Tuesday, December 30, 2008

a polite and respectful dialogue between omnivores and vegans

Well, one can hope.

The comments section in the "vegan cupcakes are stalking me" post was getting too long, and I think that my self-indulgent use of hyperbole was probably not helping my arguments any, so I'm going to give it all a take 2 here, play nice, and address the arguments that MediaMer put forward. It would be easy to just shrug and say "well, we can agree to disagree" but there's not much else to post about now except how much supermarket produce sucks and how I am counting the hours until I can buy real vegetables again (approximately 12, if they can pick anything tomorrow morning) which frankly isn't that interesting so we might as well tackle this.

First, for Adrienne - I have tasted the vegan cupcakes, they are not good - very bland and sweet - and sugar is WAY worse for you than meat, I'm pretty sure even the most mainstream medical professionals would agree on that.

On to why I don't think veganism is a good idea:

MediaMer wrote: B12: Agreed, this is a vitamin you would need to supplement on a vegan diet. But you know what, docs recommend that we all take a daily multi-vitamin. And since that applies to omnivores and vegans alike, it's hard to use it as a case for eating meat.

Does it not strike you as kind of wrong, in a very fundamental sense, that everyone's diet should be so insufficient for basic health that we need to supplement with pills? To me, that says more that the diets most people eat are deficient, vegan diets a bit more so. That doesn't equate to "so we should all go vegan". What we SHOULD do is look at WHY our diets are deficient. I'm pretty sure that the main reason is the way food is produced - industrial, efficiency-based rather than quality-based agriculture and manufacturing. Our soils have been steadily depleted since industrial agriculture began, stripped of minerals. The plants that grow in those soils, and the animals that eat those plants, are themselves deficient and unable to either take up soil nutrients that aren't there, or create the vitamins and nutrients from those nutrients. Moreover, use of chemical fertilizers instead of compost and manure removes bacteria from the soil that the plants need, and that humans and animals require for our own guts to work at their peak efficiency. More on industrial agriculture, evils thereof, later.

2. Complete protein: How about Quinoa? Buckwheat? Amaranth? Beans & rice? It's naive to assert that you can only find complete protein in animal products.

While it's true that certain grains and legumes can, either on their own or in combination, provide the right ratio of essential amino acids, it's not all about the protein. You have to consider what goes along with the protein, and how those things interact. Let's do a side-by-side comparison of quinoa vs. chicken leg - and bear in mind that the only nutrient data I have to work with is the USDA nutrient database, which is no doubt based on industrially farmed foods, not organic for the quinoa or pastured for the chicken. I think it's safe to assume that mineral content and some vitamin content (for ex. vit E in the quinoa, and A in the chicken) would be higher if that were the case.

1 cup quinoa (185 g) contains: 222 calories, 8 g protein, 3.5 g fat, 39 g carbohydrate of which 5g are fibre and 32g are pure starch. It also contains 31 mg calcium (2% RDA) and 2.76 mg iron (15% female RDA). Vitamin-wise, we're looking at no vitamin C, D, B5, B12 or K; vit B1 (13% RDA), B2 (14%), B3 (3%), B6 (11%), folate (20%), vitA (<1%), vitE (23%).

1 cup chicken leg (140 g) contains: 325 calories, 36g protein, 18 g fat, 0 g carbohydrate. It also contains 17 mg calcium, 1.86 mg iron. Vitamin-wise, we have no vit C; B1(6% RDA), B2(17%), B3(53%), B5 (16%), B6 (35%), folate (2.5%), choline (20%), betaine (7.4 mg, no RDA exists), B12 (18%), A (5%), E (5%), K (7%).

While quinoa has more minerals than the chicken, bear in mind that chickens contain bones that can and should be boiled into broth using a mild acidifying agent to leach calcium. Bone broth has very high levels of calcium. Additionally, the iron in chicken is heme iron, which is a lot more bioavailable than non-heme iron, although the bioavailability of non-heme iron can be enhanced with the ingestion of citrus fruits at the same time, you would still not get the benefit of all the iron in plant sources. Also (and most vegans would know this and take advantage of it) grains contain phytates that block germination until neutralized; they also block mineral absorption in the intestines. In order to neutralize phytates grains need to be soaked in a mildly acidic solution or sprouted, otherwise the minerals in them and any food ingested at the same time are not readily available to the body.

