Monday, December 3, 2012

Top Three Reasons People Do, and Don’t, Go Vegan

Spoiler alert:  There is only one reason why people don’t go vegan. 
It was once common for families to raise livestock.

"I Could Never Go Vegan Because I Would Miss Meat and Cheese Too Much!"

Do you know anyone whose favorite food is Brussels sprouts?  Corn?  Green bell peppers?  I don’t.  Despite the increasing popularity and awareness of what it is to go vegan, most people still do not like the idea of missing out on the foods they love.  

What is the one food you would miss the most if you went vegan?  A tender juicy steak comes to my mind, cooked medium-rare, with a nice glass of merlot.  There is no vegan substitute for a good steak, but you can increase your standards, therefore reducing the amount of steak you allow yourself to enjoy.  Indulging once per year will prevent you from slipping too far down the rabbit hole of justifications, like, “My sister is in town,” “It’s the weekend,” or, “It’s Tuesday.”

I enjoyed the most heavenly filet this weekend when my boyfriend took me out for a birthday dinner.  In this case, I felt justified to cheat.  My birthday only comes around once a year, and how do I know it won’t be my last?  Besides, everyone knows we’re all going to die in a few weeks when December 21, 2012 rolls around.

As I write this, the travel channel is doing a feature on chocolate covered bacon treats sprinkled with sea salt.  If I were traveling and had the opportunity to try something like this, I would.  Not because I’m a pig or because I have no willpower, but because I’m only going to live once, and life is short.

Yes, I want to ring in the year 2100 with my great-great grandchildren, and the only way I’m going to do that is by taking care of my body.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t involve fried ice cream.  But I also want my epitaph to read, “Lived life to the fullest,” a sentiment I cannot fulfill without enjoying the most amazing culinary delights known to man…i.e. bacon dipped in chocolate covered in salt.

Denying yourself steak, bacon, or any other food you really, really love (cheesecake anyone?) may seem like a depressing prospect. While vegans may be missing out on some of the best foods Mother Nature (and scientists) ever made available to the human race (pizza rolls!), vegans will also likely enjoy a longer and more quality life.  Although debate continues as to what comprises the “perfect” diet, there is plenty of evidence that suggests an all-vegan diet prolongs life by warding off two of the most common causes of death in the U.S. according to the Center for Disease Control: heart disease and cancer.

By the way, “accidents” in the form of “unintentional injuries” is the number five leading cause of death in the U.S. behind stroke and respiratory disease, so striking a balance between prolonging and enjoying life is important I feel.

Top Reasons Most People Go Vegan

The number of reasons people go vegan is greater than I could name here, however; there are several that top the charts:

  1. I want to live a healthier lifestyle
  2. Raising animals for meat and milk is cruel and inhumane.
  3. Eating meat is bad for the environment and bad for the health of the world.

Going Vegan for your Health

The diet of a vegan is known to be healthier than that of a non-vegan.  Animal tissue and animal byproducts in the form of red meat, white meat, milk, cheese, eggs, cream, and other animal byproducts (think gelatin), contains cholesterol and saturated fat.  There is no such thing as meat or dairy that does not contain saturated fat.  Furthermore, many common foods today that are made using processed meat (hot dogs, fast food, frozen meals, and snacks) contain sodium nitrite, a preservative that is known to cause cancer.  

Saturated fat, cholesterol, and preservatives contribute to the top two causes of death in the U.S.  Heart disease and cancer are today’s serial killers, just as the plagues were of the dark ages, and there is no denying, neither among the scientific community or otherwise, that consuming large and frequent amounts of red meat contributes to these conditions.  Throw in a lack of exercise, and you’re begging for an early heart attack. 

Even if you aren’t 100% vegan, like I am not, a mere reduction in meat and dairy from your diet slows the buildup of arterial plaque and diminishes the amount of harmful preservatives entering your body.  Substitute real cheese with veggie cheese just 50% of the time.  Make it a point to buy veggie crumbles in the place of ground beef next time you make spaghetti with meat sauce.  I guarantee your family will not notice the difference. 

Could You Kill a Chicken?

My grandmother, MeauxMeaux, told me that she learned how to kill a chicken by snapping its neck real quick so the chicken doesn’t suffer any pain.  Back in her day, most families raised their food on small family farms, and it was common to slaughter and process animals at home.  Not until commercial refrigerators became available in the 1940’s and 50’s did grocery stores begin carrying fresh meat in bulk.  

