This is Part One of Two in a series about our love for food, cultural practices, nutrition, the way we treat animals, what the Torah (Bible) says about eating animals, and where I think the puck is going (that last part is the one bit about entrepreneurship, or future forecasting what I believe will be a very lucrative opportunity for the right entrepreneurs). This is more about what I've learned about these topics over the past four years in adopting a mostly vegan diet than my typical Lucky7 posts about entrepreneurship (with the notable exception I just mentioned above). I will not be offended if you stop reading now, and you now understand the context if you continue to read this post. I want you to know what you are getting into before you proceed; I believe this post will be a Matrix-type learning for you ("take the red pill, Neo") and once you know the truth you cannot "unlearn" it. You have been warned. :) Having said all of that, this is a topic that I'm very passionate about. My drive to write this post comes from the many questions I get from people about my diet, so I'm writing this post to openly share what I've learned and this will also be more efficient - and comprehensive - for me than telling bits and pieces of this learning each time in conversation. My drive also comes from losing my father to a heart attack because of his diet. He was too young to pass away, and I miss him very much. I wrote a tribute to him here - he was an amazing entrepreneur and man.
Before I begin, I would like to thank my good friend, Ryan Cush (one of our best for many years at Bazaarvoice and an executive of Food on the Table, recently acquired by The Scripps Network), for discussing and reviewing this series with me. He is a wise and good man, and I always enjoy collaborating with him.
I can't remember the exact date, but it was in 2010. We had a monthly speaker series at Bazaarvoice and I had invited Rip Esselstyn, the author of The Engine 2 Diet to come speak. He gave a terrific speech - one of the most passionate I've seen. His signature line was "real men eat plants because they want to live a long time for their families". His speech rewired my thoughts about food - that I, like him, could be plant-strong. Rip looked the part - he had achieved many athletic milestones as a plant-strong triathlete. He looked good, lean and strong. I took the 30-day challenge and volunteered to lead the Bazaarvoice "Engine 2" Tribe. Around 50 people at Bazaarvoice joined me.
In all truth, the challenge was very hard. Eating is something you do at least three times per day. I had to be very conscious of what I ate. When traveling, this compounded matters. My mind played tricks on me - replaying "facts" that had been taught to me as a child, like "Doesn't your body need meat?" and "What about the protein?". Rip had addressed these questions in his talk but I had been taught by society for so long that I still asked myself these questions. But these questions were merely a disguise for what I really wanted - the taste of meat again.
The results were astonishing. Rip had suggested we take a cholesterol test at the end and my results came back so low that he said, "Now you have the blood of a world-class triathlete." I felt great. I had stayed 100% plant-strong, even with lots of travel, for 45-days straight (the challenge was 30 days). I had lost around 15 pounds and weighed around 183. The results for the other 50 Bazaarvoice people were also amazing. Some people had dropped 25 pounds and looked better than I had ever remembered them. Most importantly, they felt great too. I knew there was no going back - we had learned something very important. You could eat plants and survive - and thrive. Bring on the veggies, please.
Like everyone, my connection to food began as a child. I was a very skinny kid growing up. People said I had a great metabolism. I ate whatever tasted good, and that meant a lot of meat. My father would regularly bring back red snapper from his fishing trips. I ate a lot of fish. I ate a lot of steaks. I ate a lot of lobster. My father said my diet would motivate me to become wealthy one day because "I ate like a king".
Like many young men, I wanted to change my body when I hit puberty. I wanted to start dating and I thought that adding muscle would help. This was the era of Arnold Schwarzenegger, after all. It was time to Pump Iron. I worked out like crazy. I ate a massive amount of food. Looking back, it was so wasteful. But it worked. I went from around 140 and 6'1" when I was 14 to around 225 and 6'2" by the time I was 20. I have the stretch marks on my arms and chest to prove it; I grew that fast. It took a lot of maintenance. I needed to be at the gym at least 90 minutes almost every day. It worked, though. My dating situation improved significantly. It eventually helped me meet and marry my dream girl - we met at a gym. I knew that working out would always be a part of me. It felt good to be strong. It felt good to accomplish such a transformation.
