Ecojustice08’s Weblog

On Being Vegan by Stefanie
June 14, 2008, 3:36 pm
Filed under: Eating organic/local, Stefanie

Emily’s talking about food reminds me that I was going to write about being vegan. I am generally hesitant to talk to most about my food and lifestyle choice because I have found people tend to a) get defensive and say things like “I hardly ever eat red meat” b) make stupid jokes like “but carrots can’t defend themselves!” or c) think I am a weird hippy chick and/or am trying to convert them. Sometimes though people are genuinely interested and I thought this ecojustice group may at least be interested in the environmental aspects of my vegan choice.

I’ve been vegan so long I have a hard time remembering how long it’s been. 1994 I think. I have the date noted in a journal somewhere if I ever care to truly verify. Before vegan came vegetarian. Both my husband and I came from meat and potatoes make a meal families. I grew up spending long and happy vacation hours in a boat in the Gulf of California fishing with my dad. I could even fillet the fish I caught. My dad also hunts elk and I have fond tastebud memories of smoked venison. It was a bad Cupid’s Hotdog experience followed closely by being grossed out by the veins in the chicken I was pounding out to make a chicken recipe my husband invented. For him it was a bad In-N-Out burger experience that got him thinking.

We both thought separately about going vegetarian but neither said anything. I thought my husband wouldn’t go for it. Then one day he said “I was thinking…” and it steamrolled from there. We were vegetarian for a year, weened ourselves onto it by allowing ourselves to eat all the meat products in the refrigerator and freezer and just not buying more. I remember that last glorious can of tuna and looking at each other saying, this is it.

We subscribed to Vegetarian Times magazine. We ate lots of bean burritos and lots of omelets and more pasta than you can shake a stick at. But we learned slowly, how to cook with tofu and how to eat better.

Then there was an article in Vegetarian Times about dairy cattle, their treatment, and what happened to them after they stopped giving milk. We were horrified. We had no idea. Over the year we had come to decide that one of the reasons to not eat meat was because we didn’t believe killing animals was a good idea anymore. And, as we learned about how agribuisness mistreated animals we became stronger and more confirmed in our new belief. So when we learned about the dairy cattle we could not in good conscious continue to participate in a system where cruelty to animals was ok.

Being vegan is hard. We had to learn how to read labels. We had to learn what the ingredients on those labels were and how they were derived. We had to learn, again, how to make a meal. Our families freaked out. Holiday meals with my family in which turkey or ham would be served, and beef brisket with my husband’s family and in both all the side dishes with cheese and eggs and butter and milk were no longer on our menu. They were offended and felt accused and condemned even though we never said a word to them about their food choice. They are over it now and my mom, still confirmed in her meat eating, brags to people that I am vegan.

When we became vegan we had no idea that it meant we also had to examine other parts of our lives besides the food. If we didn’t want to kill cows for food we had no right to kill them for belts and shoes and other things. Bye-bye silk. Wool was easy since I am allergic to it and didn’t have any wool anything. What’s in my shampoo? My cosmetics? My moisturizer and hand lotion?

As our awareness grew, so did our commitment. Not wanting to kill animals is a good reason not to eat meat but in my opinion, it cannot sustain a commitment to a vegan life. So we made it a point to learn more. We learned that the consumption of animal fats and proteins has been linked to heart disease, various types of cancers, diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure (my dad has both high cholesterol and high blood pressure and my grandpa died from heart disease), not to mention obesity (also an issue in my family).

There is also the environment. Had to get around to that eventually. According to a recent article in Heifer International’s magazine, World Ark, the animal farming industry is responsible for nearly 20% of greenhouse gases released worldwide (cars and trucks and other transportation produce 13%).

The livestock industry also pollutes and depletes the water supply. Animal waste from feedlots and factory farms is the leading cause of pollution in groundwater and rivers. To feed a person on a meat-based diet for a day requires 750 gallons of water. Livestock production also relies on fossil fuels which are needed to make the fertilizer used to grow and transport the grain that feed the animals. Meat processing and distribution also requires fuel.

A 1993 UN report (old yes, but still relevant I think) estimated that the 1992 food supply could have fed about 6.3 billion people on an all-vegetarian diet or 4.2 billion people on an 85% vegetarian diet or 3.2 billion people on a 75% vegetarian diet. The current world population is about 6.7 billion and food production has increased since 1992, yet there are people in the world who go to bed hungry.