Today, most people in the U.S. and other first-world countries do not need to come into contact with the animals that produce their food.  Slaughtering and processing is taken care of by commercial farms and corporate food companies.  A cow goes into one end of the conveyor belt and, voila! It auto-magically comes out the other end as a ready-to-cook T-bone wrapped in a sanitized plastic packaging.

So ask yourself a question:  Would you continue to eat meat if you had to do all of the killing? 
I can honestly say that I represent one of the most common types of hypocrites in the U.S. when it comes to using animals as food.  While I disagree with the way animals are treated within the food production supply chain, and while I would never want to actually kill a cow or a chicken unless my very survival depended on it (think apocalypse situation where literally no other food is available), I really enjoyed my birthday steak dinner the other night.  How twisted is that?  

And it’s not only the act of killing the animal.  It’s raising an animal in a way that only takes into account the quantity and quality of meat or animal byproduct that can be produced within a given square footage and/or with a set amount of money.  Why?  Because it costs money to raise livestock, and, like any other free-market business, the primary goal of both the meat and dairy industry is to make money.  

Freakishly-Large Breasts!

Ever wonder where those voluptuous chicken breasts come from that you love to eat?  Not cosmetic surgery, but something similar by human standards:  growth hormones.  

Growth hormones are administered to chickens, cows, and other livestock for the purpose of increasing the animal’s mass.  This means more pounds per animal and a higher margin.  Yes, big-breasted chickens may not be able to walk due to the disproportionate size of their front side, and yes, dairy cows live their lives in a perpetual state of agonizing pain as their utters stay full of ungodly amounts of milk at all times to produce the expected six to seven gallons-per-day average.  But isn’t it worth being able to go to the grocery store at any time of the day or night and purchase a gallon of any kind of milk you want, any kind of steak you want, and any part of a chicken you want, without having to see any of this freak show taking place.

To top it off, most of us don’t think twice as we decide, mid-meal, that we aren’t hungry any longer and throw away half of what’s on our plate because we don’t want to go to the trouble of wrapping up the leftovers.

Yes, the animal food production supply chain is definitely a scour on the underbelly of the U.S.  ‘Nuf said.

The Meat Industry and the Environment – It’s More than Just Cow Farts

An annoying co-worker of mine once said she didn’t agree that the meat industry contributes to global warming because, “cows can’t possibly fart that much.”  In her attempt at humor, she illustrated a poignant myth among non-environmentalists:  that the beef industry accounts for an immeasurably small percentage of total methane emissions in the U.S.  This could not be further from the truth.  

According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), 50% of global methane emissions are related to human-related activities.  Enteric fermentation and manure management are among the top five largest methane-producing activities caused by humans. 

Enteric fermentation, or cow farts, accounts for over 20% of total methane emissions in 2009.  Manure management accounted for another 7% of total.

But it’s more than just cow farts and poop.  Other ways in which the beef, dairy, and livestock industry harm both the environment and societies include:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions (in addition to cow farts).
  • Global starvation due to corn and grain supply issues.
  • Degradation of water quality and extinction of marine life.

How to Prevent Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Going Vegan

The meat and dairy industries are responsible for the emission of between five and eight billion tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere each year, according to Scientific American on a report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.  This is roughly 14 – 22% of the total amount of greenhouse gas, including all transportation and all other industry.  Greenhouse gasses include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and other gasses that create an atmospheric barrier, trapping heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere. 

While some people continue to hold fast to the idea that global warming “doesn’t exist” or that humans have not caused global warming, the entire world-wide scientific community, including the most conservative and God-fearing American scientists, agree that 1.) Global warming is a reality, and 2.) Humans have made a significant contribution to the current global warming situation.  So those who say they don’t “believe” in global warming are just making themselves sound stupid.  I live in the south where this way of thinking is actually quite common, in case any reasonable person who has read this far was wondering why I felt it necessary to throw this in.  But I digress.

The meat industry is a top offender of greenhouse gas emissions because it takes so much energy to raise cattle.  Here’s a quick run-down, according to the meat men themselves, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association:

  • There are over 92 million beef cattle in the U.S.
  • It takes 80 million acres of land to grow all of America’s corn.  Over half of all corn grown in the U.S. goes to feed beef and dairy cows, in addition to other livestock.

