About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Almost Vegan

When I first started this vegan "kick," as my friend calls it, it wasn't due to a concern about animal welfare. Not that I didn't already care about animals -- I did and I do -- but my motivation to try veganism was purely selfish. I wanted to be skinnier, as the book, Skinny Bitch, somewhat promises people they will be if they turn vegan. I've recommended the book before and I still do, provocative title and all!

I'm not skinnier. Truth be told, however, I wasn't particularly heavy to begin with. I do have big legs, but then, I always have and no diet short of starvation is going to change my body build. (In fact, at my absolute skinniest -- 108 pounds, when I was going through chronic anxiety attacks, which I cannot recommend -- I STILL had big legs.) So, I've given up the dream of transforming my legs into, say, Jorja Fox's. Ain't. Gonna. Happen.

But, seven months into this diet, I am healthier, at least if recent bloodwork is a good indication. And isn't health a wee bit more important than great legs? I sure hope so. I call myself an almost-vegan, meaning that I've had some dairy here and there during the past seven months, generally when I'm not at home and when, for instance, non-dairy creamer wasn't available. Sin confessed!

So now the question is: has veganism (or almost-veganism) become, for me, about animals? Well, yes and no. The more I read about factory farming (which includes dairy farming), the more I am convinced that such farming is neither ethical or sustainable. So, yes, my chosen diet is, at least in part, a way for me to take a stand against practices that I see as incredibly cruel as well as environmentally disastrous. (To read more about factory and dairy farming in MUCH more detail, read blogs on girliegirlarmy.com, the Huffington Post or the New York Times, or PETA's website, or any of the 100s of websites out there that discuss animal welfare and either vegetarianism or veganism. Ellen DeGeneres even has a bit about "Why Go Vegan" on her website. I'm not repeating here what you can read in other places. I also highly recommend the books Eating Animals and The China Study.)

The bottom line, for me, has become this: eating meat and dairy contributes directly to both animal cruelty and environmental harm. So, by and large, I do not.

"But I eat only grass-fed...and I buy only organic..." Yeah, I agree that those choices are better for the environment (and YOU) than the conventional ones. In fact, I still believe it's ethical for people to eat meat occasionally. Despite choosing a vegan diet for myself, I agree with Barbara Kingsolver that one can still live an ethical life by eating meat rarely and selectively. (In her superbly-written book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she writes, "However selectively, I do eat meat." And then she goes on to describe which meats, and why, and even goes into detail about her experience slaughtering her own turkeys. I highly recommend the book. Even if you come away with a different perspective on meat-eating, you will have read a thought-provoking account of one family's attempt to live a whole year raising as much of their food as possible and buying everything else that they need within a 100 mile radius of their home.)

Theoretically, if people only ate one meal a week with meat in it and say, only two or three meals a week with dairy, it would be possible to raise animals in more humane ways because the demand for their products would be so much lower. Such farming would also be sustainable. Of course, this would require MASSIVE changes to how people eat, as well as huge hikes in the prices for animal products (assuming that we want the farmers to be able to make their living).

Unfortunately, I don't see everyone jumping on the vegetarian or vegan bandwagon. I wish more people would. Without that, it's hard to put adequate pressure on farmers to raise animals differently.

If this societal diet transformation occurred, some animals would still be slaughtered, which is totally anathema to the vegan position that animals should NEVER be used for human needs. (And it is very much true that we don't NEED meat or dairy in order to be healthy.) I realize I'm taking a heretical stance, relative to other vegans, in considering the possibility that *minimal* meat and dairy consumption could be ethical. This is why I said "yes and no"to the question, 'has veganism become for me about animal welfare?' It's not, for me, entirely about animal welfare or animal rights.

That does not mean, however, that I think a farmer should be allowed to treat a cow however the hell he chooses. Or that I think that it's tolerable that chickens are raised in cages so small they can't extend their wings and end up living their entire lives basically in excrement. Holy crap! (Pardon the pun.) Who thinks that that's OK?

I also don't think it's OK that pigs get their tails chopped off (not even with anesthesia) so that they won't chew each other's tails off while living in crowded conditions. Nor do I think that male baby chicks should be ground up ALIVE because they're not going to grow up to be hens and lay eggs. Nor do I think cattle should be fed corn to grow fast (with lots of antibiotics, steroids and hormones) when the diet that's right for them is grass.

I think animals should be allowed to live as they were intended: roaming, eating what they are meant to eat, living with other animals like them, and, in the case of domesticated animals, living with the help of humans. Such "intended" lives might include, however, eventually ending up on somebody's plate.

That last part is, of course, what makes my position a non-vegan one. But I don't think I'm completely off my rocker to think it. I do not support the (usually vegan) view that animals' rights are identical to humans'.

