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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10 Signs You’re in a SoCal Coffee Shop

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and depressed with the daily entourage of negative news media. While I mainly use my blog to explore meaningful connections between society, science, and the environment, yesterday I couldn’t help but create a silly Infographic to distract myself for just a few minutes from the absurd world around me.

I recently moved back to Southern California (albeit the northern extremity), and its been entertaining to note the difference in atmosphere and general crowds, particularly in places like hip coffee shops. Don’t get me wrong – I love good coffee and admit that I’ll spend several dollars for an organic oat milk latte. I love sitting under an umbrella outside one of the many local coffee shops near me, sipping on cold brew with my chihuahua in my lap. I get it; I’m part of the stereotype.

But at the same time I’m self-conscious of it and basically pinch myself every day to remind myself to be grateful for my surroundings and not to take it for granted. I guess you could say I have a love/hate relationship with SoCal.

So, without further ado, I present to you the Top Ten Signs You’re in A Southern California Coffee Shop:

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The Plant-Eater’s Dilemma

“The world is a fabric of suffering and pleasure; in every action, good and evil dance together like a pair of lovers.”

Alejandro Jodorowsky

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Earlier this year I joined some colleagues for lunch, and they decided to try out a local poke restaurant (poke, if you happen to have missed the rise of this ultra trendy cuisine, is a raw fish salad made popular in Hawaii). I eat a plant-based diet, but hoped that—since this was southern California—there would be a tofu bowl or other veggie option.

When it was my turn to order, I asked my waiter if they had any vegan options. He seemed unsure what I meant so asked his manager, who responded that they could make me a seaweed bowl. Then, the waiter asked me tentatively, “You know seaweed is alive, right? Is that okay for you to eat?”

My first response was to laugh out loud at the fact that he didn’t realize seaweed was a plant, not an animal. But then I thought for a second. Although it wasn’t his intention, the waiter’s question hit a deep philosophical nerve inside me that all vegans and vegetarians must confront at some point—what truly is the difference between eating plants versus animals? As if he was channeling a Buddhist monk, this man’s question innocently drove to the very root of our human dilemma: by our nature, we must consume other living things and thus cause suffering in one form or another—so where do we draw the line of “allowable” suffering? Well played, sir!

Of course, each of us creates our own moral boundaries, and no two are exactly the same. Nearly all religions evolved to address this very question of how we conduct ourselves in a ‘savage’ world, and most include at least a few dietary taboos. For example, the Jain religion of India, which dates back to the 6th century and is still practiced today, asserts that humans should not eat the flesh or eggs of animals, and should avoid any injury to sentient beings—even by stepping on insects (the most ascetic Jains carry a broom to sweep an area before they walk or sit on it to clear away any bugs etc. that could be harmed). However, many Jains, while avoiding meat and eggs, still consume dairy products, wear leather or silk, or partake in other activities that directly or indirectly cause suffering to animals. As with all of us, even Jains have to draw a line somewhere as long as they exist in this world. That line seems often to be drawn at ‘intent’; doing your best to avoid intentional harm while accepting that by living and breathing we will inevitably cause unintentional harm.

In a similar vein, most vegans and vegetarians choose to avoid animal products for ethical reasons, whether out of a desire to reduce animal suffering, or to reduce their environmental footprint. I am not going to go into the topic of sustainability in relation to large-scale agribusiness and meat production in this post, but I’ve covered that topic in some of my past blogs including this one.

The most dedicated vegans not only avoid consuming animal-based foods, but also clothing and other products either made with or tested on animals. Side note: this is more difficult than it sounds—I only recently found out that most wine isn’t technically vegan, because the filtration process usually involves some sort of gelatin (sourced from fish, cows or pigs), egg whites, or casein (a milk protein). But even the most hardcore vegans can’t avoid causing suffering on some levels: eating plants still involves the killing of insects and microbes (not to mention the killing or ‘harming’ of the plants themselves) and has a carbon footprint. And if you choose only to live on air? Well, you would still inhale microbes that get destroyed by our own immune systems. You can’t win.

Thus the unavoidable conclusion: life is suffering.

