The HSUS Undercover Investigation: Wyoming Premium Farms Exposed

HSUS has been on a roll lately. Yesterday it busted Wyoming Premium Farms for animal abuse, leading Tyson’s to suspend pork purchases from this loathsome conglomerate.

As always when it comes to undercover exposes and subsequent welfare “victories,” my feelings are mixed. It goes without saying that I’m perfectly thrilled that industry will now be under even more pressure to address welfare concerns.  Considerable evidence is already showing this to be the case. (Thanks to Jim Ferguson for this tip). I’m also thrilled that, to whatever extent, some pigs will have more room to move around on some industrial farms–however nominal the added space. Paul Shapiro, at HSUS, told me that in just two days the terrifying clip above has received over 160,000 views. That’s good news, as I’ve no idea how anybody could watch it and continue to eat pork.

Thinking about matters from the consumers’ perspective, though, I just don’t know what kind of impact these investigations will have in the long run. Inevitably, many consumers of animal products will watch this video, become disgusted, and vow to purchase their animal products from more humane sources. But this will accomplish very little–if anything– in terms of reducing the horrors of factory farming. As I’ve argued before, as long as eating animals is considered culturally and morally acceptable, basic economics dictates that factory farms will dominate the production of meat, eggs, and cheese. There is simply no possible way, at least as long as we have a capitalistic economy, that a substantial portion of consumers will choose welfare over cost. And as sure as gravity, factory farms–due to economies of scale–effectively reduce costs.  Eating animals itself must be deemed–and culturally understood–as wrong.  To eat animals is, ipso facto, to support industrial agriculture.

In all fairness to HSUS, to my knowledge it has never claimed to be in the business of eliminating animal agriculture. They just want to improve it. Abolitionists dismiss this goal as accommodating the enemy–and I can see their point. At the same time, though, I’m well aware that–if HSUS would only do more to promote veganism as a response to the horrors it so bravely exposes–the kind of video shown above could have an entirely different impact. Namely, it would move consumers in the direction of eating plants rather than trying to salve their conscience by paying more to eat animals who, while given more freedoms when alive, were still killed in the prime of their lives (or even before) in order to become an entree on a menu at some impossibly virtuous restaurant filled with people who somehow think it’s humane to kill an animal for food we don’t need.

Am I hoping for too much from HSUS? And I hoping too much from omnivores? Am I hoping too much?

The Orwellian Distortion of “Humane”

I think one of the most horrific things about industrial animal agriculture is that, by any measure of decency, it’s so horrific. What I mean here is that it exists on such a deep level of hell that virtually any other approach to raising animals for food–such as so-called sustainable animal agriculture–looks comparatively angelic. Making matters even more troublesome is that industrial animal agriculture is so firmly entrenched as the dominant mode of production that any alternative–again, so called sustainable animal agriculture–comes off looking like a savior, a knight in shining armor, or at least a prodigal son. In reality, though, it’s more like a Trojan Horse.

The human mind responds well to dichotomies. Industrial agriculture is super bad. Non-industrial agriculture is thus super good. This is an easy distinction that, for most critics of agriculture, is beyond dispute. The problem, though, is that the dichotomy is false. Terribly false. It exists not because of an objective difference between industrial and “sustainable” agriculture. Instead it thrives because of what consumers choose to see. And what consumers choose to see depends deeply on a question people in the sustainable food movement simply won’t talk about: what rights do farm animals have?

Ethical vegans build their worldview on the back of this question. We believe animals deserve some level of moral consideration. The extent of that moral consideration will always be an open question, but at the least ethical vegans believe that animals are worthy enough not to be intentionally killed so we can eat their bodies. Omnivores routinely call this idea radical. I call it common decency. I call it humane. It is through this humane lens, moreover, that I view the non-industrial farm raising animal products.  And what that lens invariably highlights is how similar that good farm is to the bad farm. “Humane” and “arbitrary death” don’t go so well together.

Take another look at the short film “Free Range” (above) and you’ll get the point. The film’s perspective is tilted in such a way that the small farm looks eerily like an industrial one: on this bucolic farm chickens are still grabbed by the legs, jammed into stacked crates, stuffed into a neat row of cones, and, as if on an assembly line, summarily killed. They’re tossed in scalding water, thrown into a centrifuge to be plucked, and hung up like articles of clothing. They’re cleaned and sold. It all happens on a smaller scale, but the ultimate goal is exactly the same.  This is what the humane perspective reveals. This is what you see when you think animals matter.

 Advocates of small-scale sustainable animal agriculture do not believe that animals have a right to their own lives. They believe animals are here for our use and exploitation. They thus see something altogether different.  When they look at a small animal farm, they see happiness. They avert their gaze from the murderous similarities and, instead, relish sunny skies and happy animals frolicking in green pastures. They support these farms because “the animals are treated with dignity.” Sure. Because when you believe animals can justifiably be killed whenever a human craves their flesh you don’t stop to ask: can arbitrary death ever be dignified?

Interestingly, these people also call their perspective humane. When I hear this term used for small scale animal agriculture I’m reminded of the comedian Louis CK, who likes to joke that he often imagines himself doing something virtuous and, even though he never actually does the virtuous act, feels smug satisfaction for even having the thought.  This is what supporters of small scale animal agriculture do. They see what they want to see, ignore the underlying and ultimate reality of what they witness, and feel good about themselves for even caring about animals at all. They do this as they “give thanks” over their happy meat.

