Why is Dead Animal the Default?

Have you ever stopped to consider why dead or abused animal by-products (aka meat, milk, and eggs) are the default ingredients in nearly every catered event, restaurant, bakery, café, food stand, or airplane meal?

Even if you are a meat and/or dairy consumer, you have to wonder why animal products are so ubiquitous in our food products, even those that in no way require them (e.g., baked goods and desserts) and when we know that an over-consumption – or really any consumption – of animal products is more deleterious to our health than plant-based options?

Not to be rude, but…

I am not a confrontational person, and I hate making a fuss even if I get served the wrong dish in a restaurant or have a bad customer service experience. But I have to admit I’m getting to the end of my rope with the lack of awareness about the impact we have on our planet (and animal suffering) by assuming dairy, egg, and meat filled foods are ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ and that plant-based options are a mere after-thought. Nearly every coffee shop in Santa Barbara, where I live, offers one vegan pastry item. By why only one? Why should the twenty other items be filled with pig, chicken, and cow tissues or secretions when it is just as easy to make wonderful vegan croissants, Danishes, donuts, and breads (check these out if you don’t believe me). Why shouldn’t animal-based items be the token extra option instead? There’s plenty of people who are sensitive or allergic to animal products that would be grateful as well.

With amazing plant-based options like these (vegan sushi and vegan s’mores dessert), ditching meat and dairy is easier – and tastier – than ever.

Until very recently, I was one of those vegans that just felt grateful when there were non-dairy milk options at cafes (regardless of how ridiculous the up-charge was) or vegan-friendly options at meat-heavy restaurants. But perhaps thanks to getting older, plus recently joining a community group composed of strong, inspiring women, I am starting to appreciate the need to take bolder steps to push the boundaries of what people accept as ‘normal’ and force us all to question our assumptions about how we treat animals, our planet, and each other.

The group I joined is called Vegan Lady Bosses (VLB), a community of women who seek to lift each other up, support each other in professional and personal endeavors, and together build awareness and appreciation for a plant-based, sustainable, cruelty-free lifestyle. These women mean business, and they don’t politely accept that they should pay up to a dollar more for their latte because they choose the cruelty-free option. The VLBs don’t blindly accept that ‘vegan’ means outlier; they intend to make plant-based the mainstream, and empower people in their choices and activism. For a quiet, non boat-rocking introvert such as myself, this newfound power is both a bit frightening and incredibly enlightening.

My local VLB group has been successful in pressuring local cafes to remove the up-charge for cruelty free milk, and to add more vegan options to their menus. They also rally behind businesses that make positive changes toward plant-based options, supporting them in person as well as on Yelp and social media. The VLBs show on a local scale the power of combining forces behind a cause, and the power we all have as concerned consumers and citizens.

I don’t expect everyone in the world to immediately go vegan. It’s not always practical, or available, depending on where you live or who you live with. But it is certainly time for mainstream discussions centered on why we are so complacent about the lack of concern for our unsustainable, unhealthy food system. Even if you don’t eat meat but consume dairy and eggs, or buy leather or wool products, you are (perhaps unwittingly) supporting very large, very cruel – to animals and humans – and very dirty industries that treat living beings like cheap objects. You shouldn’t have to feel like NOT supporting these industries is too difficult or radical.

Time to Rock the Boat

Just this week, the organization I work for sent around an email announcing that our Christmas party would be catered this year, and we have the option of three types of tamales – all of them meat or cheese based. This organization’s main mission is to focus on solving environmental issues for the benefit of people and the planet. Yet most times when we cater an event (such as the dozens of working groups and workshops and parties per year) at our office, the main dishes are centered on meat and dairy with plant-based options as the exception. Only one other person in my organization that I know of, out of nearly 100 people, is vegan. A handful are vegetarian. I am slowly losing my patience for a whole field of experts on environmental and climate issues who can’t seem to change their lifestyles in the way they keep arguing we all must do in order to ‘save’ ourselves from the worst impacts of climate change and pollution.

I probably wouldn’t have done this in the past, but with my newfound confidence and feeling of community support, I responded to my organization’s email, very politely asking if there would be a vegan option available. I also volunteered to lead a sustainability task force to look into making sustainable choices for our organization as a whole, including how we source food, office supplies, and how we run activities. I look forward to seeing whether my colleagues are receptive to such changes.

