Preface: I’ve been meaning to post something like this for a long time. This post is really months in the making, but I haven’t quite had the guts to post it until now. I think the events of today (Wednesday, June 26, 2013) set me off so much so that I couldn’t keep silent. So here goes. Disclaimer: In no way am I an expert in veganism, animal rights advocacy, or the factory farming industry. I’m just a person who gives a shit.
Edit, 6/29/2013: I have written a follow-up post to the one below, entitled Why I’m Vegan: Part II. In it, I answer a few questions that many of my readers, and myself, have asked after reading this first piece. Please give it a read if you can! – Rachel
Today, I learned that many of my best friends, with the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and of California’s Prop 8, will be able to share the same marriage rights as I one day will. I have also learned that my rights as a woman have been upheld by strong females in Texas. I am so happy for my friends, and for the LGBTQ community, and for female Americans, and for the progress of human rights as a whole.
But I am sad, too.
I am sad because, for as long as I have lived and for most of human history, we have unfortunately and unforgivably lacked a collective human empathy. Some of us are racists, favoring our own race over another’s, and some of us are sexists, favoring our own sex over another’s. Some of us believe our own religion to be true above all others. Some of us are homophobic, favoring a heteronormative society, and some of us are xenophobic, fearing those from other countries and cultures.
I am proud to say that most people I know—at least most of my friends, family members, coworkers, etc.—strive on a daily basis to diminish and eradicate this sense of “other” and to build trust, hope, and empathy among our communities. My friends and I have rights, and I am so happy.
But I am also very sad because some of us are speciesists—favoring our own species over another’s. I am sad because most of you don’t even know that this word exists, and I am sad because even if you did know, you probably don’t give a shit about it anyway. But I give a shit about it. I give a lot of shits.
I am vegan. I have identified myself as vegan for approximately five months. What does this mean?
No animal products, and no animal by-products, i.e.:
No meat. Duh.
No dairy. Yup, that includes milk chocolate. Also butter. Some people (like my grandmother) forget that all too frequently. Sorry, Grandmom.
No eggs. And consequently very few breakfast choices at Perkin’s.
No gelatin. Oh, ya know, gelatin! Pulverized animal bones that gives products like gummy bears, marshmallows, and Jell-O their “gumminess” and is often used as a preservative in food like Pop Tarts, Goldfish, and some frozen vegetables! You didn’t know that? Hey-o, you’re eating animals!
No leather. Eliminating coats and shoes from my wardrobe isn’t that easy as a debatably poor college student. This is something I’m still working on.
Every time I tell someone that I am vegan, the first thing out of his or her mouth is: “Why?”
Some people are cool about it, saying something like, “You’re vegan? Awesome! I wish I could do that. Tell me why you’re vegan!” You are the people I love. I wish there were more people like you in the world.
However, some people aren’t as cool, but they are at least respectful. They usually say, “Oh, okay. I don’t really understand why you’re vegan and don’t really care to understand, but keep doing your thing.” And they continue eating their bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich (which smells incredible by the way), and we move on.
And then there are the mean people. Some even get defensive about their own eating choices when I tell them about mine. “You’re vegan? That’s stupid. Do you think your individual actions are going to change the world? You’re wasting your time. Tell me all the reasons why you think you’re right, and I’ll tell you why you’re wrong.”
I’ve had people say that to me more than once. Tell me all the reasons why you think you’re right, and I’ll tell you why you’re wrong. It’s like, why do you care that I’m a vegan? My being a vegan doesn’t affect your eating choices. My homosexual friends getting married doesn’t affect my heterosexual marriage. Which leads me back to speciesism and all of the other -isms that make me so mad about this world. So many of us choose to carry the unfounded, self-centered belief of “me.” That “my” thoughts are right, that “my” actions are right, and that “I” am the only thing that matters. That what “I” am doing is the be-all-end-all, and when someone else tells me otherwise, that person is wrong.
I am vegan. Get over it.
I’ve heard so many excuses when people ask me why I’m vegan. “Oh, I couldn’t be vegan for even a day! It’s too hard!” and “I don’t know how you do it. I love chicken too much,” and “I could never give up cheese.” And I just want to laugh. Like, ugh, I’m so sorry! We animal rights advocates apologize for burdening you with the psychological distress of denying you the desire of eating dead flesh! The entire farmed animal population, dead and alive (though barely breathing), begs your forgiveness every time it screams in suffering and pain because it doesn’t want to be turned into the next Big Mac or Egg McMuffin for your own pleasure!
Granted, that was harsh and overly sarcastic. You like eating meat. You like eating scrambled eggs. You like eating ice cream. I get it. I like eating all of those things too. It wasn’t easy to stop eating things that I love to eat, things that are part of my family history, my past, my culture and tradition. I ask myself difficult questions every day like, “How do I get rid of my black leather jacket, my favorite souvenir from my three months in Paris?” and “How do I say no to my father’s homemade ice cream, and my grandmother’s corn soufflé, and my mother’s mashed potatoes—things I’ve loved and eaten my entire life?” and “Will I feed my children and husband meat? Will we have a turkey on our Thanksgiving table?”