The paradox here is almost worth smiling over. Small scale animal farms can only be considered “humane” when the consumer adopts an inhumane perspective. In other words, it is only when the consumer reduces a sentient animal to an object worthy of commodifying that he can call the system–a violent system–that does the objectifying “humane.”  To call this trick of the mind “better” than industrial farming is not only far-fetched, it’s a distortion of the values advocates of sustainable agriculture so earnestly claim to seek.  One reader recently noted that I allow the “perfect to be the enemy of the better.” In light of what I argue here, I’d put it differently: I allow compassion to be the enemy of self-deception. As do all ethical vegans.

Out of “Luck” and All the Wiser: Horse Abuse and What We Can Learn from It

The Times has done an admirable job lately covering the horse abuse that took place during the filming of the HBO series “Luck.” Several horses died of cardiac arrest during filming. The set’s lead horse handler–a veteran in the field–has been accused of overworking horses unprepared to race while injecting them with heavy doses of painkillers to encourage their performance. All in all, it looks like conditions for the horses were miserable. HBO has cancelled production, at an enormous economic cost.

PETA, an organization that typically comes under considerable heat from many animal rights activists (including me), used its considerable resources to obtain documents confirming this widespread negligence. For this I commend the organization.

The “Luck” incident, whether charges are pursued or not, provides an excellent opportunity to explore the broadest intersection of veganism and animal rights. Many vegans think squarely in terms of diet. From this perspective, the abuse that horses suffer on a movie set might seem to be the farthest thing from our noble choice not to eat animal products. In actuality, the two actions are deeply intertwined.

The ethical principle underscoring the decision not to eat animals centers squarely on the reality that animals are sentient, capable of suffering, and deserving of the right not be arbitrarily exploited. If this set of assumptions–assumptions that confirm our  humanity– is the basis upon which we reject animal-based foods, it must also be applied to other realms of life, including entertainment, clothing, cosmetics, and most cases of medical testing.  No ethical vegan can avoid suffering. But she should not, to cite obvious examples, wear leather or attend a circus that uses animals.

From a non-vegan perspective, the “Luck” case is also useful.  Non-vegans are routinely outraged by stories such as the recent “Luck” tragedy (hence why would the Times bother?). It’s worth asking why. Why do so many animal-eaters find these stories deeply disturbing? Typically what non-vegans will say in response to such a question is an articulation–however inadvertently– of why they should go vegan. They may not know that they are making such a case, but they are. (Which is why I’m happy to make the connection for them.)

“No animal deserves to be treated that way,” a non-vegan friend of mine said after hearing about the horse abuse. She’s right, of course. The underlying implication, though, is that the animal has moral worth. It has intrinsic worth. It is worthy of human moral consideration. My friend agrees with all these claims. “So then,” I asked, “why do you eat animals?” She explained that she only ate animals that were raised with dignity and given a quick and painless death. Plus, she added, as if following the sustainable food movement agitprop script, “I always give thanks.”

Herein lies a “teachable moment.” I wondered: On what basis do we think we can separate welfare concerns from an animal’s interest in life? There is no rational and moral basis for this separation; the latter is subsumed in the former. To be concerned about an animal’s welfare is–whether we act on it or not–to believe that we have no right to take that animal’s life for unnecessary purposes. To say that welfare considerations end at an animal’s dignified death is fatally inconsistent logic. You cannot agree that a life has meaning and then justify ending it because you happen to be hungry or want to sell the animal’s body parts and excretions to make a profit.

So, with the cancellation of “Luck,” we all have some thinking to do, connections to make, and a lot to learn.



Here’s the winning essay from the New York Times Magazine‘s contest to ethically justify eating animals. Hard to believe that Andrew Light, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Peter Singer approved this entry, as it would not have survived the Philosophy 101 class I took in high school. Nothing on animal sentience–this in an essay on the ethics of eating animals. Pathetic. Plain pathetic. I promise you that this contest was driven more by concern for advertising revenue than ethics. Pathetic. Pathetic. Pathetic.  -jm

By Jay Bost

As a vegetarian who returned to meat-eating, I find the question “Is meat-eating ethical?” one that is in my head and heart constantly. The reasons I became a vegetarian, then a vegan and then again a conscientious meat-eater were all ethical. The ethical reasons of why NOT to eat meat are obvious: animals are raised and killed in cruel conditions; grain that could feed hungry people is fed to animals; the need for pasture fuels deforestation; and by eating meat, one is implicated in the killing of a sentient being. Except for the last reason, however, none of these aspects of eating meat are implicit in eating meat, yet they are exactly what make eating some meat unethical. Which leads to my main argument: eating meat raised in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical. Just as eating vegetables, tofu or grain raised in certain circumstances is ethical and those produced in other ways is unethical.

What are these “right” and “wrong” ways of producing both meat and plant foods? For me, they are most succinctly summed up in Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” While studying agroecology at Prescott College in Arizona, I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an “ethical” diet is the least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts. A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.