How do we cope with such a conclusion, as beings that are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to feel such strong compassion? Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom I quote at the beginning of this blog, has spent the majority of his life and career as an artist exploring this uniquely human paradox. One of Jodorowsky’s childhood memories, which he recreates in surrealist style in his film ‘The Dance of Reality’, illustrates his inner turmoil. He recalls a time when, as a boy of 6, he wanders down to the beach and witnesses huge numbers of sardines washing ashore and dying. He tries to scoop them up and throw them back into the sea, but they keep washing up in greater numbers. Seagulls start to gather and snatch sardines out of his hands.

“The world was offering me two options,” Jodorowsky writes. “I could suffer with the anguish of the sardines, or I could rejoice at the good fortune of the seagulls. The balance tilted toward joy when I say a crowd of poor people—men, women, and children—chasing away the birds and gathering up every last fish with frenetic enthusiasm. The balance tilted toward sadness when I saw the gulls, deprived of their banquet, pecking dejectedly at the few morsels that remained on the beach.”

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This one scene encapsulates the whole of life’s joy and sorrow. What nourishes one, depletes another—at least in the physical world. To cope, many philosophers would argue, we must find a higher purpose or cause that gives meaning to the suffering. Some find this through religion, others through charity or vocation.

The biologist and philosophical thinker Ed Ricketts (author John Steinbeck’s close friend and inspiration for the character Doc in his classic Cannery Row) spent years developing his concept of ‘breaking through’ to address this same dilemma. Similar to the concept of enlightenment, breaking through referred to the ability to move from a state of suffering to a state of peace and joy. But Rickett’s version took a more intellectual slant; he described ‘breaking through’ as reaching a heightened state of understanding that could lead to solutions for a given problem—including societal problems such as poverty and racism. As Sagarin and Crowder (2007) write: “Ricketts acknowledged that breakthroughs were driven by passionate conviction and adherence to a cause or belief. He wrote, “Its most common vehicle is love, love of a cause, of people, of a person”.”

It all comes down to love. It’s the simplest truth we know and yet the hardest to adhere to. If we do our best to act out of love, than we can reduce suffering and perhaps even reach our own breakthroughs, spiritual or otherwise. For some people, acting out of love means avoiding all animal products. For others, it means making thoughtful choices about what they eat or what they buy or how they act in other ways.

If your main goal is to have a low carbon footprint, you may choose to avoid meat and dairy but still eat mussels and oysters, since bivalves can be sustainably cultured with little energy input or harm to other organisms; plus, there’s evidence (though not definitive) that sessile bivalves don’t feel any more ‘pain’ than plants when harvested. Others would argue, however, that plants do have some of the capabilities of sentient beings, such as the ability to communicate with each other and respond to danger. Without central nervous systems, however, its unlikely plants have any sense similar to ‘pain.’ In my opinion, it all comes back to making thoughtful choices, and showing gratitude and respect for the resources available to us—whether they are plants, animals, soil, rock, or water. If we could revitalize more widely the ancient practice of paying respect to the food we consume, perhaps this gratitude would spill over into other aspects of our lives.

I’ll admit that sometimes I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that many of my friends are passionate about conserving the ocean and saving wildlife, but still choose to eat unsustainable seafood, or beef and pork from factory farms. But then I remind myself that I often drive a regular car that runs on fossil fuel instead of riding a bike, and I buy foods wrapped in plastic when I could choose to avoid them. Rather than developing guilt complexes about all the things we do ‘wrong’ or finger pointing at others who do so, we could put that energy towards building empathy and compassion for each other as well as other living things.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

So ultimately, was I okay with eating seaweed? By the time my order arrived, I wasn’t so sure. Ironically, I was mistakenly served a poke bowl filled with raw fish, and had to send it back for the seaweed bowl. I had to hope that although I didn’t eat the fish that had been prepared for me, it wouldn’t go to waste. I had inadvertently caused undo waste and suffering by ordering the vegan dish. Morality is a complicated game. When my seaweed bowl finally arrived, fish-free this time, I acknowledged the effort and life that went into the meal and ate it without complaint.

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