Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Knocking a Leg from the Meat Industry's Tripod

“The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy

Often when I think about the industrial agribusiness complex we are standing up against, it feels like an enormous wall looming over me, so immense that it can block out virtually all the light. Just the shadow from it alone can make me feel utterly powerless. From the marketing that is so ubiquitous as to be invisible to the government collusion that keeps the price of animal flesh, dairy and eggs down, it’s very tempting for those of us who are advocating on behalf of the animals our society brutalizes to want to just hide under the covers for a day or a week or, you know, a lifetime when we think about what we are up against.

If I reimagine animal agribusiness as a tripod, though, rather than an unscalable wall, and I use this framing to inform my efforts, suddenly I have something to work with rather than struggle against. With this framing, I think we will make significant inroads to turning the tide. Animal agriculture is like a tripod that is stabilized by three powerful legs: two of them are the interests of government and industry, which work together to make the products of agribusiness widely accessible, inexpensive and normalized. What is the third leg? It’s so obvious that we often overlook it. It’s us.

With all my years of studying the industry, I can’t help but notice that there are, in fact, many deep cracks that crisscross its veneer of impenetrability, extensive enough that it is actually my belief that animal agribusiness is a lot less secure and stable than it gives the impression of being. If we were to withdraw our participation and help others to do the same, we would effectively send the whole jerry-rigged system tumbling like the giant house of cards that it is. Without knocking out the leg of our participation, the machine keeps running as it has. With the knocking out of that single leg, we would be kicking over the entire tripod that underpins and props up agribusiness.

When we think about the power that the government and industry wield, not to mention the other very formidable sectors within them, like the medical industry and the lobbying sphere, these mutually vested interests become Orwellian abstractions that are almost impossible to comprehend, much less feel equipped to take on. While I don’t want to underestimate or downplay the tremendous influence of these systems, I stand by the assertion that they are still fully subject to our participation. In other words, if we concentrate our efforts on disconnecting consumer support from animal agribusiness, it doesn't stand a chance of continuing.

This is not to say that industry and government – with their marketing, resources, influence, deception, deep pockets – aren’t forceful opponents. They are and they are so monolithic as to seem impervious. I understand the feelings of despair and hopelessness we feel when we think of their supposed inescapability and this is why we should concentrate our efforts on that third leg, because it is real and it can be influenced. By going directly to people and helping them to withdraw their support of animal agribusiness, we are circumventing these parties that may have all the power in the world but cannot force products or practices upon a public that is unwilling to buy. They have used and will continue to use their best tools to keep the machine running as it is but if we divest and continue to chip deeper fissures into the industry’s façade of impenetrability, it will eventually collapse under its own weight.

That third essential leg – the stabilizing of the entire industry – is maintained by our participation: this is influenced by habit, tradition, culture, convenience, familiarity, discomfort with change, even memories. If we continue to make it easier and easier for people through education, great food, affordability, access to information, community and excellent resources, we will be cutting off the very lifeblood of participation that agribusiness needs in order to continue. In other words, each time we make it easier, more appealing, more levelheaded and more undeniably rewarding to unplug from agribusiness and plug into veganism, we weaken the giant machine that depends on our participation and we strengthen the vegan movement’s inevitability.

In her beautiful book on the practice of writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote of her brother, ten at the time, who was completely overwhelmed by a large book report he had put off until the last minute to write. Books and resource materials, paper and pencils were splayed out around him as he sat at the kitchen table, barely holding it together. Her father put his arm around her brother and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” This is the approach we need to take as well: person by person. If we continue to apply our talents, resources, attention and acumen to knocking out that third leg, I have no doubt that the entire tripod, propped up by us through our undergirding of cooperation, will crash.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie Edition with Ricki Heller


In order to introduce author Ricki Heller, I have to take a kind of long and circuitous path, sort of like a large intestine. This simile will make more sense in a minute, trust me.

First, I’ll start by saying that someone can be a health-focused vegan and still not thrive optimally. Any number of equal opportunity afflictions from chronic headaches to Crohn’s disease can strike even the most health conscious of us, though we may have reduced the likelihood and intensity of these maladies by choosing antioxidant-rich, nutritionally-dense plant foods. Ailments still happen, though, as we are not perfect machines. These problems can make some of us – even those of us who rarely get sick – feel like failures when all the alleged health benefits of veganism don’t exactly kick in as promised.

Take yeast overgrowth, for example. Candida albicans is a normal part of the healthy gut flora but for those who have CRC, or candida-related complex (including myself), this yeast has become very aggressive and voracious, resulting in the damaging of the intestinal wall, causing sexy yeast byproducts and undigested food to penetrate the bloodstream. The end result of this yeast overgrowth can manifest in a profusion maladies: bloating, fatigue, escalating food sensitivities, weight gain, abdominal pain, skin irritations (including breakouts, rashes, eczema and hives), pervasive aches and pains, mental fog, anxiety and depression are just some of the consequences that often worsen over time due to candida overgrowth. Fun, glamorous stuff. Despite the persistence and discomfort of most of the symptoms of CRC, they fall under the vague terms of “malaise” and are not typically recognized by mainstream medical professionals, which creates even more of a silencing effect around this poorly understood condition, as if anything connected to the words yeast overgrowth didn’t already do that enough. To make matters worse, those of us in the vegan community who look to alternative healing modalities (many after being brushed off by conventional medical doctors) often find ourselves in a bizarre wasteland of Weston A. Price Foundation/Paleo recommendations, which are decidedly not animal-friendly and reek of quackery.