While most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor, happily this is changing, and there are abundant examples of ecologically beneficial, pasture-based systems. The fact is that most agroecologists agree that animals are integral parts of truly sustainable agricultural systems. They are able to cycle nutrients, aid in land management and convert sun to food in ways that are nearly impossible for us to do without fossil fuel. If “ethical” is defined as living in the most ecologically benign way, then in fairly specific circumstances, of which each eater must educate himself, eating meat is ethical; in fact NOT eating meat may be arguably unethical.

The issue of killing of a sentient being, however, lingers. To which each individual human being must react by asking: Am I willing to divide the world into that which I have deemed is worthy of being spared the inevitable and that which is not worthy? Or is such a division hopelessly artificial? A poem of Wislawa Szymborska’s, “In Praise of Self-Deprecation,” comes to mind. It ends:

There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really justsolar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.

Jay Bost, who says he has been “a farmworker, plant geek, agroecologist and foodie for the past 20 years,” teaches at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., and plans to head to Hawaii next year for a Ph.D. in tropical plant and soil science. His deepest interest is in agrobiodiversity, a field he will be better able to explain once he and his partner, Nora Rodli, get their 5-month-old son, Kailu Sassafras, to sleep.

“The Vegetarian Myth” Myth: A Blogger Confronts Keith’s Propaganda with Facts

Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth is a book so riddled with errors and sloppy logic that, as I read it, I kept thinking that it would take a lifetime to undo, contextualize, and correct the myriad inaccuracies that mar this book. Turns out it doesn’t take a lifetime, but just a lot of patience and research acumen. Writing at the, Carolyn Zaikowski, who I recently met, is taking down Keith’s book  footnote by footnote, claim by claim, innuendo by innuendo. With her permission, I’m including a sample of her work here. I urge you to share it with friends who’ve abandoned their plant-based diets based on this troubling book. This is just the first installment of several related posts from Zaikowski. [she can be reached at]      -jm

Chapter four: Claims and realities, part one

Claims/realities: Chapter 4

Claim: “Actually, if we really look at gorillas [vegetarian animals] et al., what we find are animals that contain the fermentative bacteria necessary to digest cellulose. We humans contain no such thing. This man writes books about diet without knowing a thing about how humans actually digest (p141).” On the next page she cites a chart that says humans have no bacteria in their stomach.

Reality: Humans currently have over 130 known bacteria in their stomach. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won a Nobel Prize in 2005 for their research in this area.  Keith’s information here came from a chart from 1975 (see below) and second- and third-hand analyses done by Eades and Eades and the Weston A. Price Foundation people. Additionally, the fact that we don’t have an enzyme to breakdown cellulose does not, in any way whatsoever, mean we don’t need cellulose. Keith uses this characteristic of cellulose to claim that we don’t need and weren’t “meant” to eat cellulose. In reality, cellulose is one of our most important sources of fiber. If it broke down in the stomach, our intensines wouldn’t move because they would have no bulk… we wouldn’t poop. Here’s a primer to some things that can happen if you don’t get enough fiber. “This lady writes books about diet without knowing a thing about–” oh wait, that would be obnoxious.

Claim: Humans are carnivores, here’s a chart to prove it (pp. 142-3).

Reality: This is a classic compartive anatomy chart. Here’s one that makes it look like humans are “naturally” vegetarians and if you combine them, you can probably get a chart that makes a good argument for how humans are “naturally” omnivores. Here’s a good article about how such charts are decieving and how we don’t really know what humans “naturally” are.Keith’s chart is from a The Stone Age Diet, a book self-published by Dr. Walter Voeltin in 1975– that’s 35 years ago. And  self-published books not only don’t need peer review or feedback, but don’t technically even need an editor, a manuscript reader, a consultant, or anyone else besides the author to decide what should be published. So it was already a dubious book when it came out. As you might guess, tons of research has since been done that severely complicates his theories about meat and plant eating (see all of our chapter 4 discussions, and do your own research.) This diet was a fad in the mid-70s and became faddy again in the 2000s, in part due to this inconclusive yet fairly well-publicized study.

Claim: “If the getting of food, of life, means we are destined for sadism and genocide, then the universe is a sick and twisted place and I want out. But I don’t believe it. It hasn’t been my experience of food, of killing, of participating. When I see the art that people who were our anatomical equals made, I don’t see a celebration of cruelty, an aesthetic of sadism. No, I wasn’t there when the drawings were made and I didn’t interview the artists. But I know beauty when I see it. And the artists left no question about what they were eating. Besides their drawings, they also left weapons, including blades for killing and butchering (p144).”

Reality: By now, hopefully we realize that mainly this isn’t even a “claim”, it’s a subjective anecdote about Keith’s internal eating experience. As for cavemen leaving “no question” about what they ate, this is simply wrong. Palentology is all question and speculation. Since time machines don’t exist, there is no way to truly prove anything in paleontology, even moreso than in many of the other sciences. This is partly why it’s an exciting science, and partly why the palentologists who are worth listening to, are carefully trained not to create overarching, unsubstantiated narratives based on cave paintings, like “all humans should eat meat” or “no one ever ate meat”. This kind of use of the social sciences is biological determinism, which is related to sociobiology. Generally, radicals, especially feminists, have noticed and criticized these methods of logic, which  have historically been employed by fundamentalist Christians, eugenicists, racists, misogynists, anti-semites, and others who dismiss loaded, complicated political and social issues by claiming that all correct human behavior is based in biology. This is what Keith’s sources do. This is the practice of using science as scientism– a dogmatic and simplified faith in science– versus using science for the critical and useful tool that it is. Keith, a second-wave radical feminist, apparently either missed or is willfully ignoring how one of the most significant and successful movements inside second-wave radical feminism included a huge, substantiated critique of this kind of science. You can read about this in any intro to women’s studies textbook. See also “paleofantasies” and the myth of the three Ns.