After the Engine 2 challenge, I decided to stay on a mostly plant-based diet to maintain what I had achieved. I wanted to continue to feel great. I knew that Bazaarvoice would eventually go through an IPO and I needed all of the strength I could muster to continue to build and lead the company. So I decided to adopt a "mostly vegan, partially pescetarian" diet. I rationalized that this was the best of both worlds as seafood, especially fish, has lower cholesterol and fat content than red meat, chicken, or pork. There were a rare few times where I ate red meat again - for example, at a special company celebration (when the Bazaarvoice sales team beat their goals, for example) - or when we went to our favorite restaurants in Austin, Uchi or Uchiko. But I pretty much stuck to it for three and a half years. I bounced between 185 and 190.
When you tell people you are "mostly vegan", they start to ask questions. And they start to offer books, articles, or videos to help further your knowledge. One of my friends at the JCC told me about Gary Yourofsky and a video titled "The Animal Holocaust". It had over 1.5 millions views on YouTube at the time; today - over 2.1 million.
Gary's speech really struck a cord with me. He is a powerful speaker to say the least, and he exposes you to another side of being plant-strong - that of treating animals humanely (no differently than we treat our beloved pets). I went back to a 100% plant-based diet for awhile. But then I rationalized that I didn't have as much in common with fish as I did mammals. They endured a "silent death" under the water, so to speak. And so I went back to eating like I did before - "mostly vegan, partially pescetarian". I addressed this in my Lucky7 post "A proper vegan breakfast", where I detail the delicious and highly nutritious plant-strong (or vegan, if you prefer) smoothie recipe that I have for breakfast every morning (and our now five-year old son has also had for the past year and craves too). We later made it even better by adding raw kale, which I address in this updated Lucky7 post.
And then in January of this year Debra and I went to India on a YPO (Young President's Organization) trip. We studied Vedanta - an ancient Indian philosophy - under Swamiji Parthasarathy and it was incredibly introspective. I got in tune with myself like never before - that I was rationalizing eating animals because of the age-old "lessons" I had learned ("your body needs meat, boy"). I could just simply be plant-strong and leave it at that. If 80% of over a billion people in India could be vegetarian (a core part of them practicing Hinduism) and be just fine, why was I rationalizing this to myself? So I decided to go back to Engine 2 and leave the fish alone.
A month after making this decision, a good friend told me about the book Eating Animals by the very gifted author Jonathan Safran Foer. This book was a life-changer. It addressed so many of the thoughts I had over the past four years. Jonathan had been an off-and-on again vegetarian his whole life. In preparing for the birth of his first child, he decided to take four years to delve into what really happens to get that meat onto our plates. And what he learned affirmed his belief to become a vegetarian - but with a lot more knowledge and therefore "staying power" than ever before.
What follows below is an adaptation from a talk I gave back in June at our synagogue for the Jewish holiday Shavuot. At Congregation Agudas Achim, we have a practice where we teach each other all night long as our annual rededication to Torah study, in the spirit of Shavuot. It is beautiful practice and there are many great teachers to learn from.
The title of my talk was, "Is food connected to our spiritual well being? Should it be? Ten things I’ve learned in the last year about what is on our plates and how I think about its connection to us and G-d." I quoted frequently from Eating Animals.
1: About that "silent death" bit...
Let's start with fish. I used to think that eating wild fish was the way to go. After all, they eat a natural diet and are not swimming in tanks of filth. However, if you want to eat humanely, there is a huge problem with this. The problem is that of bycatch. Business is driven by economics, and the fishing business is no different. The shrimp supplier is paid to supply... shrimp. Shrimp are mainly caught by trawling nets over the ocean floor. Eighty to 90% of what shrimp trawlers catch is... not shrimp. What do the fishermen do with this bycatch? They throw it back into the water, either dead or dying. Shrimp represents 2% of the seafood market globally but 33% of the world's bycatch. When fishermen catch tuna - one of my favorite sources of animal protein on my previous diet - there are 145 species killed along with it, including various types of rays, sharks, sea turtles, gulls, whales, and dolphins.
As I mentioned above I made the decision to stop eating fish - to refrain from killing any animals for the sake of my diet - while I was in India. As such, this passage fromEating Animals touched my soul - as told by the famous author Franz Kafka by his close friend Max Brod:
Suddenly he began to speak to the fish in their illuminated tanks. 'Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don't eat you anymore." It was the time that he turned strict vegetarian. If you have never heard Kafka saying things of this sort with his own lips, it is difficult to imagine how simply and easily, without any affectation, without the least sentimentality--which was something almost completely foreign to him--he brought them out."
There is something profound about having spiritual peace of mind with your soul. While looking into that aquarium, Franz Kafka came to that peace. I can relate.