I understand that I do not make perfect choices. For example, I want to reduce how much plastic I buy, and how much plane travel I participate in. But choosing a plant-based diet seems like such no-brainer, particularly in California, where it is nearly effortless to do so and in fact you can find some of the most incredible vegan food and restaurants in the world. Eating plant-based has a huge positive impact on fossil fuel emissions, but also makes a statement that you refuse to accept that we must abuse and torture animals to sustain ourselves. Like it or not, think about it or not, that is what is happening to nearly every animal whose meat or milk or eggs you end up consuming, unless you or your benevolent neighbor raised them yourselves (even then, you assume that killing an animal before their natural time is humane).

I am even more dismayed that the very people at the forefront of climate change and sustainability research by and large consume meat (including fish, shrimp, and other unsustainable fisheries products) and dairy regularly, drive everywhere, and fly to multiple scientific conferences per year. If they didn’t change their transportation but changed their diet, that alone would be huge. If conferences provided better support for remote participation and focused on making their events zero waste, that would be even more significant. When the very people and institutions studying climate change can’t lead by example, how are we to expect the rest of the world to change their ways? What is it about human nature, our tendency toward cognitive dissonance, that prevents us from changing our behaviors even when we know our current behavior is detrimental to ourselves?

This is a topic I am beginning to explore in depth. We all have mental, socio-economic, or cultural barriers to change – the question is how can we learn to overcome these when we know that such change is beneficial? Based on some initial conversations I’ve had with colleagues, it appears that feeling supported (or pressured!) by peers is one important factor in whether someone chooses to change their diet. If a person is surrounded by others who eat vegan, and who enjoy cooking plant-based foods, they are more likely to adopt this lifestyle change. Many people, even those working in climate science, feel overwhelmed or intimidated by a plant-based diet because they don’t know where to start – what products to buy, what recipes to use, what restaurants they can go to, etc. Having trusted friends and family members that can guide them through this process lowers the barrier to entry in making this change.

Another key element is being exposed to pleasant plant-based meals. This is again where friends and colleagues can make a big difference, but also where organizations, companies, and restaurants can play an important role. If plant-based foods become the default option, and they taste great, people will either not notice that meat and dairy are ‘missing’ or better yet feel more inclined to choose plant-based options in the future. At scientific conferences where they have experimented with this, they’ve found that there were no riots or complaints when plant-based options were front and center; on the contrary, many people appreciated the switch or didn’t even notice. A lot of times, we make things harder for ourselves than they need to be, or assume an easy fix will be more controversial than it ends up being.

Some people are even convinced to go vegan based on watching powerful documentaries (e.g., Cowspiracy, Game Changers) or books about this topic. I went vegetarian, and later vegan, at the age of thirteen, after reading a book called ‘A Teen’s Guide to Going Vegetarian’ that opened my eyes to the horrors of factory farming and environmental and health benefits of eating plants. But for most of us, it’s ourpersonal connections that have the largest impact on our lifestyle choices, no matter how much knowledge we have about a subject via books and research papers. Community support is important for many things, and shifting behavior change is one of them – if the community is conducive to change.

I realize that terms like ‘animal cruelty’, ‘animal abuse’, ‘violence’, and ‘needless death’ make animal consumers uncomfortable. But instead of directing anger at the messengers, perhaps we need to more deeply explore why we find it hard to hear these words spoken about actions we choose to directly or indirectly support through our lifestyle choices. Did you choose to kick that injured baby cow or slice the beak off that turkey? No, of course not. But by drinking your nonfat latte (even if its organic) or eating your Thanksgiving meal, you implicitly gave permission for those actions to occur. Did you pour thousands of gallons of pig waste into river ways, or inject millions of cows with antibiotics that are creating super bugs? Again, no; but your purchases directly support industries that are doing these things. If you don’t feel good about that, you are a prime candidate for considering a plant-based lifestyle.