Claim: “One version of the vegetarian myth posits that we were ‘gathererhunters’, gaining more sustenance from plants gathered by women than from meat hunted by men. This rumor actually has an author, one R.B. Lee, who concluded that hunter-gatherers got 65 percent of their calories from plants and only 35 percent from animals (p146.)”

Reality: First off, this “one R.B. Lee” who started a “rumor” is one of the most well-respected and influential living anthropologists, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, and the editor ofThe Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunter-Gatherers. It’s probably safe to assume she has not read any of his numerous academic opuses, since she only quotes a second-hand analysis. We don’t want to be redundant about Keith’s resources, but suffice it to say, she goes on to use her usuals here plus an article written by Dr. Loren Cordain of the PaleoDiet Brand in an attempt to debunk him. She then uses pages more of anecdote about not feeling good when she was a vegan and how, if you don’t believe her, you, too, should see how you feel after eating beans (p147-8.) In any case, Dr. Lee’s studies present information and possible, though ultimately not provable, conclusions. Keith and her resources present psuedo-informaton plus rampant, unapologetically biased interpretation. Again, this is biological determinism.

Claim: Lectin might be damaging to our digestive tracts, we aren’t really sure (pp147-9), so this is another reason we aren’t meant to eat plants.

Reality: First off, her citations in this lectin discussion are all from our friends Eades and Eades, Davis, and Cordain (see above)–as are the rest of her claims in this chapter about how wheat causes health problems from indigestion, to arthritis, to multiple sclerosis, to schizophrenia. “According to Drs. Eades” almost functions as a catch-phrase in this chapter. She offers a hyperbolic disaster scenario about lectins, but her discussion of lectins’ known, unknown, and potential roles–and the research that has and hasn’t been done on them–is so limited as to basically be useless. Second, let it be noted that lectins are found in meat and dairy foods, not just plants. Thirdly, in the whirl of her hyperbole, Keith conveniently doesn’t mention things like the fact that lectins, specifically ones from plants, might be able to help/cure cancer. See these peer-reviewed studies:

Lectins as bioactive plant proteins: A Potential Cancer Treatment

Lectins: from basic science to clinical application in cancer prevention

Diet and colorectal cancer: An investigation of the lectin/galactose hypothesis

We’re not saying there are no potential problems with lectins. We’re just trying to round out the discussion.

Claim: Vegans can’t get Vitamin D (p180).

Reality: Vitamin D is hard to come by in food. It seems to occur nowhere in plant foods, except for certain mushrooms, and in only a very small handful of animal foods. Some types of fish contain Vitamin D, and small amounts are found in beef liver and chickens’ eggs. In no food is it abundant. No matter what your diet, unless you survive on certain types of fish, you probably get the bulk of your Vitamin D from either A) fortified foods–fortified cow milk and other dairy; fortified fruit juices; fortified cereals, vitamins, etc. or B) the sun–human skin synthesizes Vitamin D from sunlight. It’s not totally clear how much sun exposure one needs in this regard, and seasonal changes and geography play a role, especially in places with extreme weather. It’s worth looking into this based on where you live. The Vitamin D Council writes,“The skin produces approximately 10,000 IU vitamin D in response 20–30 minutes summer sun exposure—50 times more than the government’s recommendation of 200 IU per day!” They also write that people who don’t have regular sun exposure would have to take a 5000-IU Vitamin D supplement daily to catch up… that’s the equivailent of 50 glasses of fortified milk a day. So let’s look at the source Keith points to for her claim that vegans are sick from lack of vitamin D: an article called “Dietary Intake of Vitamin D in Premenopausal, Healthy Vegans was Insufficient to Maintain Concentrations of Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D and Intact Parathyroid Hormone Within Normal Ranges During the Winter in Finland”. Now, this might be something to consider if it’s winter and you are a premenopausal Finnish vegan. But it cannot be generalized to all vegans, nor does it follow that, if this is indeed a problem, eating meat would be the remedy. In fact, this study shows that people-in-general from other arctic climates might not get enough D, and would benefit from supplements. Keith states, “It is possible to get vitamin D from ingested sources alone, which is how humans survive in the arctic.” This isn’t true. Lots of different people all over the world might have to take Vitamin D supplements.

Claim: “In every cell your body makes the sugar it needs, therefore there’s no need for carbohydrates and in fact carbs don’t actually exist…. There is no such thing as a necessary carbohydrate. Read that again. Write the Drs. Eades, ‘the actual amount of carbohydrates required by humans for health is zero.’ ” (p 154.)