2: Eating Dogs?!
This is adapted from a really fascinating discussion in Eating Animals.
You would never think of eating your own dog, but yet there are cultures that eat dogs. Why don't we as Americans? There is a case to be made that we should as there is a lot of euthanized waste. Three to four million dogs and cats are euthanized every year. What happens? Their meat is rendered and it gets fed to our livestock and pets.
There is a taboo in America against eating dogs but yet it is legal in 44 states. The French love dogs but sometimes eat their horses. The Spanish love horses but sometimes eat their cows. The Indians love cows but sometimes eat their dogs. The Romans ate “suckling puppy”. In George Orwell’s book Animal Farm, albeit written in a different context, there is a quote that resonates here, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”.
From Eating Animals:
Our taboo against dog eating says something about dogs and a great deal about us. The protective emphasis is not a law of nature; it comes from the stories we tell about nature."
3: The Intelligence of "Food Animals"
We justify not eating dogs and cats because they are intelligent and affectionate - unlike the animals we eat for our food. But the reality is, this is a false differentiation. Like us, "food animals" have pain when they die. When you accidentally step on your dog or cat's tail, they cry out in pain - and you feel terrible. Pigs are especially intelligent. From Eating Animals:
Scientists have documented a pig language of sorts, and pigs will come when called (to humans or one another), will play with toys (and have favorites), and have been observed coming to the aid of other pigs in distress. Dr. Stanley Curtis, an animal scientist friendly to the industry, empirically evaluated the cognitive abilities of pigs by training them to play a video game with a joystick modified for snouts. They not only learned the games, but did so as fast as chimpanzees, demonstrating a surprising capacity for abstract representation. And the legend of pigs undoing latches continues. Dr. Ken Kephart, a colleague of Curtis's, not only confirms the ability of pigs to do this, but adds that pigs often work in pairs, are usually repeat offenders, and in some cases undo the latches of fellow pigs. If pig intelligence has been part of America's barnyard folklore, that same lore has imagined fish and chickens as especially stupid. Are they?
In 1992, only 70 peer-reviewed papers had reported on fish learning--a decade later there were 500 such papers (today it tops 640). Our knowledge of no other animal has been so quickly and dramatically revised. If you were the world expert on fish mental capacities in the 1990s, you're at best a novice today.
And chickens? There has been a revolution in scientific understanding here as well. Dr. Lesley Rogers, a prominent animal physiologist, discovered the lateralization of avian brains--the separation of the brain into left and right hemispheres with different specialties--at a time when this was believed to be a unique property of the human brain. (Scientists now agree that lateralization is present throughout the animal kingdom.)"
4: Factory Farming Produces 99%+ of Our Meat
This is the most disturbing part of Eating Animals to me, and it is what Gary Yourofsky is getting at when he uses the controversial term "animal holocaust". Today, factory farms in the US are responsible for over 99% of our meat. Factory farms are business scale and economics at it's best (or worst, depending on your point of view) - the maximization of profits and the "wise" use of the "raw materials".
Let's start with how many of these "food animals" we eat in America. From Eating Animals:
On average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime--one animal for every letter on the last five pages [sic].
How many zoos is that? 21,000 entire animals - per person.
Now let's look at factory farming from a macro view. From Eating Animals:
More than any set of practices, factory farming is a mind-set: reduce production costs to the absolute minimum and systematically ignore or 'externalize' such costs as environmental degradation, human disease, and animal suffering. For thousands of years, farmers took their cues from natural processes. Factory farming considers nature an obstacle to be overcome.
In the typical cage for egg-laying hens, each bird has 67 square inches of space--the size of this rectangle [sic]. Nearly all cage-free birds have approximately the same amount of space.
The combination of line speeds that have increased as much as 800 percent in the past hundred years and poorly trained workers laboring under nightmarish conditions guarantees mistakes. (Slaughterhouse workers have the highest injury rate of any job--27 percent annually--and receive low pay to kill as many as 2,050 cattle a shift.)
But let's take a "balanced" approach here and look at how one would rationalize such a practice. Quoting an unnamed factory farmer in Eating Animals:
"Look, the American farmer has fed the world. He was asked to do it after World War II, and he did it. People have never had the ability to eat like they can now. Protein has never been more affordable. My animals are protected from the elements, get all the food they need, and grow well. Animals get sick. Animals die. But what do you think happens to animals in nature? You think they die of natural causes? You think they're stunned before they're killed? Animals in nature starve to death or are ripped apart by other animals. That's how they die."