Not all plant agriculture is benign, of course. Choosing crops that are locally grown, organically produced, and produced by farms that pay living wages to their workers are all important things to consider no matter what you eat. Every type of food we eat has some sort of environmental consequence – but the evidence is unequivocal that raising livestock is much more intensive than growing most crops. For those people who are concerned that they aren’t able to maintain their health, or strength, or certain vitamin levels on a plant-based diet, I’ve found that often they simply haven’t received sufficient information and guidance about how to do so – or have received some of the abundant misinformation that’s out there. I’ve been vegan for over a decade and have never had abnormally low levels of B12, vitamin D, protein, or other essential nutrients or minerals.

Eating plants instead of factory-farmed animals is a no-brainer for most of us. It’s better for your health, your peace of mind, animals, and the planet as a whole. But I get that we can’t always make such a big shift on our own. I encourage you to reach out to community groups in your area to find the support and comradery to help make your transition to plant-based eating successful and enjoyable. Besides the VLB group I found (there are many VLB chapters throughout the country), I’ve found a sense of community by joining vegan potluck Meetups, animal welfare and environmental sustainability groups, and visiting local farm animal rescue centers.

If you ever have questions or want to discuss topics about plant-based eating and sustainable agriculture, I am always open to conversations. I don’t feel that forcing anyone to choose a specific diet (or worldview) is conducive to positive change, and I like to consider different perspectives and approaches. So please feel free to reach out! What challenges or barriers do you face in changing your diet or lifestyle? There is so much more I could go into about this topic, but I will save that for future posts.

In the meantime, here are just a few sources of inspiration for the vegan-curious out there. Stay tuned for more exploration in the near future.

Happy Cow website and app – helps you find vegan and vegetarian restaurants in cities around the world!

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Information about a plant-based diet for children 

Awesome, easy vegan recipes

Powerful vegan activism

Environmental impact of meat/dairy production

Inspiring new Netflix movie, The Game Changers, about top athletes who’ve gone vegan (and here’s their resources page)

The Vegan Society – Why go vegan

ASPCA facts about animals on factory farms

Negative effects of meat/dairy on human health

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Do you even empathize? How empathy training and communication can save us from ourselves

One word keeps surfacing in my mind over the past several weeks as headlines reveal the latest stream of human rights and environmental atrocities undertaken by our own government. Empathy.

As I learn of children being separated from parents in the name of border control, presidential decrees opening all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, and the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, I can’t help but wonder—what place does empathy have in our current society?

This word, coincidentally, popped up on a number of articles and videos I’ve seen recently. Obviously, I’m not the only person distraught both by these troubling media headlines and by people’s callous responses to them. Whatever the ultimate consequences of our current political leaders’ actions, they’ve certainly shone a spotlight on just how wide the spectrum of values is in our country, values that run much deeper than political views alone.

Fear Leads to the Dark Side

In a 2017 HuffPost piece titled I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People, author Kayla Chadwick expressed this growing angst over a seemingly unbreachable moral divide among U.S. citizens:

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.”

Chadwick implies that today’s conservative values reflect a lack of empathy for those in need (especially those outside your immediate family/ingroup), instead emphasizing one’s own financial wellbeing over others. While I agree it’s pretty obvious that the current Republican administration is driven by self-aggrandizement above all else, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute our country’s steady loss of empathy and compassion to one particular political party. To me, lack of empathy seems to correlate with a much more deeply rooted tendency that knows no political boundaries—greed.

Greed is closely allied with fear; i.e., the fear of losing possessions, losing power, and losing one’s sense of identity. “Our society is paralyzed by fear, making our compassion paralyzed,” says Dr. Joan Halifax, a medical anthropologist and Zen practitioner. Halifax argues that compassion is an inherent human quality, but stimulating this compassion often relies on activating specific conditions.michael-fenton-512963-unsplash.jpgIn other words, you can’t force someone to feel empathy. But what you may be able to do is provide the right enabling conditions that allow feelings of empathy and emotion to emerge. This concept of ‘compassion cultivation’ isn’t just the fancy of new-age healers and Buddhist monks. Plenty of scientific and medical studies have shown that feelings such as compassion, altruism, and empathy can be enhanced via specialized training—and that the results are beneficial to the individual as well as society at large.

