Thursday, July 28, 2011

On going (almost) vegan--And why

I wrote here about my intention to go vegan between May 9 and July 4. I promised to try to blog along the way, but, um...that didn't happen.

However, I did go vegan, and still mostly am. The first week was just slightly challenging, but because I was already vegetarian, and had been vegan before, it didn't take long to get into the swing of things. I complemented my diet with vegan-related reading and adventures.  Today's post will focus on WHY I've made the change to a plant-based diet, and my next post will focus on HOW.  My two reasons are based on animal welfare and human health.  (An animal-based diet also has significant implications for the environment, but my views on that have not changed for a long time, so I'm not focusing on that here.  Still, it is one of my reasons, and I encourage you to read up on it, if you aren't aware of the effects.)

For one, I re-read Peter Singer's Animal Liberation. His principle argument is that animals are sentient beings with their own interests, and that to ignore these interests is morally indefensible, in much the same way that ignoring people's interests on the basis of sex or race is reprehensible. Anyone who has spent any time with animals knows that they have definite desires and moods, and that they can also have quite a bit of intelligence.  I have to agree with his central premise.  If you're inclined to disagree (or agree), read the book.  He makes the argument much better than I ever could.

So, as far as my own ethics, I really cannot justify eating animals or anything they produce that has been gained via inhumane conditions, since I don't need them to survive. And, in fact, the second book I read leads me to believe that not only do most people not need animal products to survive, they are in fact quite bad for us.

I'm speaking of Cornell professor T. Colin Campbell's The China Study, which reports his own research, as well as decades of nutritional research, that indicates that a whole foods, plant-based diet is the best for promoting health and preventing a myriad of diseases. Again, he makes the case much better than I could, so I encourage you to read the book before deciding if you agree or disagree.

(These books are just a couple of those that have influenced my thinking.  Another is John Robbins' Diet for a New America; his latest work is The Food Revolution.)

The health impact of diet was punctuated by the recent news from my mom that, a decade after she had open heart surgery, she now needed to have stents placed. Although her numbers are kept low in part by medication (whereas mine are not), our actual blood cholesterol profiles are similar, with both of us low in good (HDL) cholesterol and high in triglycerides. Mine are only slightly concerning at this point, but I wonder how much worse they would be if I had a more animal-based diet. (My mom is okay, and I hope I will be able to persuade her to change her diet even more than she already has.)

My vegan adventure was volunteering for a work party at Farm Sanctuary. (That's where all the pictures for this post are from.) It was so great to spend time with the animals and contribute to an organization that has done a great deal to improve the conditions of farm animals in the U.S. Also, as someone who grew up in rural Indiana, amidst horses, pigs, and cows, I still cherish the fresh country air and good honest physical labor.

You may have noticed that my title says almost "vegan."  We do still have our backyard chickens, and I eat their eggs. I know exactly how they are treated and I feel very comfortable that they are living a happy chicken life. Although I bought them from the farmer who raised them with great affection, I know less about where they originally came from, and I will need to consider that if and when we decide to increase our flock.

Also, in my post of May 9, I wrote, "learning about local and sustainable food systems has led me to believe that meat and dairy can be humanely raised and in some situations may be the most sustainable option. So, I have added locally-raised goat's milk yogurt and cheese, as well as butter." I feel less comfortable with this statement now. For one, Peter Singer writes about how most agricultural practices involve separating mother and child fairly early on, which undoubtedly causes distress for both.  I need to learn more about this.

For now, I am not eating any other animal products than my own girls' eggs. I do plan to visit the local goat farm, which offers regular tours, and see what I learn and how I feel after that. As one of my friends said, "You probably won't be happy with how any animals are treated unless you're taking care of them yourself." That's probably true, at least when it comes to food-producing animals, but for now I am maintaining a somewhat open mind on the subject.

Based on this, I'm uncomfortable with identifying with the label "vegan," although I am grateful for the contributions that vegan activists have made towards raising awareness about inhumane treatment of farm and research animals.  And I am happy to join forces with vegan organizations (such as Farm Sanctuary) in common cause to improve the lives of animals.

However, many vegans are adamantly opposed to backyard chickens; unfortunately, some articles on vegan websites grossly misstate the conditions and risks of raising backyard chickens.  Having a relationship with animals is actually a great way to gain more respect and compassion for animals.  At the same time, it is true that one does not need eggs to survive and be healthy.

Also, most people who identify as vegan avoid honey.  And yet, there is a growing movement of locally-based beekeepers striving to keep a healthy population of bees around, as they are necessary pollinators, and Colony Collapse Disorder is a significant ecological problem. These choices, to me, are not clear-cut.

T. Colin Campbell prefers the phrase "plant-based," which I think is what I'm going with for the moment.  The identity label, anyway, is less important to me than the impact of my choices, for me, the animals, and the environment.

Next time--more thoughts on intentional food choices, and some tips on how to make the change!


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