Quoting Frank Reese, a more humane poultry farmer, in Eating Animals:
"People are so removed from food animals now. When I grew up, the animals were taken care of first. You did chores before you ate breakfast. We were told that if we didn't take care of the animals, we weren't going to eat. We never went on vacations. Somebody always had to be here. I remember we had day trips, but we always hated them because if we didn't get home before dark, we knew we'd be out in the pasture trying to get the cows in, and we'd be milking cows in the dark. It had to be done no matter what. If you don't want that responsibility, don't become a farmer. Because that's what it takes to do it right. And if you can't do it right, don't do it. It's that simple. And I'll tell you another thing: if consumers don't want to pay the farmer to do it right, they shouldn't eat meat."
"People care about these things. And I don't mean rich city people. Most of the folks who buy my turkeys are not rich by any means; they're struggling on fixed incomes. But they're willing to pay more for the sake of what they believe in. They're willing to pay the real price. And to those who say it's just too much to pay for a turkey, I always say to them, 'Don't eat turkey.' It's possible you can't afford to care, but it's certain you can't afford not to care.
"Everyone's saying buy fresh, buy local. It's a sham. It's all the same kind of bird, and the suffering is in their genes. When the mass-produced turkey of today was designed, they killed thousands of turkeys in their experiments. Should it be shorter legs or shorter keel bone? Should it be like this or like this? In nature, sometimes human babies are born with deformities. But you don't aim to reproduce that generation after generation. But that's what they did with turkeys."
From Eating Animals:
Every time you make a decision about food, Paul [Willis, a Niman Ranch farmer] pleaded, quoting [Wendell] Berry, "you are farming by proxy."
In The Art of the Commonplace, Berry sums up just what is at stake in the idea of "farming by proxy." [Berry writes:] 'Our methodologies…have come more and more to resemble the methodology of mining…This is sufficiently clear to many of us. What is not sufficiently clear, perhaps to any of us, is the extent of our complicity, as individuals and especially as individual consumers, in the behavior of the corporations…Most people…have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food.'
How about the USDA, who is there to "protect" us? What role do they play? FromEating Animals:
In a striking example of the food industry influence, Nestle argues that the USDA currently has an informal policy to avoid saying that we should 'eat less' of any food no matter how damaging its health impact may be. Thus, instead of saying 'eat less meat' (which might be helpful), they advise us to 'keep fat intake to less than 30 percent of total calories' (which is obscure to say the least). The institution we have put in charge of telling us when foods are dangerous has a policy of not (directly) telling us when foods (especially if they are animal products) are dangerous.
5: How "Food Animals" Are Treated
The way animals are treated in these factory farms - from conception, to birth, to death - is very disturbing. And this includes us as animals too - the people that work in these factory farms. There are many issues with slaughter, which I won't go into in detail in this post but you can dive into in Eating Animals.
From Eating Animals:
The demand for lean pig meat--"the Other White Meat," as it's been sold to us--has led the pork industry to breed pigs that suffer not only more leg and heart problems, but greater excitability, fear, anxiety, and stress. (This is the conclusion of researchers providing data for the industry.) These excessively stressed animals have the industry worried, not because of their welfare, but because, as mentioned earlier, "stress" seems to negatively affect taste: the stressed animals produce more acid, which actually works to break down the animals' muscle in much the same way acid in our stomachs breaks down meat.
From Eating Animals:
The welfare issues associated with fish farms will sound familiar. The Handbook of Salmon Farming, an industry how-to book, details six 'key stressors in the aquaculture environment': 'water quality,' 'crowding,' 'handling,' 'disturbance,' 'nutrition,' and 'hierarchy.' To translate into plain language, those six sources of suffering for salmon are: (1) water so fouled that it makes it hard to breathe; (2) crowding so intense that animals begin to cannibalize one another; (3) handling so invasive that physiological measures of stress are evident a day later; (4) disturbance by farmworkers and wild animals; (5) nutritional deficiencies that weaken the immune system; and (6) the inability to form a stable social hierarchy, resulting in more cannibalization. These problems are typical. The handbook calls them 'integral components of fish farming.'
More on wild seafood farming from Eating Animals:
One study found that roughly 4.5 million sea animals are killed as by catch in longline fishing every year, including roughly 3.3 million sharks, 1 million marlins, 60,000 sea turtles, 75,000 albatross, and 20,000 dolphins and whales.