I have to make hard choices every single day. It’s not like I woke up one day thinking, “Whoa! I hate the taste of every single thing that comes from an animal now! I guess it’s a great time to become vegan!”
To be honest, I first became vegan just to try it out. To see if my body could “handle it.” But of course my body could “handle it.” Almost all of our bodies could handle it. The thing is, we are too locked into disillusionment by the corporate food industry and by our perception of food culture. We believe meat is necessary. At one point, meat was a living being, so it must mean life. By the order of the food chain, humans are biologically programmed to eat meat. Right?
People have one main argument that they think is astronomically logical: “But where do you get your protein if you don’t eat meat?” Almost every meat-eater asks me this. I want to scream and shake my head and pound some sense into you whenever you ask me this. Here’s what I say instead: It has been proven by the American Dietetic Administration (ADA) that vegetarian diets are at least as healthy as diets including meat, and that vegetarians and vegans “meet and exceed” requirements for protein. If anything, meat-eaters eat too much protein at each meal (which is a bad thing, because it will just turn to fat anyway if your muscles can’t use it … yay!). So I’m just fine eating my grains, nuts, beans, and veggies that give me enough protein. Thank you very much.
In fact, a rigid dichotomy exists in the form of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which must provide public health guidelines and nutritional information (yup, those little boxes on virtually every food product in the supermarket) while also promoting U.S. agricultural industry. Those two things (what the public needs and what the food industry wants us to need) are very, very different, and most of the time, the USDA promotes the latter while pretending to provide the former. For example, the USDA pumps information into the mind of Americans with campaigns like “Got Milk?” (Hey, guess what! Osteoporosis levels are highest in countries that consume the most dairy! So I guess you’ve “Got Osteoporosis” too!)
We are brainwashed into believing that the government has our wellbeing in mind, when in reality, it is all about the money. We are told that to get enough protein, we must eat meat. To be an athlete, we must eat meat. Even to eat a balanced, healthy diet, we must eat meat. Bullshit. It’s all bullshit. (Seriously, Google “vegan body builders.” It’s insane!) And so we fuel the food industry by allowing it to feed us cheap, inexpensive, and unnecessary meat at the price of animal lives… and possibly our own.
The ADA has stated that a vegetarian diet tends to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and to have a lower risk of heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes as well as lower blood pressure levels than a meat-eating diet. Vegetarians are also less likely to contract food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli. (Have you ever had a “24-hour flu” before? Felt like shit one day—and expelled a lot of it—and felt better the next day? This probably wasn’t a flu at all! You had food-poisoning from eating animals! Congratulations!)
But here’s where I want to clarify things: Being a vegetarian does not make you healthier because you are not eating meat. It makes you healthier because you are not eating factory-farmed meat.
… And this is where most people tune out. “I don’t want to hear it. You’ll spoil my dinner.” Most people don’t want to hear about the farming industry standards that plague our food. It’s funny, though, because most people no longer believe that good ol’ Ma and Pa still run things on their family farms, that cows and pigs and chickens roam free and live long, happy lives. Likewise, most people know that thousands of animals suffer daily (in life and death) to wind up as the steak or the chicken breast on their dinner plates.
If you don’t know anything about factory farming, if you have never seen a PETA video, if you have never received a pamphlet about factory farming conditions and animal cruelty, I apologize. I urge you to watch movies like Earthlings, to read books like Eating Animals, and to become as educated as you possibly can. But here are a few quick facts about factory farming (taken from Eating Animals, which is essentially my vegan bible) in case you want to know…
- Ninety-nine percent of all land animals eaten or used to produce milk or eggs in the United States are factory farmed. So, as a meat-eater, you apply to the following items 99% of the time!
- Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined. Ride your bike to work? Great. Now put down that fro-yo and do the world a real favor.
- Millions of euthanized cats and dogs in America become food for factory farmed animals each year. Yum, you’re essentially eating your pets! Don’t forget about all of the pesticides, growth hormones, antibacterials, and whatever else farmers feed animals. We’re eating it all.
- Pathogen-infested, feces-splattered chicken can technically be fresh, cage-free, and free-range, and sold in the supermarket legally. The term “free-range” is bullshit. In order to be “free-range,” chickens must have access to the “outdoors”—which, to most factory farmers, means a small 5’x5′ dirt patch attached to the shed stuffed with tens of thousands of birds.
- Virtually all (upwards of 95 percent of) chickens become infected with E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. Remember to wash that shit off before ya cook it! Literally!
- By the standards of the international human rights community, the typical working conditions in America’s slaughterhouses constitute human rights violations. Most workers (oftentimes illegal aliens or recent immigrants) are paid minimum wage to wrangle chickens by the legs, slit the throats of cows and pigs, and load crates of animals onto trucks. Sometimes with their bare hands.