Stanford University’s medical center, for example, has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education that hosts workshops and other specialized trainings that teach participants ‘how to train your mind to intentionally choose compassionate thoughts and actions and develop skills that help you relate to others—and yourself.’ Their courses, designed by clinical psychologists and researchers from Stanford, include lectures, discussions, meditations, breathing practices and more to help people reduce their anxiety and build their emotional resilience in professional and personal environments.

This type of self-introspection training stretches far back to ancient eastern philosophical traditions, including Vedic and Buddhist teachings, centered on compassion via mindfulness and equanimity – meaning that you can cultivate feelings of compassion by listening to your inner voice, strengthening intuition, remaining calm in the face of adversity, and being present in each moment.

Empathetic Science?

In this era of runaway capitalism and blatant disregard for scientific consensus, what does it mean to be a scientist and a concerned citizen? Historically, being a credible scientist meant remaining objective and apolitical. But can scientists afford to stay disconnected from today’s critical ethical and moral crises? Or can they maintain credibility and perhaps even build more trust in science by engaging more fully in ethical and moral debates?

According to climate scientist Sarah Moffit in a recent interview with Grist Magazine, being a scientist and an advocate do not have to be mutually exclusive. “I think you can be both rigorous and objective and be human at the same time,” she says. “And I have come to a place where I’m no longer willing to divorce my humanity from the science that I have participated in and am stewarding.”

As a science communicator, I’ve come to see my role as a science empathizer and a human empathizer. In other words, I am committed to accurately communicating about scientific research, and equally committed to understanding human values and concerns—ideally breaking down barriers of understanding.

My goal is also to make us stop and think about the way our worldviews and cultures shape our assumptions about reality as much as (or more than) factual knowledge does, and how these assumptions often lead to misconceptions, fear, and prejudice. Many research studies have proven that our perception of ‘factual truth’ is shaped by our partisan beliefs and bias.

Even our ability to discern whether a statement is fact or opinion is based on whether we agree with the statement. The more we can reflect on our individual subjective experiences and how they affect our connection the world, the better we will be able to empathize with the views and experiences of others. We don’t have to share the exact same values to respect and empathize with others—we only need the capacity to be self-reflective and to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Science, philosophy, and intuition tell us that cultivating empathy and compassion is beneficial to our own health and wellbeing (including immunity, psychological health, and spiritual growth), that of our friends and family, and that of society as a whole. What greater reason could there be to emphasize these qualities in a time when they are needed perhaps more than ever?

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National Geographic Finds a Cash Cow in the Dairy Industry

A troubling Facebook post popped onto my feed the other day:

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It’s a National Geographic post sponsored by Land O’Lakes, a large American agribusiness and food company.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Arguably, news media and private businesses have always been in bed together. ‘Sponsored’ or ‘branded’ content, more recently called ‘native advertising’, is certainly not a new thing. But in today’s era of endless streams of online media, the line between organic content and sponsored messages is more blurred than ever. And when an entity like National Geographic—perceived by many as a trusted source for stories about nature, science, and exploration—starts sharing content sponsored by corporate special interests it begins to violate that trust.

Dairy’s Modern Life

If you click on the post link, you’re taken to a 360-camera tour of a dairy farm (at least, three very short video segments of one particular farm). You can click on various icons throughout the page to read short (very short) blurbs about the milking process. While this visual story-telling approach is in itself interesting, the sponsored content is obviously tailored to give an impression that dairy farms are clean, friendly, and innocuous environments. Some small, ethically minded dairy farms may indeed fit this description, at least to the extent possible when the intensive use of living creatures is involved.

But the typical modern American dairy farm does not fit this description in the least. Most of America’s milk is produced in largescale facilities where dairy cows are separated from their calves soon after giving birth and continually injected with hormones to keep them producing milk. They spend most of their time indoors or in crowded pens, are fed unnatural feed (lots of soy, corn, and canola instead of grass), and are sent to slaughter after approximately 4 years (the natural lifespan of a cow is 15-20 years or more). In addition, large dairy facilities can lead to local air and water quality issues due to excess manure and other waste. Then there’s the many allegations and documentation of brutal animal abuse in industrial dairies over the years (like this one, or this, and here’s another).