Does all this matter--matter enough that we should change what we eat? Maybe all we need is better labels so we can make wiser decisions about the fish and fish products we buy? What conclusion would most selective omnivores reach if attached to each salmon they ate was a label noting that 2.5-foot-long farmed salmon spend their lives in the equivalent of a bathtub of water and that the animals' eyes bleed from the intensity of the pollution? What if the label mentioned the explosions of parasite populations, increases in diseases, degraded genetics, and new antibiotic-resistant diseases that result from fish farming?
There are some things, though, we don't need labels to know. Although one can realistically 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.
Quoting from Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, in Eating Animals:
"BILL: That moment of slaughter, for me, in my experience--and I would suspect for most sensitive animal husbandry farmers--that's when you understand destiny and dominion. Because you have brought that animal to its death. It's alive, and you know when that door goes up and it goes in there that it's over. It's the most troubling moment for me, that moment when they are lined up at the slaughterhouse. I don't know quite how to explain it. That's the marriage of life and death. That's when you realize, 'God, do I really want to exercise dominion and transform this wonderful living creature into commodity, into food?'
JONATHAN: And how do you resolve that?
BILL: Well, you just take a deep breath. It doesn't get easier with numbers. People think it gets easier."
From Eating Animals:
When Temple Grandin first began to quantify the scale of abuse in slaughterhouses, she reported witnessing 'deliberate acts of cruelty occurring on a regular basis' at 32 percent of the plants she surveyed during announced visits in the United States. It's such a shocking statistic I had to read it three times.Deliberate acts, occurring on a regular basis, witnessed by an auditor--witnessed during announced audits that gave the slaughterhouse time to clean up the worst problems. What about cruelties that weren't witnessed? And what about accidents, which must have been far more common?
In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer writes about breaking into one of the coops, where poultry is raised. Why break in? Because everything is closed off to the public -they don't want you to see. The industry is incredible secretive, much like the tobacco industry has been ever since it was proved that, in fact, smoking is not good for you (like their original "doctor" ads claimed). Like The Matrix, the industry wants you to just go on eating meat - and not think about how it got on your plate. This section of his book is one of the more thrilling (my heart was pounding) - and disturbing - parts. I highly recommend you buy the book and read it; he is a very gifted author.
6. The Cost to Our Environment
From Eating Animals:
Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change. Today a typical pig factory farm will produce 7.2 million pounds of manure annually, a typical broiler facility will produce 6.6 million pounds, and typical cattle feedlot 344 million pounds. The General Accounting Office (GAO) reports that individual farms 'can generate more raw waste than the populations of some U.S. cities.' 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 yet there is almost no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals--no toilets, obviously, but also no sewage pipes, no one hauling it away for treatment, and almost no federal guidelines regulating what happens to it.
Smithfield's [America's leading pork producer] earnings look impressive--the company had sales of 12 billion in 2007--until one realizes the scale of costs they externalize: the pollution from the shit, of course, but also the illnesses caused by that pollution and the associated degradation of property values (to name only the most obvious externalizations). Without passing these and other burdens on to the public, Smithfield would not be able to produce the cheap meat it does without going bankrupt. As with all factory farms, the illusion of Smithfield's profitability and 'efficiency' is maintained by the immense sweep of its plunder.
And what about our health? From Eating Animals:
WHO [World Health Organization] officials now have at their fingertips the most massive assemblage of scientific data ever gathered about a potential new flu pandemic. So it is quite unnerving that this very suit-and-tie-and-long-white-jackets, very now-don't-everyone-panic type of institution has the following list of 'things you need to know about pandemic influenza' for its constituency, which is everyone: "The world may be on the brink of another pandemic. All countries will be affected. Widespread illness will occur. Medical supplies will be inadequate. Large numbers of deaths will occur. Economic and social disruption will be great."
