Thursday, April 17, 2008

the v word.

In the Way of Introduction:

hello. my name is melissa bastian. i am one of the co-founders of blank the plague, and i am vegan. in the culmination of a lifetime of being overly picky about meat and dabbling in various levels of vegetarianism, i was thunderstruck one evening on my way to make groceries: if it makes me uncomfortable to eat animal products, then i just won't eat them! the simplicity of the solution almost knocked me down.

i've been vegan for two years now, and it's the best answer for me for a multitude of reasons. but not everyone involved in blank the plague is vegan. miss mid is mostly vegetarian and is careful about food sources; miss rosie is trying veganism but is essentially still vegetarian; my jonathan is vegan but for very different reasons than me. everyone has a different solution to the current food crisis that works best in their personal lives, because food is a very personal choice. it is literally what you decide to incorporate into your physical being.

so of all of the options out there, why have i chosen veganism? that one's easy. because eating animal-related items is too hard.

(wait, what? did she just say it's too hard to eat meat and animal products? thus indicating that it's easier to be vegan?) yes, yes i did. and we'll get to the explanation, don't you worry.

first, i'd like to talk about what are NOT the reasons that i'm vegan.

I Am Vegan, but NOT for the Following Reasons:

*this may surprise you, but i'm not vegan because i believe that it is inherently wrong to eat animals. i don't. if you want to, say, go fairly hunt one animal, get its blood on your hands, skin and eviscerate it, use every part of it and feed your family with it, i don't have a problem with that. granted, i don't want to watch and i don't want to eat any, thanks, but that's a valid way to get your dinner. i also have no problem if you can go shake hands with a neighborhood farmer, and he / she raises animals in a way that lets them be happy and free and act like animals for a decent time of life and with ecologically sustainable methods; and then at some point they are (actually!) humanely killed in a place where you're allowed to go and see it if you so choose - that would potentially be an acceptable way to get animal flesh in my mind. it would certainly be an acceptable way to have milk and eggs, and i might even consider eating those things again. but perhaps you're seeing the point. if an animal is allowed to live like it is supposed to, and is then killed in a non-gruesome way by a person who respects it for the living creature it is, i can handle that. unfortunately, this is not the process undergone to create your hamburger from mcdonalds...

*i'm not vegan because i don't like meat. granted, i've been quite picky about meat since i was a child. i remember the day, actually, that it became a problem. my mother always served my sister and i the two legs from the chicken. we didn't have a lot of money, so we ate a lot of chicken; two kids, two legs. all the math added up. well one night at dinner when i was maybe 7 years old my mother put that chicken leg down in front of me. i took one look at it, saw the skin and the tendons and the muscles and the bones for what they were - parts of an animal that used to be alive - and started to cry. from that day on if i ate chicken it had to be breast meat, removed from the bone, no skin, no veins, and especially not that chunk of tendon on the end. *shiver**. but i always loved, LOVED, seafood, and well into my 20's would enjoy a trim steak or a gourmet hamburger. my mom made awesome spaghetti and meatballs and her meatloaf kicked ass; my dad made beautiful fish dinners and an enormous turkey every thanksgiving - with oyster dressing. never went in for fast food; i wasn't raised that way frankly. but yeah, you're right. meat tasted good. (it doesn't any more; now that it's out of my system, on the occasion that i sample a soup without realizing it was made with chicken stock (or something) it tastes greasy and heavy. not good at all. ) point being, palette preference is not what turned me away. no, i just reached a point of no return in knowledge. knowledge of what? we're getting to that.

*i'm not vegan to control my caloric intake. i've known people who have gone vegan as a sort of diet plan, or as part of an anorexic regimen. while it may work to an extent, it is not at all healthy - you need to pay attention to what you're eating on any diet, including a vegan one. people who become vegan for this reason may lose weight, but don't stay healthy and don't stay vegan. being vegan is no guarantee of being skinny either. as i said, i've been vegan for two years, and i'm still about 15 pounds over my ideal weight. (thank you tofutti, vegan treats, and my massive sweet tooth.)