That doesn't mean, however, that the "right" to eat animals on occasion translates into a "right" to raise them as they are currently being raised or to eat as much of them as we want whenever we want. Our insatiable greed has created the factory farming nightmare that exists. It hurts the environment; it's unnecessarily cruel; and, due to the excess of meat and dairy consumption, we're literally killing ourselves. Not to mention that we're consuming a cocktail of hormones, steroids and antibiotics contained in those animal products.

So, while I've chosen an almost vegan diet for myself, my "almost vegetarian" advice for everyone is to eat FAR LESS dairy, FAR LESS meat and pressure farmers to raise animals in ethical ways. UP your vegetable and fruit consumption (a lot); try soy or rice or almond or help or oat milk. Go a whole week without cheese. (You can do it!!) Get a soy latte instead of a regular one. Buy a vegan cookbook. Get the free vegetarian start-up kit at PETA. Look at your old recipes and figure out how to make them vegetarian or, even better, vegan. Buy Earth Balance vegan margarine; try coconut milk yogurt. Ask me for a recipe or two. Go find recipes on girliegirlarmy.com or any of the 100s (literally!) of vegan and vegetarian websites. Give up the idea that you need more protein (chances are, you don't), as well as the idea that you'll die without loads of calcium (quite the opposite, you might be helping yourself develop MORE brittle, not less brittle, bones). Go get some exercise. Donate money to an animal shelter or a farm sanctuary. Support farmers who DO raise animals ethically, without hormones, cages, cruelty or food they were not meant to consume.

Even if on occasion you eat one -- I'll "allow" you that -- let the animals live in conditions that an animal would want to live in. It's the least you can do. Even a carnivore shouldn't be comfortable with the realities of factory farming.


  1. It's good to see a well reasoned switch to healthier things. Better to cut down than cut out, since you're more likely to stick to a change like that.

    Quitting is hard!

    I eat 'healthy' meats, as far as that goes. My chickens and turkeys and beef are free of icky hormones etc, and I've never been much for dairy anyway (lactose... meh). But. I tried vegetarian cold-turkey once and failed. A more gradual approach to healthy eating works all around, and makes you feel better about it all!

    I firmly believe in animal rights while being a meat eater. I refuse to buy from inhumane farms (and yes, I do pay attention to it). There can be a balance. We'll probably never get off meat until we figure out how to make animal-free-meat (vat meat? Long pig?) but we can get closer.

  2. superbly written, elaine.

    i agree with ipstenu - the transition can be difficult, especially for those of us who literally grew up on meat & potatoes. but there are some incredible meat substitutes now on the market. i've been veg for so long now i don't ever crave the "meat" feel, but for people who do, they're finding "gardein" products to be remarkably similar to flesh. it's made with non-gmo soy and vegetables - great protein hit with a "meaty" texture. I still call meat subs "special occasion food" because they're quite processed beyond recognition as real food;)

    the reasoning i hear most often for eating meat is "my doctor told me i need protein." no one argues with their doc and doc still thinks protein = meat...

  3. I don't think there are any truly humane sources of meat, dairy, or eggs - at least in this part of the world. The animals themselves have been bred to grossly overproduce flesh, milk, and eggs - which induces hardships and sometimes severe suffering on the animals. On all dairy farms, baby calves are stolen from their mothers.

    A visitor to Polyface Farms, held up as a paragon of "humane" animal farming, reported that she saw chickens in metal cages panting like mad in sweltering heat, and rabbits in wire cages (painful to rabbits) above a stinking manure pit. And no sign of compassion for the animals.

    Painless killing is easier said than done - especially when animals are killed day in and day out as part of a business. People get sloppy, the constant killing sometimes induces callous cruelty in workers, and the not-yet-killed animals may be terrified by or mourn the loss the killed animals.

    Does "humane" imply that animals are allowed to live a normal lifespan? All farm animals are killed young. Chickens, which comprise 9 out of 10 animals killed for food, are usually killed at six-and-a-half weeks old. Some are still peeping. I don't think it's realistic to expect a farm to care for chickens for several years and then slaughter them. They'd lose money. Likewise, we shouldn't expect dairy farms to care for all the excess calves that result from the mothers' yearly impregnation. They're all killed when quite young.

    Is it humane to kill a cow if she is pregnant with a late-term fetus? That's standard practice in the dairy industry.

    By all means, make the transition to veganism gradually. It took me four years. Do some planning, some research, some trial and error. Better to go slow and make it stick then to jump into it haphazardly and have it not work out.

    Don't worry if the world will transition to veganism. It might - one society at a time. Many things that were once considered impossible are now turning into reality. But what really matters is your individual choices.


Politeness is always appreciated.