Monday, May 30, 2011

What I Have Learned from Exploring Veganism

At the risk of rushing to conclusions, here are a few things I have learned.

1.  There is no simple principle behind veganism. It is not, or not only, about not killing animals; it is not just about domination; it is not about exploitation except perhaps where eating is concerned; and it is not about the "natural" inclination of humans.  I have come to think that veganism is a lifestyle that works for people who wish to think about their relationship with animals and the planet at all times.  Thoughtful veganism is hard work; consistent thoughtful veganism is yet harder.

2.  Veganism is not quite like an orthodox religion.  Each practitioner comes to his or her own balance.  Still a curious and intellectual vegan must think about actions so often that it is a bit like a religion which requires many prayer sessions a day.

3. The eating is easy.  Breakfast with friends and family was the hardest thing, but otherwise there always seemed to be things to eat.  If I liked fruit more, even the breakfasts would have been easier.

4.  I saved the lives of a few animals this month (not counting the extra few that might have died while the farmer harvested his field for my quinoa).  Right now that feels good but I am not sure that feeling will stay with me.

5.  What I enjoyed most about my vegan experience:

* Discovering new foods
* Seeing the deep differences between vegetarianism and veganism
* Discussing veganism and vegetarianism with others
* Becoming better informed (for example, a real highlight for me was reading and thinking about Kleiber's Law, discussed in my post on evolution)
* Best of all was running into people who had read my blog and reading comments from people who have thought about these things much more than I have.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Hard Question for My Readers and Me

Every farmer knows that small animals are killed in the process of farming.  I do not just mean insects.  A big efficient combine keeps food costs down, but as it goes through the amber fields of grain, thousands of cute little animals (and some not so cute) are caught up in the process and killed.  This fact, popularized in Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," is one of those inconvenient truths.  The inconvenience may be greater for the vegetarian than the vegan.  If eating reasonably priced grains and vegetables inevitably causes the slaughter of mice, rabbits, and other little animals, then what is gained by not eating meat?  One response might be that surely more animals are killed for direct consumption than by accident while harvesting grain.  This is not necessarily so.  One source reports a bit too gleefully that switching to a diet heavier in beef and chicken would save 300 million animal lives over a vegan diet.  One answer may be that deliberate killing is much worse than accidental killing.  The Curious Vegan is thus far not impressed with such a distinction, especially when the accidental deaths are predictable and well known.

I have learned, in the course of blogging, not to demand consistency, and especially not in veganism.  Still, this question bothers me.

Factory Farms and CAFOs

Critics of the food industry refer to commercial food making facilities as factory farms.  That term has certainly crept into common usage.  The industry -- government regulators included -- dislikes this expression and categorizes farms by size.  The overall term is AFO, or Animal Feeding Operation, a subset of which are CAFOs, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations.  I recommend the wikipedia sites: AFOCAFO, and Factory Farming.

Government regulation can be under the Environmental Protection Act (Clean Air and Clean Water), through local zoning laws, and by way of suits brought by neighbors.  It is immediately apparent that large farms are regulated more than small farms -- somewhat contrary to my argument in the previous blog.  Nevertheless, large farms dominate the market.  It may be that "organic" farms and other operations seeking to distinguish themselves from factory farms, are careful to stay under the size that attracts regulation.  There are more small farms than large ones, but the bulk of what we eat comes from large farms.  For example, there were once one million pig farms; 80,000 now accommodate as many pigs as those million did.

Meat Market

This is a book by Erik Marcus, who is also known for his blog, (a welcoming, how-to blog, with links to useful sites for new vegans) and for "Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating" and "The Ultimate Vegan Guide: Compassionate Living Without Sacrifice."

"Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money,"(see that link for the interesting history of the ampersand) recounts the uncomfortable reality of factory farming and then moves to a discussion of how to organize a better "dismantlement" movement.  Marcus sketches the limitations of the vegetarian movement (it does not address things like egg laying chickens in cages, and it "emphasize[s] celebration over action"), the animal rights movement (Marcus is an admirer, but the movement loses popular support when it is against medical research and performs publicity stunts), and the animal welfare movement (even as it draws attention to a widespread cruelty, another one pops up). Some of his dismantlement ideas include: reforming school lunch programs, ending grazing subsidies, and putting NIH scientists rather than the USDA in charge of nutrition information.  It is interesting that this was the first book I read that tackled the consumption of fish.  Marcus describes commercial fishing as factory farms underwater.

Marcus is idealistic, and The Curious Vegan is more practical.  For example, fish farms provide one of the few alternatives to overfishing that do not require either a change in habit by a large percentage of the Earth's population or reform in one of the murkier areas of regulation. Aquaculture has of course grown; it was 3.9% of the world's seafood production by 1970 and it was 27.3% by 2000. If fish farms were outlawed, many humans would continue to eat fish and more serious overfishing would follow. We have forty years' experience with international fishing treaties and the tragedy of the commons remains.