*i'm not vegan because animals are cute. these people that get all "animals are people too" and "look how sweet and innocent they are" are usually young, usually just jumping on some bandwagon, and often don't stay vegan either. they've also obviously not visited a farm, friendly or otherwise, or spent much time around animals at all other than their pet poodles. a piglet might be cute, but i gotta tell ya - a goat is not cute. pretty damn cool and useful for eating tin cans, sure, but not cute. a turkey is downright ugly. does that mean you can eat it? not necessarily - some of my neighbors are ugly too. but this is precisely why the "cute" argument doesn't cut it. and a full-grown cow? oh jesus. up close, cute is about the furthest thing from your mind, especially when an unpenned unhappy adult bull is stalking you. trust me on this one.

*i'm not vegan because it's cool. in fact, there are still very few people in my life who are vegan, or who even fully understand my veganity. it's not some sort of elitist status symbol; it's just one of the things i need to do to feel comfortable with the food i eat and with the life i lead.

so, like, aren't those the only reasons to be vegan? if only, if only. i truly wish there was no more to be said.

I AM Vegan for the Following Reasons:

let's talk about why i AM vegan, and may possibly be for the rest of my life.

the predominant reason for my dietary reactionism is that the modern food industry and its products disgust me. Paul Rozin has defined disgust as the fear of incorporating offending substances into one's body; "offending substances" doesn't even begin to cover what i feel about the modern methods of the handling of food animals. the mass processing of animals is not terribly new; just read The Jungle to know that animals have been being treated like "production units" instead of living beings for at least a hundred years, at least when it comes to slaughtering. but extending that mindset to entrap the entire lifespan of livestock is a fairly new phenomenon, going back really only to the 1950's. for ten thousand years, give or take, humans have engaged in agriculture on a measurable scale. for fifty years they've been doing it like this. and yet if questioned, they'll tell you that there is no other answer, that these methods are absolutely necessary to "feed our hungry planet".

let's tackle that ridiculous rationalization in two parts, shall we? first, we'll talk about what i mean by "these methods". we'll use the rearing of cows as a case study. we'll have a tour guide; let's call him Jim.