None of this is mentioned in the NatGeo post, of course. They only provide a few short sentences praising how well the cows are cared for (including how comfortable they are), how well they are fed (without explaining their feed is not what cows evolved to digest), and how streamlined the process is. #ThanksLandOLakes.

My point is not to point fingers at any particular dairy farmer. But the industry as a whole is problematic on many levels, and this is no secret. US Dairy sales are in decline, and the industry is scrambling to compete with the plethora of alternative ‘milks’ now on the market. Why couldn’t NatGeo discuss this challenge, and point to some of the innovative dairy farmers that are adopting meaningful sustainability and animal rights standards? My guess is because that wasn’t what Land O’Lakes paid for.

Can’t Pull the Wool Over Our Eyes

Ironically, NatGeo’s sponsored post seems to have backfired, at least initially. Roughly 95% of post comments were from angry or disappointed readers who couldn’t believe NatGeo would publish corporate agribusiness propaganda. Here’s just a spattering of typical responses:

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A few commenters did express support for farmers, but not a single comment last I checked supported either Land O’Lakes or the fact that this was sponsored content. Seeing this strong negative response, I have to wonder: what were NatGeo marketers thinking when they posted such controversial sponsored content? Do they just not care as long as they get funding from sponsors? Or do any clicks and comments, regardless of the reason or type of response, count as a win for NatGeo analytics? Did they just really misjudge how their target audience would respond?

I don’t have an answer to these questions. Perhaps some of you, savvy readers, know more about this than I do and have hypotheses or insights? The frustrating thing is that most large companies never seem to respond to commenters, either to answer their questions or challenge their negative responses, so we may never know what the NatGeo folks behind the magic curtain actually intended with this campaign. I’ve seen the same sort of audience backlash to posts from companies like Starbucks as well as media outlets like NowThis, and the same silence in response. Do these companies ever have to do damage control in the wake of such incidents?

There is no Santa Claus

After I saw this post, I actually ‘unliked’ the NatGeo page. I did so with a tinge of regret, thinking of the future wildlife and nature stories I’d miss. But it felt like the only thing I could do to show my disappointment in a company, a ‘brand’, I had put my trust in since childhood.

When the Murdoch Fox media empire bought out National Geographic’s magazine and TV network a few years back, NatGeo was transformed into a for-profit company. While this may have helped save an entity facing slacking magazine sales and a changing cable TV landscape, the reality is that the acquisition forever changed the ethics and culture of the company (side note: The National Geographic Society is itself still a non-profit entity; but the NatGeo magazine, TV channel, and other media are now owned by Fox).

Realizing that National Geographic is just another company with a bottom line was as sucky as learning that Santa Claus isn’t real. Maybe I was just naïve. But I don’t think I’m alone in my disillusionment. Many wildlife scientists, writers, videographers and photographers have dreamt for much of their lives of working for National Geographic—myself included. It was the ultimate goal, the standard with which we compared all other jobs—the equivalent for scientists of getting a paper published in Science or Nature.

Transparency: It Does a Body (and a Company) Good

It seems only natural that seeing corporate-sponsored content would leave a bitter taste in many of our mouths. I don’t think that National Geographic is evil because of its affiliations, or that the Society doesn’t serve a good purpose by providing stories about the planet and its wonders, and funding great scientific research around the world. No company, organization, or person can ever be completely ethically pure. To complicate things, ethics are an ever-evolving subject that are often very specific to the time and place within which they are embedded. However, certain ethical boundaries are fairly obvious based on public reaction when they are crossed.

NatGeo’s sponsored post certainly seemed to cross one such boundary, resulting in public backlash and perhaps even some very real (however small) consequences in the form of lost viewers and subscribers. While the growth of ‘native content’ is disconcerting, I find comfort in the fact that viewers aren’t so easily fooled. Nor are they afraid to raise their voices in protest when they feel integrity has been compromised or truths distorted. I can only hope that continued pushback by wary audiences will help guide corporate ethics toward greater transparency and responsibility.

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What do YOU think about organizations sharing sponsored content? What examples have you seen that have made you raise an eyebrow? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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A few bits of information about the dairy industry that National Geographic did not include in its 360 video exploration of a dairy farm.