Aside from the minerals, the chicken provides more of everything except starch. Protein-wise, assuming that the average person needs about a gram of protein per kg body weight (give or take, depending on activity level), an average 68 kg person would have fulfilled more than half their entire day's requirement for protein with that one cup of chicken, plus they'd be much further ahead in most of the vitamins. The person eating the quinoa would still need an additional 60 g of protein - more than 7 cups of quinoa.

And what about that starch? Humans don't really need it. Back in the good old days when we were all hunter-gatherers, we didn't get a lot of starch in our diets. We were lean, and by most estimations far healthier than we are today. Of course, we didn't have fun antibiotics and life was a good deal more hazardous, but by all acounts hunter-gatherers had it good, health-wise. The addition of a large proportion of starch in our diets resulted in more body fat, but not better health. Unfortunately that resulted in a lot more people, generally, which kind of got us stuck with agriculture. And wealth disparity, and all sorts of other crap. But that's a whole 'nother topic.

Meats are the most nutrient-dense way of getting protein and fat. If you rely on grain or legume sources for protein, you will get a lot of surplus starch and not quite enough vitamins (and possibly minerals, although this is more likely a problem with depleted soil and not inherent to grains and legumes.) Eating meat leaves more room for vegetables, and all their myriad and lovely healthy vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Also I would like to point out that most omnivores eat WAAAAYYY too much meat. A couple eggs and a small serving of meat is plenty per day. You do not need bacon and eggs for breakfast, a ham sandwich for lunch and a 12 oz steak for dinner. If you eat enough meat-based protein, but not too much, and fill the rest of your daily food needs with vegetables and fruits, you are rockin', health-wise.

Saturated fat: Major medical organizations (CDC, AHA, WHO, for starters) have repeatedly shown that consumption of saturated fats can contribute to prostate and breast cancers, dangerous cholesterol levels, and increased risks of cardiovascular disease and stroke. I'm not quoting the Wisalla Times; we're talking Harvard University studies. We should all be reducing our intake of these types of fats. Yes, vegan sources stem from tropical oils. But the carbon footprint of supplying coconut oil in the quantise that folks would healthily be consuming is FAR less than the environmental impact of factory farming.

And I'm not talking about factory farming. Couldn't agree with you more, factory farming is bad bad bad AND evil. Also, those highly esteemed Harvard University studies are based on - yup - factory-farmed meat. Which, in addition to being bad for the environment, is also bad for YOU. The omega 3:6 ratio of factory-farmed beef is completely off (something like 1:10 instead of 1:2) and the sheer amount of saturated fat in factory-farmed beef is just way overboard. Also, consider that fats concentrate environmental toxins and hormones and whatnot, and it's easy to see how the fats of animals that are pumped full of crap are not a healthy thing to consume. That having been said, I know of NO studies that look at saturated fat consumption while also controlling for not only carbohydrate intake but also individual tolerance for carbohydrates, which varies considerably, and the whole cholesterol thing is a big bag of modern-medicine-mighta-messed-it-up-ness.

When you spoke of "running screaming from the problems of animal welfare," were you categorizing my efforts or just expressing your frustration with the vegan community as a whole? I fail to see how discussing the merits of a vegan lifestyle is equated with running for the hills. If I eschew animal products in support of my beliefs of animal rights that makes me ignorant? If I engage in a discussion on your opposing beliefs that's sticking my head in the sand? Surely, you can't be suggesting that the only way to support animal welfare is by eating them!

I was more frustrated with the vegan community as a whole. And, perhaps I am misunderstanding, but I am under the impression that vegans are opposed to animal husbandry altogether. If the vegan community were to prevail in this, thousands of species, subspecies and breeds would disappear - and there is a growing understanding among many ethical philosophers that while individual interests apply to animals, species and population interests may also apply too, and to make it worse, these are species and breeds that WE created. It's just not right to let them fade out of existence because we changed our morality. But basically, what I object to is the notion that a life that ends with getting eaten by a human is not worth living, and that it's wrong to create it in the first place.