says jim: alright, now listen up. we're gonna start by taking a whole lot of grassland that used to be used for pasturing - that is, letting animals hang out in the grass and eat what they actually eat. the grassland is full of hundreds of species of plants, animals, insects, fungi, what have you. but we're gonna tear all that out, losing lots of biodiversity (not to mention topsoil) in the process. why? to grow corn of course! after all, ever since Earl Butz undid the new deal in the 70's and switched to a system of direct payouts instead of loans to farmers, the government will pay us for as many bushels as we can throw at 'em! bushels per acre, eyes on the prize son.
now to support our monoculture of corn, we're gonna need fertilizer and plenty of it. there's no nearby farm anymore - the animals are packed away by the thousands into the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations several hundred miles from here - so there's really no manure available. i guess we'll just use the fertilizer that we make from petrochemicals. yeah, that's the one - that non-renewable resource everyone's so excited about these days. the factories that used to make explosives for the war still have plenty of ammonium nitrate; it works just fine for making fertilizer. we're gonna spread a little extra on too, for "insurance" - so what if it runs off the land the next time it rains? it'll just end up in the mississippi and then in the gulf of mexico, where it causes tremendous algal blooms creating a hypoxic zone of immeasurable proportions and growing every day. that's not a problem for anyone is it?
woowee, look at all that corn. fencerow to fencerow indeed. let's harvest! more bushels per acre than we ever thought possible thanks to brilliant genetic engineering. of course they're all genetically identical, so if they ever become susceptible to any insect or disease they'll all die overnight... but we don't worry about little things like that. we'll just add thousands of gallons of pesticides, also made from petrochemicals. who needs natural selection and hundreds of thousands of years of genetic adaptations when you've got monsanto, and dow, the wonderful company that brought us agent orange? now dump all that corn into the trucks- what's that? you thought we were gonna eat the corn? ha! no silly! this corn isn't human grade corn - it's for the livestock! eat the corn... ah, you kids crack me up... ok, so dump it into the trucks; it's gotta go to the CAFOs.
boy, look at all those cows. i hear there's more cows than people now. you wouldn't think they'd be able to live so many all together would you? yeah, i know, i could smell it from miles away too. come to think of it, the USDA says that about 335 million tons of manure "dry matter" are produced by U.S. livestock each year, along with as many as 100 million tons of the greenhouse gas methane. yeah, i don't know what the hell "dry matter" is supposed to mean either. yes, yes, cows are supposed to eat grass. yes, that's true too - eating the corn does make them sick. but we'll give 'em plenty of drugs for tha- what drugs? Oh, lemme think, Rumensin to buffer the acidity in the rumen (which on grass is neutral), and Tylosin to try to keep them from getting infections on the livers (though most of them do even with the antibiotics). oh, about 50 to 70% according to some sources. do you always ask so many questions? we feed them the corn because it's cheap! and it makes them big fast! and it makes them fatter, as in containing more fat - look at that marbling. that's fat right there within the muscle, and it SELLS! eyes on the prize son, keep focused. of course it's not just corn; we mix it with protein from the chicken wastes and fats like beef tallow. yeah, i said beef tallow. sure, i guess we are making herbivores go cannibal; ain't that somethin'. anyway, we're only gonna feed 'em that for about 150 days; that's all it takes for them to get up to market weight, and any longer they'd probly die from the diet. so stop worrying so much.
alright, our steers are up to market weight - let's process. load 'em into the truck so that they can go to the processing facility a few hundred miles from here - ok, fine, i'll call it a slaughterhouse. will that make you feel better? alright, here we are. now get 'em all lined up on this ramp so that they can go through that door up there. what happens on the other side of the door? well that's the kill floor! well i don't know what happens there exactly; they won't let me in for reasons of "food security". but they tell me it's perfectly humane and safe. this is a state of the art system, designed by temple grandin himself! oh yes, they're very efficient - 400 animals per hour at this plant alone. a lot of workers quit or get hurt though seems like; i don't know if any of the workers even last a year around here. i don't get it; OSHA must take care of 'em like they do everybody else. anyway, our part's done. ya hungry? (many thanks jim, but i think i'll be having a salad.)

and that's just cows. think i'm exaggerating? think again. i'm actually leaving out a whole lot of unpleasantry. then there's all the other things: the battery cages that laying hens are kept in, the docking of pigs' tails, the Bovine Growth Hormone, the veal crates - the list never ends as far as the brutality upon the animals. and that's just one factor. there's the environmental destruction, the economic instability, the indentured servant style abused workforce.

at this point you might be thinking, but what about seafood? certainly fish, shrimp, or crabs have nothing to do with this industrial system. oh how i wish that were true! ever hear of farm raised salmon? think it's some kind of euphemism? seafood is just as industrial as all other animal agriculture these days. yes, fishing still goes on - and mostly for the worst. overfishing is endangering populations of every species that we eat, and the methods that we use are destroying reefs and other ecosystems, thereby killing not only our food animals but also all of the other creatures involved in their habitats. and of course there's the issue of pollution - we've dumped so much waste into our oceans that food fish species often carry dangerous levels of heavy metals in their flesh. it's called bioaccumulation, and it is not your friend. (it also occurs with the pesticides being eaten by the meat animals.) for several years i wanted seafood to be ok, but sadly it just isn't anymore. some of it is better and some is worse; this guide may help you if you really want to continue eating it.

ahh, and i promised you a second part, discussing the food industry's deep commitment to "feeding a hungry world". um, yeah, sure. is that why in the richest country in the world people still starve to death, while the government buys excess milk from dairy producers (who shoot up their cows with hormones that make them produce even more milk) to keep prices artificially high, and then powders and stores it in limestone caves until it goes bad? sounds like science fiction, right? but it's absolutely true, and it's just a drop in the bucket of the ridiculous practices of waste that goes on. the fact is that it's entirely unnecessary to create animal flesh and products on this scale. sure, these methods might be necessary to produce this quantity of meat, milk, and eggs. but we don't need this quantity! half of the food that we produce in this country gets thrown away for god's sake, and we're still dying of overconsumption. people are eating meat three (or more) meals a day, and what is the result? strong, healthy people? um, no. huge increases in heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses are more like it. but of course, there's money. very powerful people are making a whole lot of money off of destroying the earth, torturing animals (and their workers), and making the population fat and sick. eyes on the prize, son.