From Eating Animals:
Needless to say, jamming deformed, drugged, overstressed birds together in a filthy, waste-coated room is not very healthy. Beyond deformities, eye damage, blindness, bacterial infections of bones, slipped vertebrae, paralysis, internal bleeding, anemia, slipped tendons, twisted lower legs and necks, respiratory diseases, and weakened immune systems are frequent and long-standing problems on factory farms. Scientific studies and government records suggest that virtually all (upwards of 95 percent of) chickens become infected with E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. Around 8 percent of birds become infected with salmonella (down from several years ago, when at least one in four birds was infected, which still occurs on some farms). Seventy to 90 percent are infected with another potentially deadly pathogen, campylobacter. Chlorine baths are commonly used to remove slime, odor, and bacteria. From Eating Animals: There is a glaring reason that the needed total ban on non therapeutic use of antibiotics hasn't already occurred: the factory farm industry (in alliance with the pharmaceutical industry) currently has more power than public-health professionals. The source of the industry's immense power is not obscure. We give it to them. We have chose, unwittingly, to fund this industry on a massive scale by eating factory-farmed animals products (and water sold as animal products)--and we do so daily.
7. What About Family Farms?
What about the farm to table movement? Well, you still have the issue of how the "food animals" were slaughtered. As factory farming continues to rise, the bigger corporations continue to control more of the costs in the system and that means acquiring more of the end-to-end production, including the slaughter houses. They will continue to focus on increasing scale and reducing costs, and much to the detriment of the animals and the workers that slaughter them. The turnover rate for employees in these factory farm slaughterhouses is over 100% per year - meaning that, on average, 100% of the employees that work in them either quit (most likely) or are fired every single year.
There is a stirring story about this in Eating Animals as it pertains to Frank Reese, the more humane poultry farmer quoted earlier. I won't give it away here - instead, again, just buy the book.
8. But Eating Meat Is Part of Our Cultural "Norms"
Opening this section with an excerpt from Eating Animals:
Thinking about eating animals, especially publicly, releases unexpected forces into the world. The questions are charged like few others. From one angle of vision, meat is just another thing we consume, and matters in the same way as the consumption of paper napkins or SUVs--if to a greater degree. Try changing napkins at Thanksgiving, though--even do it bombastically, with a lecture on the immorality of such and such a napkin maker--and you'll have a hard time getting anyone worked up. Raise the question of a vegetarian Thanksgiving, though, and you'll have no problem eliciting strong opinions--at least strong opinions. The question of eating animals hits chords that resonate deeply with our sense of self--our memories, desires, and values. Those resonances are potentially controversial, potentially threatening, potentially inspiring, but always filled with meaning. Food matters and animals matter and eating animals matters even more. The question of eating animals is ultimately driven by our intuitions about what it means to reach an ideal we have named, perhaps incorrectly, 'being human.'
Smoking used to be a part of our cultural norms too (and for some, it still is). Look, I get it. I've been through this change. It is hard to change; people in general hate change. Many management consultants will tell you to embrace change, but it is very, very difficult to do. The best entrepreneurs are the best at changing - when they need to (the best are also the best at standing their ground when they know their actions are right). And so are the best people. Only you can decide if any of what I've written or quoted above touches your soul or is something that you either want to ignore (try to "unlearn") or disagree with ("it doesn't matter, they are just animals and we are the superior species - they are here only to serve us and nothing else").
This change is especially "difficult" because it is one you face at every meal. Simply put, eating meat tastes good. For thousands of years, we have cultivated the taste of meat through recipes and traditions, such as turkey for Thanksgiving here in America. And we are exporting that cultivation at a stunning pace. America leads the world economically, representing over one-fifth of the world's GDP. We love our meat and in many ways we set the tone for the world. When we were traveling in France last summer, there were McDonald's everywhere - and they are more popular per restaurant, at least from what I could tell with my own eyes, than they are here. When traveling in Portugal and Spain this summer, we noticed the same. America is great at international business - and many of the best in the world come to study in our schools for higher education (college, masters, and PhDs). That includes the export of our economically more honed (i.e., built for scale) factory farms. As the world grows in wealth, what will that mean for meat consumption - and health? Everyone wants a taste of the "good life". For more on this, I highly recommend watching the documentary Forks Over Knives. You can watch it on Netflix as a subscriber or it is available for purchase everywhere.
9. My Mom Always Said, "Drink More Milk"
The word "vegan" is an emotionally charged word for many. This is why some prefer to use the term "plant-strong" or "plant-based". Whenever I tell someone I eat vegan, I usually get this wild look and they ask, "But what about milk and cheese?!" It is true that you are not directly killing the animal when you drink milk but in most cases you are indirectly (when the cow or chicken - in the case of eggs - goes off to slaughter after their "production efficiency" falls to be "unprofitable"). As Gary Yourofsky's video shows, cows are treated inhumanely at the factory farms that are in the business of producing milk. And there is plenty in Eating Animals about how egg-laying hens are treated before they too are sent off to slaughter.