Reality: Compare this simplistic and sensationalist claim, made by a couple proponents of brand-name diets, with over three-thousand research studies done on the mircobiology of carbohydrates. Keith’s entire discussion about carbohydrates and sugar is Eades-based, as is almost the entire ensuing discussion about diabetes. It’s redundant at this point to talk about how  problematic the Eades are, so please refer back to our previous discussions. Our only guess is that Keith, following the Eades, is attempting to reframe what has otherwise been a very medically useful paradigm regarding micronutrients. Their reframing is not based on anything reliable and seems to have pretty serious bias/ideology backing it.

Claim: Eating a high-carbohydrate diet can destroy your stomach by giving you gastroparesis. Keith knows, because she gave it to herself (p. 159.)

Reality: To back this claim, Keith cites a no-longer-available internet article from her favorite place, the Weston A. Price Foundation’s website. Keith came to this diagnosis with the help of a doctor who works with “recovering vegans”. We haven’t been able to find information that says gastroporesis is caused by carbohydrates, though there is a lot of information about how eating a low-carb diet can help it. These are two different things. In any case, no matter how many times Keith says it, veganism is not interchangeable with a high-carb diet.

Claim/implication: “Before we go even further, do you even know what cholesterol is?” (p162).

Reality: Yes.

Claim: “The Lipid Hypothesis—the theory that ingested fat causes heart disease—is the stone tablet that the Prophets of Nutrition have brought down from the mountain. We have been shown the one, true way: cholesterol is the demon of the age, the dietary Black Plague, a judgment from an angry God, condemning those who stray into the Valley of Animal Products with disease. That at least is what the priests of the Lipid Hypothesis declared, having looked into the entrails of … rabbits” (pp160-1.)

Reality: In her classic manner, and it what some say is the classic manner of the Weston A. Prince zealots, Keith goes on for pages and pages making claims regarding “cholesterol panic” and “supposed” information regarding cholesterol’s dangers that go against literally thousands of thousands of studies and meta-studies from around the world (not just one study done on a rabbit, as she sensationistically states). She makes these claims based on these resources, including, mainly, the highly questionable Anthony Colpo, whose only expertise is in weight training. That’s three or so wildy dubious sources against thousands and thousands of international studies about how complicated cholesterol and microbiology are, how dangerous too much animal-based cholesterol can be (as opposed to the cholesterol that is naturally manufactured in the human liver– if you really don’t “even know what cholesterol is”, here’s a link where doctors explain it to kids), and so much more . We don’t know what else to say. How can throwing all this away, literally not giving it one paragraph of attention in exchange for giving attention to a handful of people who have no expertise, be a reasonable, helpful, or safe move? We can’t go through all these studies and all this counter-information for you here… there’s literally too much. We trust that you’ll do your own research.

“Not to put to fine a point on it but, duh?” -Lierre Keith, p. 161. Wow. Seriously? Classy.

Claim: Vegans don’t get omega-3s (all over the book.)

Reality: There are many vegan sources of omega-3s, including flax seed, pumpkin seed, canola oil, hemp, walnuts, etc. It is easy to, say, buy a bottle of flax oil and put a little in your food, or toss some pumpkin seeds into your salad. Vegetarian supplements are also extremely easy to come by.

Claim: Vegans get no B12 (all over the book.)

Reality: False. Though it is hard to come by in plant foods, B12 is extremely easy to supplement, and many foods are fortified with it (both plant and animal foods). Keith’s resources here are, again, the Weston Price Foundation, highly selective information, and unsubstantiated personal anecdote. She has, again, completely simplified the issue of how people– meat eaters and vegetarians alike– obtain or do not obtain B12.Here is a wonderful article that discusses B12 specifically in relation to Lierre Keith’s claims. Please read it.

Claim: There are no plant sources for tryptophan. This can cause depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and other mental serious problems (see discussions in chapters 1 and 4.)

Reality: False. Tryptophan is found in many plant sources, including potato, banana, wheat flour, sesame, sunflower seeds, spirulina, raw soy, rice, and oats.

Claim: There are no plant sources for saturated fat. This means vegans don’t absorb essential nutrients like tryptophan and fat-soluable vitamins (see discussions in chapters 1 and 4.)

Reality: False. There are so many plant sources of saturated fat. They include various oils, avocado, coconut, nuts, and nut butters. Many nutrition experts say these are actually among the best sources of saturated fat, because they aren’t generally accompanied by the more problematic fats found in many animal products.

Claim: “Listen to your body, reader, a listening that must make your body known to you, less mysterious and more beloved” (p 153.)

Reality: Keith only wants you to listen to your body if it tells you the things she’s telling you. If it tells you something different, you’re stupid and you do not possess an adult mind. We wish we were being flip or exaggerating, but, no matter what you think of her, Keith makes it really clear that this is where she’s coming from.

Claim: Meat is good for you and being vegan isn’t.

Reality: All ethical issues aside: There are bodies upon bodies of research from widely divergent organizations and agencies that vegetarian and vegan diets can be extremely healthy. There are bodies upon bodies of research from widely divergent organizations and agencies that eating meat and dairy can be extremely harmful. There are certain things you should do to be a healthy vegan/vegetarian, like be mindful of your B12 intake. If you’re intent on eating meat, there are lots of things– probably many more things– to be mindful about. Again, there is no way we can go over all of this information. This isn’t to make claims on nature as vegans– if anything, we are trying to get across that all diets are imperfect because evolution and adaptation are imperfect, that there is no one “correct” way to relate to our human bodies, and that lots of people chose veganism for very complicated, valid reasons and execute it in a healthy way.