I know there are vegans who believe we are not, biologically, omnivores, and if you believe that then there's no amount of science and logic that will sway you so you might as well bail out now. But if you accept that we ARE omnivores, and veganism is an ethical choice, then why? I don't think anyone is going to argue that a bear is acting unethically by munching on baby deer. By our standards, their slaughter methods are frequently cruel, but they have to eat. They have a right, by virtue of their biology, to eat other animals. Why wouldn't humans? Are we so different? We have empathy, to be sure - but we also have the capacity to provide quick and pain-free deaths and lives free of suffering. To be honest, I think the queasiness that vegans - actually, most Westerners - feel in saying "I have the right to take life and eat it" stems from a notion that unlike the rest of God's creation, we are not only imperfect, and outside of nature, but deservedly so. Unlike the innocent and perfect bear, we know too much of mortality to cause it without inflicting irreparable harm on our souls, and since we can demonstrably live without eating meat, we SHOULD.

It's a nice, easy solution. We feel sorry for the animals, we don't think we have a right to kill them by virtue of our own fear of death, so we stop eating them. There are only 2 problems with that. First, when we stop eating them (or using their wool or eggs) there ceases to be a reason for their existence, and I still maintain that existence is preferable to nonexistance. Secondly, there is ample evidence that *we* suffer without meat, health-wise. Too much starch, too few nutrients.

There's also something about veganism that strikes me as just wrong on a deeper level. I think it's the notion that it's better to remove ourselves completely from our 'natural' place in the food chain than it is to repair our relationship with that food chain. Of course, our place hasn't been natural for 10,000 years. During that time we've been taking our natural habitat and transforming it into agricultural land, farming it intensively, and trading health for reproductive ability (higher body fat % due to starch intake = less space between babies). We've outgrown the capacity of the planet to support us in our natural habitat. But going to an all-plant diet is not going to fix that, and especially not if we take animals out of the equation entirely, because sustainable intensive agriculture isn't possible without the fertilizer that they can provide. Moreover, there is SO much land that's grazeable but not arable. Rotational grazing leaves grassland healthier than no grazing, and can even restore badly eroded areas. And, it can be a sustainable source of protein, from an area that left alone would be barren. We don't HAVE to be a destructive force. I think one of the saddest legacies of industrialization is that there are now several generations of humans who have a deep-seated belief that they are, no matter what they do, a heavy burden on the earth.

Furthermore, how to you define welfare? The state of well-being, happiness, contentment? Killing a living being does not make great strides in fostering these qualities of life. You suggest that raising animals humanely is "far from the worst fate an organism can expect." But how is killing humane? [...]It's illogical to suggest that my actions would represent great morality - simply because there are worse things I could have done, like locked her up in a cage the entire time she was alive. But that's exactly what you're suggesting. Because we give cows fresh air, it's represents model ethical behavior to then slaughter them? What?You assertion that "not existing would be considerably worse" is bizarre. I'm not doing a chicken a favour by letting it roam around in a field and then slaughtering it. That doesn't make me a humanitarian. I'm not saving it from the fate of non-existence. I'm killing it. Again, you're not saving an animal by killing it. You're killing an animal by killing it.

It's not about death, it's about life. Death follows life. Nothing follows nothing. If you knew that you were going to die, say in an automobile accident, when you were 40, would you prefer just not to go through the bother of living? If you were 20? 10? Life is always worth it, no matter how it ends, and death is pretty darned inevitable, whether you're a cow or a human. But those two years or so of living contentedly munching up grass, hanging out with your cow friends, they have meaning, in the grand scheme of things. Just because it ends doesn't mean it isn't worth it. Even Peter Singer, when interviewed by Michael Pollan, admitted that it may well be preferable for domestic animals to live their happy little lives and be eaten than not exist at all. Peter Singer! What more do you want???? Oh, no death, right. Um, good luck with that.

Maybe it would be helpful if you stopped looking at the world as linear, and changed your view to be more circular. Every living thing on the planet absolutely DEPENDS on death. Death is not this huge, evil, dark force, it's part of being. Life morphs into death morphs into life. We're the only species that gets all worked up about it. I'm not advocating a *casual* attitude towards death, mind you - but a respectful, grateful, unfearful one.

And you can wax poetic about the millenia-old tradition of killing as long as you like, but at the end of the day it doesn't make you Mother Theresa - it makes you suited for a career in marketing. Slavery is an ancient institution, too. Let's bring that back! Oh, and miscegenation! And let's not forget women's suffrage. They couldn't vote until 1920 in the States, right? So the wisdom of precedence *must* indicate that our old ways of thinking were clearly superior and morally correct.

It wasn't so much the wisdom of precedence as much as the "we made this bed and we should lie in it." Interestingly, all the other examples of practices you cite have to do with human-human interactions. (I'm assuming, too that you meant anti-miscegenation... because I have quite happily indulged in miscegenation. The result is very cute, and totally legal, I assure you.)

