telegraph, UK: UN Admits Flaw in Report on Meat and Climate Change

These headlines would be great news for meat-eaters and the environment if, well, they were true. It’s a minor detail, I know. But reality must rear its ugly face and inform us that eating animal products is just as destructive as it was on Earth Day last year. I could easily write a separate post for every one of the above articles, but I’ll try to stick to a paragraph each.

Cows Absolved? If you live in China, and the only greenhouse gas you care about is nitrous oxide, then the headline is arguably technically true. They just bury some little details in the 9th and 10th paragraphs: But Dr. Butterbach-Bahl [the author of the study] pointed out that the study did not take into account the methane produced by the livestock or the carbon dioxide produced if soil erodes […] He said the study does not overturn the case for cutting down on red meat.” Oh sure, if you leave out the two most prevalent greenhouse gases, then cows don’t produce many greenhouse gases. Makes sense!

Pro-Meat Study? Dr. Frank Mitloehner, author of the report (it’s not a study) in question, is quoted touting animal agriculture industry talking points such as “Smarter animal farming, not less farming, will equal less heat”. But the article fails to actually cite a single fact from the report, nor do they provide a title of or link to the supposed study. Mitloehner is called a “leading air quality expert”, but his official biography shows that his credentials have nothing to do with global warming and that his main academic objective is to “help establish environmentally benign livestock systems”. Yet somehow he is qualified to undermine findings by the United Nations’ scientists without even citing a fact or source?

Devastating Tofu? Another article fails to actually provide a title or link to the supposed study, and cites no numbers or methodologies. All I can gather from this widely re-posted article is that if you look at the entire carbon footprint of processed soy foods shipped halfway across the globe and compare it only to the land use of local, grass-fed cow (and again ignore the methane from that cow), then you may find the soy product to be worse for the environment. They’re really grasping at straws…

Flawed Reporting? Kind of. The thing is, the UN misreported the TRANSPORTATION sector, not the animal sector. So animal agribusiness is responsible for just as much devastation as was originally reported- and cars may be even worse than we thought. Is this even worth reporting on?

Meanwhile, back in reality, a new UN report shows that it’s not just meat that we need to be concerned with- dairy alone is responsible for 4% of all global warming emissions. This news wasn’t reported nearly as widely as the non-science above, but I can’t say that anyone I know is surprised.

We need to be on top of these facts at all times to counter the nonsense that is spouted by agribusiness. To learn more about animal agriculture's effects on the environment and/or to request a free vegan starter guide, check out

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Are Oysters Vegan?

Christopher Cox, a self-labeled vegan, just wrote a trenchant and provocative article at, in which he defends his decision to eat oysters. Predictably, the article is drawing a firestorm of criticism from many vegans, who are branding Cox a heretic.

I think the article is a must-read for veg activists. Cox digs into into tough but vital questions of labeling, purity, and absolutism. He writes:

"When I became a vegan, I didn't draw an X through everything marked "Animalia" on the tree of life. And when I pick out my dinner, I don't ask myself: What do I have to do to remain a vegan? I ask myself: What is the right choice in this situation? Eating ethically is not a purity pissing contest, and the more vegans or vegetarians pretend that it is, the more their diets start to resemble mere fashion—and thus risk being dismissed as such."

So, whaddya think?

P.S. If you find Cox's commentary interesting, check out Michael Greger's classic article on honey.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Great Debate: To call yourself a vegetarian or vegan – PART II

As the co-moderator of this blog, nothing makes me happier than to see posts explode into lively, fiery debates. When I say fiery, however, I’m talking about igniting debate, not burning those who disagree with you. So I’m both thrilled to see that Kenny Torrella’s post yesterday set off a heated exchange and disappointed to see that some readers – on both sides of the issue – responded with bitter sarcasm.

Blog readers have every right to be pissed off by any view they disagree with, but there’s a big difference between being respectfully pissed and just plain out pissing on somebody else’s opinions. All I’m saying is be respectful, be civil, and most importantly, keep it real!

