12 April 2010

Veganism Is No Fad, But a Vital — and Compassionate — Solution

It's fascinating to be a vegetarian-almost-vegan in a country like Bolivia, which is a real pollo y carne (chicken and meat) culture. Peter and I (and the wonderful owner of the hotel we're staying in) have been talking about this a lot. We suspect they're not doing feedlots and factory farming like we do back home, but we've also talked about the fact that an animal like a cow is insurance for poor families in poor countries (with no government subsidies) against drought and crop failure.

Anyway, we're not here to judge this culture, but I do have the right to judge my own — and our meat-eating habit is an inhumane and unnecessary one.

Here's why this came up.... An opinion column in a back-home "news"paper published a column insisting that vegans are illogical lemmings just following a fad. I tore it out and brought it along, and thought I'd share my response (in a letter to the editor) with you here. You won't need to read the original column (or even be veg) in order to understand the ridiculous things the columnist wrote.

Dear Editor,
I'm hoping that Mr. S will be as open to changing his conviction about meat as he wants us "veggies" to be. Let me tell you why.

The reason vegans are no longer silent about their diet is that it is now the only diet that provides any hope of safeguarding the future from the ravages of climate change. The livestock industry is so overwhelmingly implicated in global warming and the emission of the top three greenhouse gases that an immediate global switch to eating lower on the food chain is the only strategy that could buy us some time to implement a zero-carbon economy.

If we average the UN FAO's statistics (18 percent) with those from the Worldwatch Institute (51 percent), the global industrial livestock industry has contributed to 35 percent of global warming. As one example, industrialized meat (especially beef) production is responsible for 40 percent of anthropogenic methane emissions, and methane is over 70 times stronger than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. But factory-farmed meat also emits unconscionable amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (which is almost 300 times stronger than CO2 in the atmosphere), and is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest (the lungs of the Earth).

So right now, vegans aren't asking you to become vegetarian, they're asking you to refrain from eating meat for the sake of all the children in the world. (And to those who wonder about eating locally raised meat, I'll leave it to you to decide.)

Mr. S passes on a few misconceptions about the veg diet that I would like to dispel. First, humans did not evolve to be carnivores. Our digestive tract is 12-14 times our shoulder-to-hip trunk length, like that of other fruit eating animals. (Carnivores have very short digestive tracts.) Apes (our closest kin) are primarily fruit eaters, and only very rarely eat meat. We evolved to be omnivores, and there are very few cultures where the diet is almost all meat (Inuit comes to mind). Even the paleolithic diet consisted of nuts, vegetables, fruits, berries and eggs in addition to "caveman" meat, fowl and fish.

Next, vegetarians and vegans don't eat just vegetables. Beans, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes can be stored all winter long, and provide all the protein we need. If these were grown on our island, for example, in the big fields where a few cattle and sheep now graze, I wonder how many people we could feed during our winters -- without all that transportation technology Mr. S speaks of (which also trucks animals long distances to slaughter and then to grocery stores).

Did you know that we sacrifice tens of billions of animals around the world every year for what Mahatma Gandhi called "the meat superstition"? And we do this while nearly 30,000 human children die each day from hunger! (Nearly 40 percent of world grain is fed to livestock instead of humans.)

Mr. S seems to make fun of people who become vegan out of compassion for other animals, and all the children of all species. However, we vegetarians/vegans don't make fun of "carnivores" ... we are sad for you! Sure, compassion for all life is a chosen worldview, but it's one that allows us to see (and respect) our connection to all other living beings. I wonder if Mr. S has ever researched what happens to his meat before it reaches his plate. Today's livestock industry is unspeakably cruel. John Robbins says, "The cruelties of modern factory farming are so severe that you don't have to be a vegetarian or an animal rights activist to find the conditions to be intolerable, and a violation of the human-animal bond." (See Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals.)

And finally, Mr. S is incorrect when he says that the vegan diet does not provide a healthier lifestyle. In fact, all studies show that it does. A vegetarian (especially vegan) diet is far easier on the body (we didn't evolve to be meat eaters, but meat "tolerators"), and meat-eating contributes to a host of health problems such as heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes -- the top killers in North America.

I do hope Mr. S will enjoy a delicious nut burger with us sometime. [His last line was "Enjoy a juicy, delicious hamburger now and then, as God has intended our lives to be." I didn't realize that God's last name was McDonald!] According to Genesis 1:29 (if we're going to bring God into the discussion), human beings were told "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food." In Genesis 3:11, God told Adam and Eve to "eat the plants of the field" (vegetables). Is it not Mr. S, then, who is the "illogical lemming" following the meat fad?


By the way, we're getting lots of lovely veg meals here. The fresh veggies are absolutely delicious and fresh flavour makes a light tomato salad quite fulfilling. The hotel owner is even trying out new vegetarian recipes on us! La comida esta muy buena.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?