You don’t have to make the same choices we make. We just ask that you will be as critical and objective a thinker as possible, and no matter what your diet, do your own research if you are going to read this book–because a lot of it is straight-up wrong. Lierre Keith is not a doctor or nutritionist and neither are most of her sources! It is necessary and radical to be critical of scientific paradigms, but this by no means equals throwing away carefully established scientific ideas and methods. The following is one of the most critical points we’re going to make in this blog, so we’re going to make emphatic keyboard choices:


Veganism: It’s What Gives Big Ag Real Nightmares

A good friend just wrote to compliment my Times piece. However, he wondered if the message could backfire, encouraging consumers to source animal products from factory farms rather than from “less bad” small farms. His concern is valid. And that’s why it annoys me so much.

Many readers who know my work, and understand my commitment to veganism, find it strange that I’m often slandered as an advocate of industrial agriculture. This accusation sticks, though, because our current discourse on food is trapped in a simplistic—and deeply harmful– dichotomy: industrial (bad)/ non-industrial (good). Even the most intelligent consumers have succumbed to the logical fallacy that if an animal product isn’t industrially produced, then it’s automatically beyond criticism.  Thus, the fact that I spend a lot of my time criticizing the small alternatives automatically makes me a shill for Big Agriculture.

That’s crazy.

Because who’s really shilling for Big Agriculture? As I’ve argued before, small farms—by virtue of their impassioned commitment to killing, selling, and eating animals—are the real enablers of industrially produced meat. They’re the ones legitimating the very act—eating animals—that’s at the core of industrial animal production. So twisted is the Food Movement’s logic that my call for ending the consumption of animal products—something that would harm industrial animal culture in an instant—is deemed an affirmation of the status quo.  So twisted is the Food Movement’s logic that the radicalism of veganism is mocked, debased, and erased.

While disdaining veganism, the food movement gets excited about incremental improvements within industrial models. The fact that McDonalds and Burger King are no longer purchasing pork from suppliers who use gestation crates is surely good for pigs. But it’s nothing to celebrate in and of itself.  As I’ve noted, if the improvement does not explicitly move in the direction of ending animal agriculture per se, then there’s little long-term good that will result from it. One could easily argue that, in accepting welfare reforms, industrial producers are actually making it easier for welfare-minded consumers to choose factory farmed animal products in the first place.  In this sense HSUS joins the small farms in shilling for animal agriculture.  Still, none of this keeps the Food Movement from blaming an advocate of veganism for pepetuating industrial agriculture.

Admittedly, the point here is to rant a bit. But it’s also to insist that veganism must to be hammered into the public discourse as not only a viable third option, but as the single-most powerful action an individual can make to confront the horrors of factory farming.  To silence that message out of fear of being distorted would be a disservice to the one demographic that the Food Movement never fails to marginalize: farm animals themselves.

Reason to Go Vegan #6: Evolutionary Biology

Every enlightened person acknowledges the fact that there’s morphological continuity between humans and non-humans. This is basic evolutionary biology. My hand has it origins in the transition from fish to land lizards. My arm and the arm of a hawk have a common origin. The human body has its origins in3.5 billion years of evolution. This we can all agree upon.

But what about my cognition, consciousness, emotionalism. Admittedly, we know less about the evolution of these phenomena, but this is changing, and what we’re finding confirms that, just as there’s physical continuity between all animals, there’s mental continuity as well. Let’s listen to what some of the leading scientific minds have said about the nature of cognitive evolution and it implications for the human and non-human relationship:

Donald Griffin, the father of cognitive ethology–the science of animal thought–writes: “the central nervous system of multi-cellular animals all operate by means of the same basic processes regardless of the species or even the phylum in which they are found. Because we know that at least one species does indulge in conscious thinking, and take it for granted that conscious and unconscious thinking result from activities of the central nervous system, we have no solid basis for excluding a priori the possibility that conscious thinking takes place in any animal with a reasonably well-organized central nervous system.”

Bernard E. Rollin, a leading authority on veterinary ethics, echoes this theme of continuity in his book Animal Rights and Human Morality: “For Darwin himself, and for the nineteenth-century biologists (at least in England and America) who carried forth his ideas, thought and feeling in animals was an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity. If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones.” Rollin deems this idea central to “the foundational theory of modern biology.”

What does all this mean? In essence, we are not emotionally or cognitively distinct, in any fundamental way, from non-human animals. This single fact may be the best objective intellectual justification we can come up with for veganism. When humans and non-human animals are part of a continuum, rather than thought of as qualitatively distinct forms of life, human meat-eaters confront a serious quandary. It becomes incumbent upon them to forge a contemporary justification for carnivorous behavior. Aristotle and Genesis will no longer do.

By undermining the long-held basis of inherent human superiority over non-human animals, the science of evolution obliterated the framework within which thoughtful carnivores long justified their behavior. As it now stands, human meat-eaters, unless they reject modern science, support the killing of non-human animals without the slightest intellectual or ethical grounding. Vegans, by contrast, base their diet in the soundest science.  We must promote Darwinian evolution as the intellectual basis of veganism.