With that in mind, I’d like to extend an invitation to any interested readers to participate in this discussion. If you’re not a contributor on “Animal Writes,” but would like to weigh in by posting a guest entry, shoot me an email at

Now, moderator business aside, I’d like to take off my referee shirt and jump into the fighting ring with the understanding that everything I say is my personal opinion as an activist and not as the blog moderator. At the same time, I’d like to see if there’s any room for reconciliation between the sparring viewpoints.

To summarize, Kenny, a vegan farm animal activist (and a friend of mine, for full disclosure) argued from experience that labeling himself as vegetarian rather than vegan is more effective in outreach. He echoes the insights of Bruce Friedrich, who has found that talking about veganism right off the bat tends to overwhelm and turn away folks from engaging with the issue. Some readers retorted that a vegan who labels himself as vegetarian is dishonest and has sold out by neglecting animals that are exploited for dairy and eggs.

I agree with some of the commenters that there is profound inconsistency in ethically motivated lacto-ovo vegetarianism, since, for example, more animals are slaughtered in the egg industry than in the beef industry. However, for anyone doing veg outreach, the vital and never-ceasing question must be: how can I have the greatest impact for farm animals? In Bruce and Kenny’s experience, explicitly advocating veganism turns a slight fraction of people vegan at best, while advocating vegetarianism leads many down a path that often leads to veganism.

As Kenny notes, Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, has talked about the importance of asking people to take the first step rather than the last step. If Joe Shmoe takes the first step and sees how easy it is, he’s likely to take the next step. But if you ask Joe to leap to the finish line, he’s likely to walk away – probably in the opposite direction.

Imposing a moral baseline seems to me not only counterproductive, since it often turns people off from opening up to the issues, but also disingenuous, since nobody consumes a 100% cruelty-free diet. No vegan I know, myself included, eats in a way that causes zero harm to animals, farmers, laborers, or the environment. So holding up veganism as a moral ideal, even with the best of intentions, is misguided. The question is how to minimize our harm. Veganism is a huge step in that direction, but it is not the endpoint, and treating it as such tempts the language of self-righteousness and absolutism.

The comments on Kenny’s post reflect a broader rift in the animal rights community between so-called abolitionists and so-called welfarists. Abolitionists advocate an uncompromising pro-vegan stance and tend to oppose any incremental welfare reforms for farm animals, since they believe such reforms only reinforce the legitimacy of using animals for food. Welfarists, in contrast, believe that incremental steps forward for animal welfare are important and can be advanced in tandem with a non-exploitation ethic.

My sense is that these diverging viewpoints are rooted in deep convictions. To make a sweeping generalization, I think abolitionists place higher value on honesty, purity and idealism, while welfarists value efficacy, practicality, and nuance. Now, I bet that few welfarists or abolitionists would actually accept this categorization. A welfarist might believe that she is acting with more integrity, since in her view, renouncing efforts to improve welfare standards is doing a disservice to animals. An abolitionist might believe that he is acting with more efficacy, since welfare reforms, in his view, will turn away many potential vegetarians. My point is simply that where one falls on the abolitionist-welfarist spectrum is most often the product of underlying values (and formative experiences) and is unlikely to be swayed by means of debate.

Any conversation on effective outreach runs the risk of universalizing the matter and suggesting that some tactics are all-around superior to others. While some tactics will have greater success in some or most cases, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for outreach. So it’s conceivable that while some or most vegans may be more effective talking about vegetarianism, other vegans, given their temperament or their convictions or who they’re talking to, may have more success talking about veganism.

At the end of the day, you won’t find the answers on how to do effective outreach in a book or on a blog; you’ll find them on the street where you can put different tactics and styles to the test. So the best advice I can offer is this: get out and find what works for you!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

To call yourself vegetarian or vegan -- that is the question

(I took this from the Vegan Outreach blog -- The text in bold is from the blog, and below it is my own personal experience),

Bruce Friedrich, coauthor with Matt Ball on The Animal Activist’s Handbook and VP of PETA, has had personal interactions with literally thousands of individuals over the years (quite possibly, he has had more one-on-one conversations about animal issues than anyone else in the U.S.). He recently wrote:
I actually think that using the word “vegan” (other than perhaps with youth) may be counterproductive to helping animals, relative to using the word “vegetarian.” As a species, we are given to seeing things as “all or nothing," and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had discussions with people who write off making any changes because they believe they can’t go vegan.