What I'm talking about is human-animal interactions. These are fundamentally different; to suggest otherwise is anthropomorphism. We have a responsibility to these animals that we created; it's a completely different problem. You can't discredit an argument of ongoing responsibility simply by bringing up past injustices that are completely unrelated. That's like going to your bank and saying that they should forgive your loan because some Swiss bank with the same parent company took deposits from the Nazis.

Look, I appreciate the fact that you condone eating locally grown meat in moderate amounts. While I disagree, I can see your point of view from an environmental and health standpoint. Yet, it's a system that's lacks the scalability required to feed the current population of our planet. You can't feed 6.6 BILLION people by raising chickens and cows in your backyard. While that model of animal agriculture may have supported the small towns of our past, and may keep a business like Polyface Farms alive, it's killing the planet of our future. The water and land requirements of growing enough grain to feed animals will always outweigh the resources required to just grow grains and vegetables.

So, you must have missed the part about Polyface Farms where it's producing more food per acre - by weight - than the most efficient industrial monocropping, be it grains or vegetables. And, a good portion of that food is healthy protein and fat, which reduces the overall amount of food that people need. It's very management-intensive, and requires a lot of skill, something we've been carefully breeding out of farmers. But it IS scalable, just not in the way you've been conditioned to think. There wouldn't be vast Polyface farms covering the land, there would be vast NUMBERS of Polyface farms. It would be more expensive, and it would take a LOT more manpower. (On the other side of things, we can call that "employment".) But, it would also take less fuel, produce more healthful food, and preserve instead of eroding our soil. (Polyface doesn't produce just meat, it produces loads of veg too.) With the political will (which frankly I'm not optimistic about) it could certainly be done.

And, most importantly, ANIMALS SHOULD NOT EAT GRAINS. Except chickens, and then not nearly as much as are typically stuffed into the poor things. The Polyface animals eat hardly any grain, they eat grass. Again, you're confusing the argument against meat with the argument against factory farming. NOT the same thing.

In the end, I don't believe that 6 billion people can be fed for very much longer on grains and vegetables, the way we're doing it. It takes vast inputs of chemical fertilizers, and that style of agriculture just can't last. The Polyface style - starting with grass, and animals, and their manure - IS sustainable, for most of our current farmland. In other areas, different things will work. Urban agriculture. We have a small lot, but we could easily raise chickens enough for much of our meat and egg needs (our landlords used to get most of their eggs from a mere 5 chickens in the back yard, which could support more.) Goats, in managed grazing on marginal land. Reindeer ranching in the far north. Small self-sufficient holdings instead of cash crops. How much land is wasted on corn production? Tobacco? But however you look at it, small-scale agriculture is the only way to sustainable feed the planet, and small-scale agriculture NEEDS animals in some way.

I am tired, this post is too long, and if you made it this far, you're a champ, vegan or no. And I'm sure, too, that neither of us is trotting out anything NEW in the argument and we're both bashing our heads against some proverbial brick walls. But that's what the internet is for, right?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

buy fresh, buy local, actually choke down your brussel sprouts

I got a good lesson I didn't really need in why buying fresh and local is so important this Christmas. Several weeks ago, I offered to make the brussel sprouts for Christmas dinner, on the vague grounds that Rowan liked the way I did them and I didn't want her turned off brussel sprouts. Then the weather gods turned nasty and dumped a couple feet of snow on Victoria, and Dave's great plan to open the farm stand on Christmas Eve got similarly buried. You can't pick brussel sprouts if you can't find them, apparently. He did offer to let me wade through the fields and pick my own, but somehow I didn't find the time to do that.

So I went to Pepper's, which is otherwise a very nice little grocery store, and bought several pounds of "BC" brussel sprouts which, aside from not being attached to a stalk, looked fairly fresh and decent-like.

I cooked them up in my usual way, sauteed with bacon (grease included) and then steam-fried with apple juice. Normally this produces lovely sweet tasty brussel sprouts, but not this time - they were as godawful as I remember brussel sprouts from my childhood (sorry mum). Ugh. Blech. I couldn't believe some of them were actually eaten.

Lessons learned:

1) Do not ever buy brussel sprouts from a grocery store.
2) Rowan's love of brussel sprouts is in no way due to my amazing cooking skills. Dave gets ALL the credit, and he can probably take most of it for all the other veggies she likes.