Me and my Shadow - or Footprint, if you so choose.

this is not something that i can be part of or give my money to, and definitely not something that i can incorporate into my physical being and my everyday life. doing so was making me unhappy; i didn't want to ignore it like many people do. so i don't do it at all. if i tried very, very, very hard i could get animal products from sources that don't behave this way. milk from cows that are pastured and not artificially inseminated or shot with hormones, that are milked by people and not machines. eggs from birds that scratch insects out of the grass for themselves and nest in a spacious comfortable coop. but i live in new york city, and i also live in a modern age where it's perfectly feasible to eat a healthy, well balanced, and very enjoyable vegan diet. i have to be careful of who i buy food from - i shop at locally owned groceries, which is easy since there's one across the street that's owned by a neighbor and is completely vegetarian. and when i do buy processed foods i try to get them from companies that don't also participate in the meat industry.

see, this is what i mean by it being easier to be vegan: i don't have to worry about whether my tofu was humanely slaughtered and schedule a visit to the farm to make sure. i can go to the farmer's market on saturdays to get locally grown organic vegetables. and all i have to do if i want processed foods is spend 5 minutes on the computer to find out that, for example, Turtle Island Foods (who makes tofurkey products) is a small independently owned business, whereas Morningstar Farms is owned by Kellogg, and LightLife (makers of smart deli, etc.) is owned by Con Agra, one of the biggest processed food companies in the world. ta da! choice made, tofurkey it is, and lucky me they make awesome vegan sausages. thankfully i can have also have desert - tofutti is a company i can be proud to support. infinitely easier than, say, visiting an abattoir or skinning a boar, don't you think?

And, In Conclusion:

i'm vegan because i need to be, so as not to be in conflict with my ethics and morals, and so as not to support a system that i know is unnecessarily brutal, wasteful, and unsustainable. it also makes me healthier. in short, it helps me without infringing upon anyone else, and that is very much my style. i do other things to uphold my beliefs; for example, when the time comes to buy an engagement ring, yes i want a diamond, but you damn well better believe that it will be lab created. i only buy coffee that's organic, fair trade, shade grown, and bird friendly. when i lived in new orleans i walked or rode my bike as much as possible instead of driving; now that i'm in new york i don't even own a car. oddly enough though, i don't need to make diamond buying decisions four or five times a day, and my coffee consumption is about one pound per four weeks. and believe it or not, your daily lunch choice might have a bigger effect on the planet than what kind of car you drive (or how much you drive it). that's the thing about food - it's very much a part of our everyday lives in a way that many other consequential actions aren't, simply due to the fact that there are very few other things that we purchase or use several times per day, every day, in large quantities.

so yes, my dietary choice is a reaction. a reaction to what? to the people that tell me that beef is what's for dinner, that milk does a body good, that eggs are incredible and edible - and damn the consequences to the animals, to the earth, to anyone and anything but profit; to the corporations that are laughing all the way to the bank. and what is my reaction to them, in sum? fuck you, i'll take tofu.

veganism isn't about personal purity - accidental ingestion happens and i'm not a lesser person for it. (making a huge scene when the restaurant put cheese on your salad and you asked them not to just makes people think that vegans are self-important assholes. push the cheese aside and get on with your day. vegan outreach published a great essay by matt ball on this topic.) maybe veganism is the right choice for you and maybe it isn't. but i encourage everyone i encounter to do this: consider your food choices. not just how they impact you as you bring your fork to your mouth, but how the process of that food being grown and shipped to you interacted with the world, how it will affect your body eating it day after day, year after year, and who your money really goes to after you hand it over at the supermarket. don't be blind to something so important as what your body is literally made of. every person really does have a choice; it is not exclusive to the rich or the hyper-educated. all you need is a desire to know that the choice exists, and the will to make it.