There are personal health implications of drinking milk too. This is a long subject, so I'll simply refer you again to the documentary Forks Over Knives, and specifically the China study. Gary Yourofsky also details this to some extent in his speech. The short of it is that there is a direct link between casein (dairy protein) and the spread of cancer as well as other health problems. Nature sets a great example for us here. What other animal drinks the breast milk from another species, and drinks any breast milk at all after infancy? The dairy industry has spent billions of marketing dollars convincing us that we (especially our kids) need to drink milk every day - it's pure marketing. And if you think of milk as a good protein source and want to slay the protein myth, read this article by ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll.
10. A Bonus - What about Celiac?
Unfortunately, it seems that the same forces that are bringing lower costs into the system are creating some problems in plant-based food, especially wheat. I personally have no problem with wheat and the Engine 2 Diet advocates eating whole-wheat based breads. But I understand the problem and that it has a serious effect on some people. The latest figures I've heard are around 7%. Partially because of this there is also a big debate on GMO-based plants. Personally, I would rather have GMO-based plants than inhumane treatment of animals in factory farms. I'm not sure where to net out on this one and it deserves more research over time.
So those are the ten. Now let's connect all of this to religion for a moment. QuotingEating Animals again:
This raises a difficult question, which I ask not as a thought experiment but straightforwardly: In our world--not the shepherd-and-flock world of the Bible, but our overpopulated one in which animals are treated legally and socially as commodities--is it even possible to eat meat without 'causing pain to one of God's living creatures,' to avoid (even after going to great and sincere lengths) 'the desecration of God's name'? Has the very concept of kosher meat become a contradiction in terms?"
At least one Orthodox rabbi is swearing off kosher meat, as this WSJ essay points out. Quoting Shmuly Yanklowitz from the article:
Kosher meat, like kosher food in general, brings many Jews feelings of comfort and security, based on its mandatory rabbinic supervision and its spiritual link with Jewish heritage. As I learned about the reality of industrial kosher slaughter, however, I began to realize how far current practices of animal treatment and slaughter are from the traditional ethical values. I also found out that animals sent to kosher slaughterhouses are raised on the same cruel farms as those sent to nonkosher slaughter. As that reality sank in, I concluded that I would need to forgo the consumption of meat. I simply couldn't spiritually separate what I was eating from the knowledge of its origin.
Let's turn to the Torah for a moment, as my friend and rabbi Rick Brody helped me with this section of my talk at Congregation Agudas Achim with his Torah article on creation, animals, and diet.
Quoting Genesis 1:24-30:
And God said, Let the earth bring forth animated life, [each] according to its species, beast and creeper, and earth-life, [each] according to its species; and it was so. 25 And God made the earth-life, [each] according to its species, and the beast(s) according to its species, and every ground-creeper according to its species; and God saw that is was good. 26 And God said, Let us make a grounds-keeper (humanity) with our imprint, like our character; and let them have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with the beast(s), and with all the earth, and with the entire [range of] creeper that creeps upon the earth. 27 So God created the grounds-keeper with God's imprint, with the Divine imprint God created it; male and female God created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion with the fish of the sea, and the flow of the sky and with all life that creeps upon the earth.' 29 And God said, 'Look, I have given you every seed-bearing herb, which is upon the face of all the earth, and the entire [range of] tree that has seed-bearing tree-fruit on it: to you it shall be for food. 30 And to all earth-life, and to all fowl of the sky, and to every creeper upon the earth that has animated life in it, [I have given] every green herb for food;' and it was so."
But later in Genesis, with Noah, there was a shift. Quoting Genesis 9:1-4:
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon all earth-life, and upon all fowl of the sky, with all that shall creep on the ground, and with all the fishes of the sea; in your hand they are delivered. 3 Every creeper thing that lives shall be food for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. 4 But flesh with its animation--its blood--you shall not eat.'
Quoting Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik from The Emergence of Ethical Man:
Man-animal became a life-killer, an animal-eater. He became blood-thirsty and flesh-hungry.
Is the Torah very happy about this change? Somehow we intuitively feel the silent, tragic note that pervades the whole chapter. The Torah was compelled to concede defeat to human nature that was corrupted by man himself and willy-nilly approved the radical change in him.
Animal-hunters and flesh-eaters are people that lust. Of course it is legalized, approved. Yet it is classified as ta'avah [Num. 11:4, 34], lust, repulsive and brutish.