There must be a constant and steady supply of corn and grain to feed the cattle.  The corn and grain needed to feed America’s cows is staggering. 

To produce all that corn and grain, you need lots of land cleared out, fertilized, plowed, harvested, and rotated each year.  This takes heavy machinery, which runs off diesel fuel.  If it’s run off of bio-diesel, it takes even more corn being grown to produce the fuel to run the machines that harvest the corn for the cows to eat…(breath)….so that you and I can pay $8.99/lb. for a rib eye at the grocery store.

Grow Corn to Feed Humans, not Machines

According to Harvard International Review, 33% of all corn grown in the U.S. is “converted into fuel while nearly 60 percent of the world population goes hungry.  Apparently, there are more malnourished people alive on Earth today than ever before in history.  If that doesn’t make you feel guilty for not being a better steward of the enormous fortune you inherited by simply being born in the U.S., I don’t know what would.

According to Michael A. Cremo & Mukunda Goswami in a book titled “Divine Nature,” the “amount of corn and oats required to produce one 8 oz. beef steak could fill the bowls of at least 45 hungry humans."  Long story short:  instead of growing corn to produce ethanol to power farm equipment to grow more corn to feed beef cattle to feed humans, we could just grow corn to feed humans.

Save Our Water!

Downstream impacts (no pun intended) of the meat and dairy industries include severe water quality degradation from fertilizer and nitrate run-off.  Because of low soil quality caused by over-farming, farmers must use more fertilizers to grow the same amount of corn.  With the increase in fertilizer usage in the U.S. and the virtual non-existence of any meaningful regulation of the use of these chemicals, aquatic ecosystems are suffering.

Fertilizers are the number one cause of aquatic “dead zones,” or underwater areas containing little to no marine life.  Dead zones can be found in rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and other bodies of water across the U.S. and throughout the world.  Here’s how dead zones are created

  1. Fertilizers, phosphates, and nitrates get washed downstream from farm fields after it rains.  Depending on where the farm is located, the water run-off inevitably ends up in one of several major watersheds.  For example, most major streams and rivers in America’s mid-west farming heartland eventually end up in the Mississippi River.  And we all know where the mighty Mississippi goes. 
  2. The fertilizers and phosphates feed algae, a fast-growing plant that blooms into suffocating clouds in the water.  The algae blooms quickly cut off oxygen to other plants and invertebrates living there.
  3. Once the algae blooms reach critical mass, the population tanks and everything dies. 

According to Harvard International Review, “corn uses more fertilizer today than any other crop grown, and the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer in corn production results in nitrogen leaking from cornfields, the prime reason for the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The result has been a serious reduction in fish and shrimp production.”

The dead zone in the Mississippi River Delta region of the Gulf of Mexico is estimated to be the largest in the world, ranging in size between 6,000 – 7,000 square miles in size.  Other well-known dead zones include the Chesapeake Bay, areas off the coast of Oregon, the Baltic Sea, and the Black Sea, according to NASA

Relationship Status with Going Vegan – It’s Complicated

Some people may have a combination of reasons for going vegan which may, or may not relate to anything you’ve heard here.  For example, my friend doesn’t like meat because he says it gives him “sticky teeth,” whatever that means.  He has never liked meat and has rejected it since he was a small child.  So it’s a texture thing with him.

Mine and Marc’s reasons for eating vegan food are two-fold:  health and the environment.  Before Marc’s health concerns were as severe as they are now, we still ate less meat than the average American.  It is now recommended that a person not eat more than three servings of red meat per week.  We were on par with that.  Now we have reduced the amount of meat and dairy in the fridge even more so that we may eat one serving per week of any meat or dairy product, period.    Eventually, we may wean ourselves down to zero.

All Things in Moderation

My point in telling you all of this is not to shame you into becoming vegan, nor is it meant to scare you.  The message here is moderation.  If you want to be a flexitarian, like I am, mow down on your celebratory birthday steak, like I did.  Consider buying meat from local sources to bypass commercially-farmed beef, and choose meats that do not contain growth hormones.  Do it without guilt, and never let the prospect of exploring veganism scare you.

Image from FeeFee.