- Scientists at Columbia and Princeton Universities have been able to trace six of the eight genetic segments of the most feared virus in the world directly to U.S. factory farms. Remember H1N1? SARS? They’re not called swine and bird flus for nothing.
- Farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population—roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second. And where does all this shit go? In poo lagoons (I made that word up, but they’re literally massive pits that hold tons of shit). And when the pits get full? Factory farmers spray it into the air. And when the people who live near the factory farms breathe in the air? Yup, that’s right. People are breathing in airborne poop. And when it seeps into our water supplies (because factory farms don’t have a proper waste-treatment system like cities do)?
We are breathing in factory farming bullshit. Literally and figuratively. With every piece of meat that we eat, we are telling factory farmers and food corporations that we don’t give a shit. We don’t give a shit about our environment, we don’t give a shit about our health, and we don’t give a shit about animal welfare. All this shit for what? For a cheap piece of meat in the frying pan and a ten-minute episode of pleasure in our mouths?
This is speciesism. This is ignorance. This is laziness. Even if we aren’t the perpetrator of animal cruelty or of ecologically irresponsible farming practices, we are bystanders as long as we allow the factory farming industry to continue. The USDA and the major food corporations aren’t out to help us. They’re out to make money, even if that means killing animals. Or killing us.
This morning, after I heard the news about DOMA and Prop8, I watched the movie Earthlings for the first time. I had seen a lot of pro-vegan, pro-animal rights movies with a lot of gory, unpleasant, and uncomfortable images and videos before. Even after all of the excitement, celebration, and joy about human rights that I had experienced earlier in the day, I couldn’t help but bawl like a baby at the images I was seeing onscreen. Cows hanging from their back legs with their throats slit, still conscious. Factory farming workers throwing chickens against the wall, stomping on their heads, breaking their legs. Animals held as captives and used for simple human pleasures in circuses, rodeos, zoos, bullfights, races, and puppy mills.
This isn’t the unusual. This is the standard. This is the world we’ve created, in which humans feel as though they have the right to inflict pain for pleasure’s sake, to dominate another species based merely on the concept of superior intelligence. Just because animals are less intelligent does not mean they suffer any less, does not mean they deserve less of our respect as living creatures. It has been proven that pigs are just as intelligent as dogs—but would you club your pet dog to unconsciousness, slit its throat, and eat it for dinner the same way you would a pig? Why are some animals worth our respect, and others are not?
There is an awesome quote at the end of Earthlings (which is narrated by Joaquin Phoenix, oh haiiiii), and I want to share it with you now.
When we wince at the suffering of animals, that feeling speaks well of us even if we ignore it. And those who dismiss love for our fellow creatures as mere sentimentality overlook a good and important part of our humanity. But it takes nothing away from a human to be kind to an animal. And it is actually within us to grant it a happy life, and a long one.
It is hard to remove something from your life, knowing that you may never experience it again. If factory farming continues, I may never taste another real chicken finger or hamburger again. This is something I’ve grown to accept, and something I’ve become more comfortable with since becoming vegan five months ago.
In social situations, my veganism is still difficult to navigate. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, says something that I hate about our food culture but that makes a lot of sense: “Ironically, the utterly unselective omnivore—’I’m easy; I’ll eat anything’—can appear more socially sensitive than the individual who tries to eat in a way that is good for society.” Socially sensitive. Is it okay to be socially sensitive and morally insensitive? Is it worth it to keep your mouth shut and “eat whatever,” even if you know it’s wrong?
For me, it’s not. We’ve all heard the classic vegan joke, “How do you know someone’s vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!” No shit. Of course I’ll tell you. That’s the whole point. I want people to ask me why I’m vegan. I want people to push and prod, to ask me tough questions, and to get real with me. Because in the end, who’s really in the right here?
People think vegans are weak sentimentalists, that we live in an idealistic world of happy bunnies and piglets and kittens. That eating meat is a harsh reality, and that we are wasting our time. Safran Foer kills it again:
Two friends are ordering lunch. One says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” and orders it. The other says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?
As we celebrate with our friends and family the advancement of women’s and LGBT rights today, I ask that we continue this trend of love and acceptance towards a greater cause—a love of and respect for our world, our natural environment, and all of the friends among us who live on the surface of this earth. Please, eat with care, eat with responsibility, and eat with a full and heavy conscious, no matter what you eat. We are all capable of empathy. Every single one of us.
So when people ask me, “Why don’t you eat meat?” I can’t help but answer, “Why do you?”
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to send me an email, Facebook message, text, Tweet, or phone call (how archaic). Let’s talk.
Edit, 6/29/2013: I have written a follow-up post to the one above, entitled Why I’m Vegan: Part II. In it, I answer a few questions that many of my readers, and myself, have asked after reading this first piece. Please give it a read if you can! – Rachel