Similarly, we must be careful when we wish for regulation.  Regulation has raised the cost of food production and probably encouraged the growth of large factory farms -- where animal welfare advocates see the greatest problems. This reminds me of the aftermath of Sinclair's "The Jungle."  Following publication of that book, meat sales dropped 25%.  New regulations were then introduced which made consumers feel safer. The regulations, however, appeared to drive small meatpackers out of business.  I doubt there was an overall effect on animal welfare, and it is certainly the case that as many or more animals were killed for food.  Perhaps The Curious Vegan should be renamed The Skeptical Vegan.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Vegan Eating in Chicago, Round Two

The Curious Vegan has already extolled Karyn's on Green.  A return visit was just as good.  The "Crab Cakes" consisting of grilled bok choy, rosemary aioli, and yukon gold pepperonata were fantastic, and the sliders as good as before.  The Curious Vegan invited friends to Handlebar where I recommend the Blackened Tofu Fajitas.  The Samosas and Guacamole were also excellent.  This place is not entirely vegan, but the waiters are helpful and the menu facilitates separating the vegans from the vegetarians -- not to mention those willing to eat fish.  The Curious Vegan has also been to Chicago Diner where I can recommend the "wings," the BBQ Bacon Cheezeburger (neither bacon nor cheese, of course), and especially the vegan shake.  I have noticed that vegan/soy drinks are heavier on the chocolate; over time I would learn to dilute them with regular soy milk.  I have been filling out my meals with prepared food from Whole Foods (I continue to like the tofu dishes from the food bar) and a variety of rice and quinoa dishes at home.  I like soy milk a bit too much, and it is perhaps unfortunate that french fries can be vegan friendly.

My High School graduation looms ahead.  My family has reserved a large table at a Chicago steakhouse, and people frequently ask me whether I will continue with veganism after June 2nd when my Senior Project is due to end.  I think this is unlikely but I have gained a newfound appreciation for many of the vegan restaurants and dishes.  I do not think that I will be repulsed when meat is put before me, but only time will tell.


"Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows" by Melanie Joy is another book that focuses on both factory farms, the meat industry, and eating habits.  The author is convinced that knowledge, or simply transparency, would alter the behavior of many meat eaters -- and also egg and milk consumers.  She suggests a Surgeon General's warning on all meat.   The title is provocative.  We are taught to love dogs and eat pigs, and thus most Americans think, incorrectly, that dogs are smarter than pigs. Similarly, pigs roll in the mud not because they enjoy filth, but because, lacking sweat glands, that is the only way to dump excess heat.  One interesting observation is that factory farms are often in remote locations, and this contributes to our ignorance and indifference to animal welfare.

Did Humans Evolve to Eat Meat or to be Vegan?

The Curious Vegan has only eight days left to complete his school project and his period of temporary veganism.  My current reading has taken me to some psychology and some anthropology.  The anthropology is interesting but descriptive rather than normative.  It is inevitable that people who feel strongly about eating meat or not eating meat will grasp for evolutionary arguments in their favor.  However, The Curious Vegan has been trained to be positive.  To take an extreme example, humans might "naturally" kill competitor humans or even step-children, but that hardly teaches us to be killers when our turn comes.  Indeed, our legal system has good reason to fight and discourage those "natural" inclinations.

In the case of meat, the anthropological question is whether humans are "naturally" meat eaters, or vegetarians, or even vegans or raw vegans.  Humans have less impressive teeth than lions; we are slower than cheetahs; we cannot swim in pursuit of smaller fish; we cannot fish well with our "bear" hands; our "paws" do not fell gazelle; and our thumbs are arguably excellent for gathering nuts and fruits.  It is easy to see why many people jump to the conclusion that we are natural vegetarians.  On the other hand, it is easy to get carried away with this kind of thinking.  Gorillas have very impressive canines and yet they are mostly herbivores.  One cannot look at an animal and draw quick conclusions about its natural diet, if there is such a thing.

Then I read an interesting article that convinced me that there is a strong case for the idea that, in fact, humans evolved because they (we) ate meat.  We are what we ate, I guess.  Here is the argument.  Larger animals have higher metabolic rates.  Max Kleiber, between 1947 and 1961, showed that the metabolic rate of virtually any animal could be determined by knowing its body size.  We produce more heat than does a rat, and a horse produces more heat than do we.  On the other hand, there is a negative correlation between body size and metabolic rate per kilogram.  These two correlations form the basis of Kleiber's Law. Kleiber's Law thus connects body weight and metabolic rate among many observed species.  The law can also be used to estimate the metabolic rate of extinct creatures.  The problem with this is that it says nothing about brain size and we know that the brain uses an enormous amount of energy.  If the total energy is the energy used or required by all the organs, and the human brain is much larger than the brains of earlier hominids, then it stands to reason that either the energy produced of humans is higher than for other hominids or another organ has shrunk so that it uses less energy.  Assuming Kleiber's Law is correct, only the second option remains.  Only a few of the human organs use significant energy.  The brain, the heart, the kidneys, the gastro-intestinal tract, and the liver use the vast majority of the energy.  In fact, when humans are compared to similar-sized primates, it turns out that the GI tract in humans is smaller by an amount almost identical to the increase in mass of the human brain.  The human brain grew, and the human guts shrunk to compensate for the increased demand of the brain.  This could only happen if a change in the diet allowed a smaller gut to process food sufficiently.  This, in turn, would require a "higher quality diet."  In short, if we had remained on a diet high in vegetation, as gorillas do, we would not have been able to expand our brains.   It is common to attribute the larger brain to the advantages of co-operation and other complex group activities, but of course gorillas would also benefit from larger brains.

There were at least two big steps in brain size.  One can be associated with the introduction of meat into the human diet and the other with the introduction of cooking.  Cooked meat is yet easier to digest than raw meat.  Cooked vegetables are also easier to digest than raw vegetables, but the first step focuses attention on meat, because the introduction of cooked vegetables would not explain both steps.

The Curious Vegan refuses to make a final normative jump.  It is tempting to say that if we evolved because we ate meat, we should not stop now.  However, I have already cautioned against legislating our present and future behavior on the basis of the evolutionary past.