Reason to Go Vegan #5: Factory Farms

Writing in the American Spectator several years ago, Julian Gough noted that “there is nothing more powerless than a corporation.” I love this quote. In an age when so many of us feel overwhelmed by consolidated systems of corporate power, Gough’s counterintuitive assessment reminds us of something fundamental: if we buy stuff, we have the final say in a corporation’s fate. No matter how many political punches are pulled, no matter how many marketing geniuses are hired, and no matter how many members of congress are bought and sold, consumers ultimately hold the cards.  With will power and organizational acumen, consumers have the ability to take down whomever we want. This is why there is nothing more powerless than a corporation.

This point bears heavily on the delicate dance that conscientious consumers are now doing with animal products. Influenced by the food movement’s imperative to buy local, buy organic, and buy from small farms, we’ve convinced ourselves that by “voting with our forks” and choosing more virtuous meat and dairy alternatives, we’ll prove Gough’s little axiom right. Down will fall Monsanto, Tyson’s, Cargill, and all the other bad boys of industrial animal agriculture. Left standing will be the good guys, the small farmers, the local organic dairy, the grass-fed operations.

Dream on.

Indeed, we’re dreaming if we think that our support for the farmer next door in any way compromises the ultimate power of industrial systems. The alternatives might give animals a nominally better life, but as a threat to industrial agriculture, they’re pointless. Although I’ve blogged about this point here before, it bears repeating: until we boycott animal products per se, rather than settle for supposedly more humane alternatives, the industrial production of animal products will dominate the business of bringing these goods to our plates. As long as we live in a capitalistic society bound by basic consumer freedoms, and as long as animal products are considered legitimate consumer items (i.e., commodities), the vast majority of consumers will act the same way we act when it’s time to buy a i-pad or a pair of socks. We’ll choose the cheapest option. Factory farms–which, even if you remove subsidies, still produce more meat and eggs at a lower price–produce more for less. This is why the business consolidated in the first place. This is why we eat so many animals. This is why we cannot eat animals and end factory farming. 

Even if smaller and (again, supposedly) more sustainable farms did come to dominate the landscape (which is very unlikely), their hold on the market would be ephemeral. In a relatively free market economy marked by consumer choice, these farms would inevitably compete. Competition would lead to consolidation. Consolidation would lead us back to where we are today. I’ve been making this case to audiences for over a year and have yet to hear an argument that even comes close to defying the logic of this hypothetical scenario. No to be redundant, but once again: we cannot eat animals and end factory farming. No chance.

Which brings me to my last point. Should we truly want to teach the mavens of agribusiness the lesson that there is nothing more powerless than a corporation, our best option is to go vegan. I can think of no act more expressive of our oft repeated disdain of industrial agriculture than the decision to boycott the products that keep it in business.


Vegan Power: Anecdotes of Inspiration



A version of this piece ran in the on January 18.


Here is a comprehensive list of what I ate, in one form or another, on the day I wrote this:

Kale, mustard greens, carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, quinoa, amaranth, pinto beans, beets, parsnips, turnips, yellow peas, brown rice, kimchi, purple cabbage, butternut squash, blueberries, a banana, hemp seeds, flaxseed oil, snap peas, an apple, cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds, pistachio nuts, garlic, broccoli, raisins, granola, avocado, polenta, salsa, a few saltines, a piece of raisin toast with apricot jam, tofu, coffee, olive oil, harisa, chickpeas, tomatoes, a small handful of chocolate chips, a couple of beers … and a vitamin.

For the vegans with whom I share breakfast every weekday morning at a Casa de Luz in Austin, Texas, it’s a standard daily spread. Forty-three discrete plant foods, a couple of processed items, a little alcohol and caffeine, very few carbs, a B-12 pill. Nutrition is shifty business, but I’m guessing most experts would deem this to be a well-chosen array of grub. I might keel over tomorrow, but for now, at the end of the day, I feel as though I could climb Everest. The food was delicious, too.

I mention this list to offer a personal counter-narrative to the increasingly popular and decidedly dour “I’m a recovering vegan” storyline. Perhaps inspired by Lierre Kieth’s The Vegetarian Myth, a book that chronicles the author’s losing battle with a plant-based diet, bloggers have clogged foodie networks with angst-ridden accounts of fatigue, sickness, hair loss, anxiety, diminished sex drive, and mental breakdown after quitting animal products. The problem with these accounts, as far as I can tell, is that those who made the vegan leap (and I praise them for doing it) did so without doing due diligence on the details of intelligent veganism. Someone can live on potato chips, pot, and cherry soda and call himself a vegan. Many recidivists have evidently tried to do just that.

Whether you are convinced by a book such as The China Study or not, there’s no disputing the fact that a diet rich in plant-based, unprocessed food is a smart diet. My point here isn’t to suggest that a diet including modest amounts of lean meat can’t be healthy. It surely can be. Instead, I want to reiterate the equally healthful consequences of a healthy vegan diet. I can brook a million excuses for why a person simply cannot go vegan — cheese! yogurt! cream in my coffee! — but the assertion that veganism, when done right, isn’t healthy is just plain bunk.