I didn’t toss out all those numbers to try and shame those of you who eat meat to stop. Or to pat myself on the back for being vegan. Even being vegan is not necessarily positive for the environment especially these days when agribusiness has gone organic and there is even highly processed vegan food with synthetic additives neatly wrapped in three kinds of plastics in plastic coated boxes in the freezer section. I toss out the numbers because they shocked me and still do. I think it is important for everyone to know how the choices they make affect the world and vegans and vegetarians have no right to be holier-than-thou just because they don’t eat meat. The longer I am vegan the more I learn and the more aware I become. There are also spiritual elements I have come to discover over the years but I will save that for another time.

I do not wish for all farmers to immediately stop raising animals. I think there are small farms, sustainable farms, that can be and are good animal and land stewards. Our current food production system, however, is all out of whack. It is killing us and killing the planet. I felt, and still feel, the best way for me to make an impact is to opt out of the system as much as I can by not eating or using animal products and by buying local, organic, in-season food and even growing some of it myself.

It’s still not easy being vegan even after all these years. There are things I don’t have to think about as much anymore, that have become second nature. Traveling is always a challenge but not impossible. Visiting family and going out to dinner with them even if they are now accepting, makes for interesting and uncomfortable conversations as they assume since I am vegan I don’t mind having a plain iceberg lettuce salad for dinner while they chow down on their steaks at the steakhouse.

And I am always trying to think of ways to educate those who are willing to listen, especially those who think being vegan means deprivation. I have lost track of the number of people who have said to me over the years that they could never be vegan because they couldn’t give up cheese. Being vegan, I have learned, is not about giving up anything. It is about choosing something different. It is about opening myself to the idea that the world does not revolve around me and I do not deserve everything I may want; about reconnecting with nature and the natural cycle of the seasons; about paying attention and being aware; about being willing to change and grow and learn; about living a life that celebrates life. I am definitely not deprived.

6 Comments so far
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Great post. I’ve known quite a few vegans in my time, and I don’t think any of them would say they were deprived, either. Maybe you can answer the question I’ve been wondering lately about wool, though, since the other day when we were in the midst of that hideous heat wave, and we drove by some sheep who’d just been shorn, I found myself thinking, “Good thing that farmer had the sense to do that now.” Since sheep aren’t killed to get wool, why do vegans avoid it? Is wool like milk? Are sheep factory farmed, too?

Comment by Emily Barton

Thanks Emily. Yes, sheep are factory farmed too. Not only that, but as sheep age their wool production declines and when that happens they are sent to slaughter. I’m not a big fan of PETA–I don’t disagree with their objectives but I do disagree with many of their methods–but here is a PETA fact sheet on the treatment of wool animals that is fairly well referenced if you are interested in finding out the gruesome details.

Comment by Stefanie

Wow1 Thanks, Stef. I never knew.

Comment by Emily Barton

Great post, Stefanie.

I have been thinking for a long time, and am turning part vegetarian by degree. The way I see it is this: if you believe killing animals is bad, then vegan you must be (because you must slaughter calves if you want milk). But I am not sure I believe killing animals is inherently bad (and the fact I believe animals should be treated the same as people tells a lot about my skewed morals). I am sure that massive killing and massive abuse to animals and the environment is bad, though. So my position is: the less meat and dairy I eat, the better it is. And for all I know, if everybody reduced their meat consumption by 90%, there would already be ten times less killing. And after all, the opposite of “too much” is “less”, not “no more”.

To someone who believes killing even one animal is bad, this is still not enough. A bit like ‘I only murdered a few people in my life, much fewer than most of my gang mates’ is not really good defense in court. And I would totally understand that a vegan friend would decline a dish I had made with dairy in it, like I would decline just a little toast of human paté, even if it’s so yummy.

Comment by mandarine

My problem is that I am absolutely positive that if I’d been raised in a culture in which we all loved and devoured human pate, I’m sure I’d eat it. I think about this all the time, too, though, and have come to the conclusion, for now, that less meat is best.

Comment by Emily Barton

Great post!
I find a lot of vegans (the ones I know) are sometimes condescending. You sound very informed, but modest about it, which I think is fantastic 🙂
I’m a vegetarian, but I do eat fish, which I’ve been bugged about. I try to eat fish only if I know where it’s coming from (ie: not from bottom trawling and instead from sustainable fisheries). I’m always trying to inform myself and you’re absolutely right, it’s not giving anything up, it’s really a discovery of new foods! I eat so much fruit now (which I never did before, I was always more into veggies) and it’s quite awesome 🙂

Comment by Steph

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