Sunday, August 01, 2010

F--k It, I'm Going Vegan

I just read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. At times I found Foer's writing extremely pretentious (e.g., five pages of "Influence/Speechlessness" repeated over and over, consisting of 21,000 letters, which is how many entire animals the average American eats in a lifetime.) But in general I thought it was well written and enjoyable. I think Foer assumes to some degree that the reader agrees with (or at least doesn't virulently oppose) three ideas: factory meat farming is (1) inefficient (it takes from 6 to 26 plant calories to make 1 meat calorie), (2) environmentally horrible ("All told, farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population--roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second. The polluting strength of this shit is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage.") and (3) extremely cruel (cages are so small animals can't turn around. Watch Meet Your Meat if you need convincing).

A few chapters of the book are aimed at beating these points home, but most of the book seems aimed at the Michael Pollan or Eric Schlosser-inspired "friendly meat" eaters--those who would try to eat mostly sustainably raised and ethically slaughtered animals--and looks at whether that makes any sense, or whether vegetarianism is the only way to go. (As an aside, I can't rule out the fact that the book does indeed spend a lot of time on the initial three ideas and I just found the more nuanced friendly meat/no meat discussion more interesting.) I found this discussion thoughtful and enlightening. I myself became vegetarian after reading a Michael Pollan NYT article (and having cows constantly poop in my water on the CDT). Even though Pollan doesn't advocate for vegetarianism, vegetarianism seemed a lot more logically consistent, and I knew if I was a grass-fed/family-farmed only guy, I'd still end up eating meat whenever I felt like it and contributing to factory farming practices. I think that's pretty much how Foer feels. Farms like those of Niman Ranch and Frank Reese (practically the only turkey farmer whose turkeys can actually reproduce on their own) are way better than those of Smithfield, but vegetarianism is even better. I've often said that if I move to Montana and my neighbor shoots his cow with a high-powered rifle after letting it live to a ripe old age after walking freely and eating natural grass on his land where it would be very inefficient to grow crops and then offered me 20 pounds to put in my freezer, I wouldn't find anything wrong with that. I still think that's basically reasonable, but I'm not looking forward to it.

I've been veg for about two and a half years, and I think it's about time I gave veganism a try. I never buy cow's milk or eggs for my own groceries, but I'm often OK with them if they get served to me or sometimes at restaurants, and I still buy butter and parmesan cheese. What would it take to change?
Eggs: no problem.
Milk: growing up without coffee I find it now makes me agitated and unable to concentrate, so fine, I can live without cream in my coffee, or coffee at all, or milk. Oh crap, milk chocolate. Suck!
Butter: bummer, this clearly tastes better than any substitute, but they make veg-oil spreads without any hydrogenated oils, so I'll have to try it. I'll miss it in baking, but I've seen shortening without hydrogenation, hopefully it works reasonably well.
Cheese: no problem.
Honey: buying honey probably increases demand for bees, which help other plants grow, so I'm still eating this.
Leather: After reading The World Without Us, I'm of the opinion that I don't like plastics and anything nuclear, because they essentially never go away. So I'm not convinced that a little animal use is worse than the polyester/petroleum alternative. I have no stats to back that up, but that's how I feel. Obviously, go with the plant-based alternative if one is available.
Down: See above.
Wool: See above. I wish cotton insulated when wet, but it doesn't. You can't win 'em all.(Any thoughts/tips?)

Two final minor things about the book. Foer discusses chicken and pig farming in detail (tiny cages, tons of shit, abuse, causing disease through overuse of antibiotics), but glosses over beef. He claims that the cattle industry is by far the least horrible type of factory meat farming, but he also couldn't get inside a slaughter house to witness anything for himself. His claim might very well be true, but if so, why is that the case? And it was still a little disappointing to read the less-detailed coverage.

I will end with a Foer's aside on fish, but first, aside-aside: Anyone read Paul Greenberg's Four Fish? It's on my list.

After describing how farmed fish are cruelly raised and how both farmed and wild fish are cruelly killed:
"Although one can reasonably expect that at least some percentage of cows and pigs are slaughtered with speed and care, no fish gets a good death. Not a single one. You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did.

Whether we're talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that's not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That's the question."


  1. I like to believe my wishy washy vegetarian leanings are what made you go whole hog as it were. I am likely kidding myself. I always request a vegan meal while flying. I feel it helps me swallow the environmental impact of flight.

  2. Interesting hypothesis. Remember that time I got super pissed at you for selectively claiming to be vegetarian at some bbq we went to? I kind of like the idea that your bad example made me set the temperature higher, but it had nothing to do with my deciding to turn the oven on in general, if you will.

  3. Also, do you have any comments on baking w/o butter?

  4. I like that you've weighed you options, analyzed various aspects of veganism and chose which of them you prefer/agree with. I'm in agreement with your opinions on leather and down but I happen to live in Montana and am doing a fairly decent job of eating meat that was grown within a hundred miles of my home. Cop out? Perhaps, but as strongly as I agree with a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle I do not yet have the motivation to live it.

    * (sorry, no butter alternate suggestions for you)

  5. Crisco and margarine are fine butter substitutes for baking. My family never bought butter growing up. It was too expensive. Finding a vegan margarine, however, is difficult as most have whey.

  6. That's cool they work well as a replacement. My mom never bought butter either, for the same reason. Crisco is hydrogenated, which I don't want, but I've seen organic shortening; it was a little more granular, but I assume it works. My vegan roommate always bought Earth Balance margarine type stuff, which has nothing hydrogenated (and thus how is it a solid?) nor whey.

  7. I'm at 1 year 8 months vegan - mostly I enjoy food much more, eating pleasures are no longer "guilty", and my body thrives on it.

    Butter: Mostly I let it go. I keep some olive oil in the fridge for spreading.

    Vegenaise helps me get enough fat. Others may not have that need.

    I'd be interested in your take on The China Study if you've read that - a nutritionist perspective with a lot of studies and statistics cited.

    Good luck!

  8. Cyberhobo--Not familiar with the China Study, but maybe if I get time I'll look into the stats it uses.