That’s why I no longer wear my “Ask me why I’m vegan” shirts – I wear the vegetarian ones, and the conversations have gotten SO MUCH BETTER. Where people used to be all about what vegan means and how hard it is to give up dairy (which saves 1/10 of an animal/year), now we talk about fish and chickens (saving many dozens of animals/year). I used to hear stories about dour and angry vegans; now I hear stories about daughters and cousins who are vegetarian.

This is anecdotal, of course, but it’s not theoretical – this is real-world and OVERWHELMING. I have FAR more people respond to my shirt now and approach me to ask questions. Before, I generally talked about what vegan means and the evils of dairy (still good, of course, but not nearly as valuable in helping animals). Now, I often have people tell me on the basis of one conversation that they will go vegetarian.

My long experience shows the word vegan scares many people, but the word vegetarian interests them (we also see this overwhelmingly when leafleting – people want vegetarian information far more than vegan information). Ironically, I’ll bet we get far fewer vegans by using the word vegan, since many vegetarians do go vegan, once they see how easy it is and start down the path of compassionate eating.
This is from this interview; more on this later in the week.

I read this a few weeks ago and have been experimenting with it lately, and I think it's a small tip for activists that goes a long way. For 2.5 years I had been telling people I was vegan if the subject came up. Now if people ask I say I'm vegetarian, and it makes a world of a difference. When I used to say I was vegan, people would immediately say some kind of variation of, "That's awesome, but I could never do that myself." Now when I say I'm vegetarian, people become more open and tell me about other vegetarians they know, vegetarian foods they've tried, how they've considered going vegetarian, or they had been vegetarian in the past and want to get back into it.

Whenever I met a vegetarian while leafleting, I used to say, "Have you considered veganism?" The situation would immediately turn a bit sour. For a split second they saw me as someone they had much in common with, and after asking if they've considered veganism, they see me as someone telling them to do more -- that their vegetarianism is not enough. Out of the number of vegetarians I had met and responded to like this, not a single one responded positively -- none said, "Why yes, I have been considering veganism lately!" All of them said a variation of, "Well, veganism seems like a good thing, but it's just too much for me." No matter how much cajoling, they wouldn't budge. The funny thing about this is that when I was a vegetarian I was the same way toward vegans. This is something important to remember. I didn't go vegan because another vegan was telling me to, or even telling me about it... I did it on my own after thinking about it and researching it for several months.

Now while leafleting, I give words of encouragement to vegetarians I meet. I tell them how awesome it is that they're vegetarian, to keep it up, I say "Aw, you're the best," I give them literature that has recipes and nutritional information. This makes a huge difference! They feel encouraged to do more, rather than being told to. They may not feel as alone in their choice if they meet another "vegetarian" that is also an activist and is thanking them.

Although our initial reaction is to identify as a vegan or to convince vegetarians to go vegan, 9 times out of 10 it doesn't turn anyone on to veganism -- it only makes them feel like they're being judged, as if their lifestyle choice to eschew all meat products was worth nothing. I'm not saying this is a fool-proof guide to live by and of course there are instances where it's important to say you're vegan, or if a vegetarian wants more information about going vegan, then by all means, hand out vegan literature and share your experiences as a vegan.

Although I was first skeptical of Friedrich's tip, I experimented with it and found it to be a much better approach toward turning more people on to a vegetarian lifestyle. I'd love to hear others' thoughts on this and if you try it out, let me know how it goes.

There are a lot of other great essays, articles and interviews here:

The next article I write for this blog will be a general why and how-to on leafleting for Vegan Outreach and what I've learned from it.