For me, the most persuasive evidence supporting a healthy vegan diet is anecdotal. The vegans who frequent Casa de Luz, my breakfast (and often lunch) destination, are paragons of good health. Many of them are significantly older than I am — in their 50s, 60s, and 70s — but they rock on with glowing intensity, looking much younger (in some cases by 20 years) than they are. Every now and then a local vegan hero will drop in — John Mackey (founder of Whole Foods), Rip Esselstyn (pioneer of the Engine 2 diet), a noted musician who will remain unnamed — and we’ll gawk in admiration. The everyday reality, though, is that a dozen or so ordinary people with whom I eat have done extraordinary things as a direct result of intelligent veganism. They’ve conquered obesity, chronic disease, depression, and a host of food-related disorders by exclusively eating an exciting diversity of plants. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned by eating with seasoned vegans it is this: the diet empowers.

Beyond anecdotes, of course, there’s considerable scientific evidence showing that veganism is a smart way to eat. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that a well-planned vegan (and vegetarian) diet is “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” This is a much more cautious assessment, however, than many studies suggest.

According to one study, “vegetarian and vegan diets are effective in treating and preventing several chronic diseases.” The adaptation of a low-fat vegan diet can substantially mitigate the impacts of type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and Parkinson’s disease. Veganism reduces the risk of colon cancer. Vegans have abetter “antioxidant status” than non-vegans. Veganism is more effective at combating obesity than other prescribed diets, such as that promoted by the National Cholesterol Education Program. Veganism has been shown to lower risk factors associated with cardiac disease. As Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health for the Humane Society of the United States, explains, “A plant-based diet is like a one-stop shop against chronic diseases.”

I could continue in this scientific vein, but again, it’s the stories of personal transformation that make the biggest impression. Writing in the current issue of VegNews, Jasmin Singer, director of Our Hen House, profiles a one-time morbidly obese diabetic who went vegan, lost over a hundred pounds, cured his diabetes, and now preaches the virtues on his website. Singer goes on to relate the experience of Dr. Greger’s grandmother, who by her 60s had endured two bypass surgeries and was confined to a wheelchair because of debilitating chest pain. Doctors had effectively given her a death sentence. After adopting a strict plant-based diet, she lost the wheelchair, dramatically improved her health, and lived an active life well into her 90s. Especially poignant is Singer’s own story. At 31, her doctor declared her well on the way to early heart disease — an all too familiar situation for people in their 30s who have never before worried about high cholesterol or spiking triglycerides. Following Dr. Joel Furman’s Eat to Live program, she lost 80 pounds and is now a supremely healthy vegan activist helping others avoid the road she once stumbled down.

The transformations initiated by a healthy vegan diet go well beyond physical health. For those who want it to be, a plant-based diet is also a potent political comment on our broken food system. What’s so compelling about these personal stories — besides the inspirational message — is the fact that we’re looking at a diet for which the ultimate beneficiary is the individual. Healthy veganism explicitly serves no corporate or industrial gods. In fact, it counters these interests. I’m routinely told by executives at big food companies (yes, I talk to these people) that they’re not the least concerned with the growing interest in local, sustainable, and humanely-raised animal products. After all, they can always co-opt the alternatives if the alternatives begin to cut into market share. Their fear is that people will stop eating animals altogether. It is veganism that keeps them up at night. As long as people keep eating meat, they’re happy. (The only time I’ve ever heard 50 big food executives fall into a stunned, collective silence is when I spoke extensively about the numerous benefits of veganism in a talk I gave to the National Corn Growers Association.)

If the prospect of simultaneously giving corporate food executives nightmares while achieving personal dietary empowerment — not to mention lowering your carbon footprint and minimizing animal suffering — has any appeal, then veganism is for you. But here’s the thing: You have to do it right, and doing it right means consuming a broad diversity of nutrient-rich plants. A good start toward doing that is available in these books and on these websites: 21-Day Vegan KickstartBecoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based DietVegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based

Reason to Go Vegan #4: The Inner Voice

I don’t want to speak for others, but I feel safe in saying that people who consistently promote the virtues of dietary veganism find themselves constantly under siege by the society they want to reform. On the one hand, the essence of our message could not be simpler: animals are worth our moral compassion; we should thus not inflict purposeful or unnecessary suffering up them; raising animals to kill and eat them–or to enslave them for their milk or eggs– causes purposeful and unnecessary suffering; therefore we should not eat meat or meat based products.

On the other hand, this message, no matter how hard we work to reduce it to its powerful essence, is drowned out in a chorus of objections and rationalizations: it’s natural to eat meat; it’s my right to eat what I want to eat; if we didn’t raise and kill the animals they would never have enjoyed a life; humans have always done it; the animal I ate was treated with dignity; the human body is “designed” to eat meat; eating meat is a cultural expression; your veganinism is a “lifestyle” choice; etc. You’ve heard these positions. They haunt your dreams. You know them well.

These counter-arguments, none of which even remotely come close to undermining the essential moral issue at stake, are fired at vegan advocates as if they are self-evident truths, evidence that our promotion of veganism is due to little else than an anthropormorphic affection for cute, fuzzy animals. To my fellow travelers, I urge you: don’t let the chorus wear you down. Perhaps it’s too early to start quoting Steve Jobs, but something he said in his 2005 Stanford address has stuck with me, and will always be advice I will heed: “Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” 



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