The real motif that prompts such unquestionable antagonism toward slaying of animals is the aboriginal Jewish thought [that]…man and animal are almost identical in their organic dynamics that is equated with life, and there is no justifiable reason why one life should fall prey to another. Why should a cunning intelligence that granted man dominion over his fellow animals also give him license to kill?
Nevertheless, the Torah again calls a desire for meat ta'avah, lust; while the Torah tolerates it, it is far from fully approving it.
Let's turn back to Eating Animals as there are some relevant quotes from Bill Niman and his wife, Nicolette, who helped him with Niman Ranch but herself is a vegetarian. If you aren't familiar with Niman Ranch, it is served at very high-end restaurants and strives to be more humane in its treatment of animals it raises for food. First a section from Nicolette's interview in Eating Animals:
"I believe it's a noble thing to be raising animals for wholesome food--to provide an animal a life with joy and freedom from suffering. Their lives are taken for a purpose. And I think that's essentially what all of us hope for: a good life and an easy death."
"Now, that doesn't mean we have to eat animals. I feel I can personally make a choice to refrain from consuming meat for my own individual reasons. In my case, it's because of the particular connection I've always felt with animals. I think it would bother me somewhat to eat meat. It would just make me feel uncomfortable. For me, factory farming is wrong not because it produces meat, but because it robs every animal of every shred of happiness. To put it another way, if I stole something, that would weigh on my conscience because it would be inherently wrong. Meat isn't inherently wrong. And if I ate some, my reaction would probably be limited to a feeling of regret."
And now quoting from Bill Niman:
"I say meat eating is natural because vast numbers of animals in nature eat the flesh of other animals. This includes, of course, humans and our prehuman ancestors, who began eating meat over 1.5 million years ago. In most parts of the world and for most of animal and human history, meat eating has never been simply a matter of pleasure. It's been the basis for survival.
"Meat's nourishment as well as meat eating's ubiquity in nature are powerful indications to me that it's appropriate. Some attempt to argue that it's wrong to look to natural systems to determine what is morally acceptable because behaviors like rape and infanticide have been found to exist in the world. But this argument doesn't hold water because it points to aberrant behaviors. Such events do not occur as a matter of course in animal populations. Clearly, it would be foolish to look to aberrant behaviors to determine what is normal and acceptable. But the norms of natural ecosystems hold boundless wisdom about economy, order, and stability. And meat eating is (and always has been) the norm in nature."
So where are we left with this Torah study, combined with these quotes from Eating Animals and my ten lessons learned? It seems that - from a religious perspective, at least a Judeo/Christian one - meat eating is tolerated. But that doesn't mean that G-d would approve of the gluttony and inhumane way we are doing it today, nor should we. It is one thing if you are a wandering tribe in the desert, always hungry and searching for food. It is another if you live in a country where so many are overweight, eating Big Macs and gorging on other tastes of the "good life". Most are ignorant - either willfully or innocently - to how that food actually got on their plate in the first place - and they are driving up our healthcare costs and the costs to our environment at a careless rate. Humans have dominion over animals, and the choice is yours. You can choose a healthier and more humane lifestyle - and exercise our dominion over animals in a peaceful and compassionate way, or you can rationalize or justify eating meat because it just tastes too damn good, is too engrained in your culture to change, and face the health, economic, and environmental consequences of doing so. For me, it was complex in some ways - but very simple in others ways - choice of health, humanity, and spirituality. And a powerful choice I can exercise every day, every few hours, at every meal.
If you got this far in this post, thank you for reading and please add comments below and I'll do my best to address each one of them. If you want to dive further on all of this, below are some of the sources that most educated me over the past four years.
Part Two of this series is now live if you would like to continue to learn about what I believe the future holds as well as how you can adopt a more humane and healthy diet overall.
- Forks Over Knives
- Glass Walls - narrated by vegetarian and music legend Paul McCartney
- Gary Yourofsky
- The Meatrix - this is the only video I have shown to our children (you judge whether or not you think it is okay to show to yours, if you would like to educate them a bit on this subject)
- Eating Animals - if there is one book you buy, this is the one
- Engine2 Diet - vegans can be strong, lean, and very athletic; this book shows you how
- Thrive - a good book for recipes by another plant-strong athlete and the creator of my favorite vegan protein powder, Vega Sport (used in my nutrition-dense and delicious smoothie recipe)