Thankfully, we have Ricki Heller to the rescue. Ricki, a registered holistic nutritionist, describes in her new book, Living Candida-Free: Conquer the Hidden Epidemic that’s Making You Sick, a longtime struggle with symptoms of yeast overgrowth and a worsening rash that eventually covered her torso as she had ineffective cream after ineffective cream prescribed to her by multiple doctors. Her personal experience with identifying and healing from CRC has made her something of a candida guru over the years. Her very informative new book offers her wisdom and experience, as well as more than 100 accessible recipes that go with her three-stage program to combat yeast overgrowth. Living Candida-Free is further bolstered by the explanatory chapter written by functional nutritionist Andrea Nakayama, who expertly takes this complicated and confusing subject and makes it comprehensible. Those of us with CRC finally have an excellent resource and plan of action for restoring vitality and wellness. For helping people who suffer from CRC find a real path to wellness without harming animals, Ricki Heller is a true vegan foodie and a rockstar.

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?

Baking was certainly something that ran in my family. My aunt was a caterer, and my mom was a consummate from-scratch baker. As a result, I grew up in a home that had lots of homemade baked goods around all the time, and my sisters and I learned to bake from a young age. Fairly early on, that love extended to food in general, and once I went away to university and lived on my own, I really began to experiment with cooking new and different dishes. I think living in Toronto, the most multi-cultural city in the world, helps too, as there is a plethora of restaurants available for anyone who wants to explore different cuisines.

2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?

What’s funny is that my mother wasn’t the best cook even though she did make everything from scratch. So I grew up on a fairly bland, typically North American diet of mostly meat and vegetables. Because my dad was a butcher, we had meat pretty much every day. I think that the typical rebellious nature of kids took hold and my sisters and I actually loved processed, packaged and prepared foods much more than the real foods we were getting at home. So, as soon as I was able, I started buying junk food outside the home, going to McDonald’s with friends, and so on. That led to some pretty abysmal eating habits in my 20s and 30s!

We rarely ate dinner together as a family because my dad’s hours were so crazy (he often didn’t get home until 8:30 or 9:00 PM), so we kids learned to grab what we could by ourselves on weeknights. So we established a Sunday brunch tradition in the house, because that was the one time we could count on everyone to be there at the same time. I guess that sort of did translate to my current preferences, since breakfast and brunch remain my favorite meals of the day.

3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!

There’s an upscale restaurant near where I live called Terra, which used to offer a 7-course tasting menu with wine accompaniments. One year, my husband and I went for our anniversary, and he had the omnivore version while I ordered the vegan version. It was spectacular! I remember a roasted chickpea appetizer, a fabulous glazed sweet potato side dish, Portobello steak, and incredible chocolate truffles for dessert, among other things. We wanted to have it the following year, too, but by then they had stopped serving it.

A close second would be my first visit to Pure Food and Wine in New York City. That was another phenomenal meal, made even better by the group of fellow bloggers with whom my husband and I shared our evening.

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and what would you create?

The dessert would likely be a seven-layer chocolate affair with all kinds of buttercream and shaved chocolate. I imagine a dinner party with Dorothy Parker wouldn’t be boring (but then I’d want to invite the rest of the Algonquin Round Table, too)!

5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?

That’s a tough one for me because I love vegan food so much, I kind of just like it all! I don’t know how common this is, but since I’m a baker by nature, I tend to notice flaws in baked goods the most. One thing I used to find when I would buy baked goods was how they were flat or heavy on occasion. I think that’s because vegan baked goods require extra lift—leaveners like baking powder and baking soda—since they’re lacking the leavening power that’s usually supplied by eggs. But I think the quality of prepared vegan baked goods, and vegan food in general, has come a long way since I first started eating this way back in the ‘80s! 

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?

My latest ingredient love is psyllium husks. Not very sexy, but this plant husk is a great alternative to xanthan gum or guar gum for gluten-free baking. It also happens to be helpful as an anti-candida food, so I try to use it as often as I can. 

7. You are restricted to one ethnic cuisine for the rest of your life. What would you like it to be?

I think I’d love Ethiopian food. It’s naturally gluten-free and plant-heavy, and there seems to be an infinite variety of Ethiopian dishes available to try. Plus, I’ve loved every Ethiopian meal I’ve ever eaten.

8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.

Once I realized that the diet I preferred was something called “vegan,” I sought out vegan cookbooks. The first one I found that also fit my dietary restrictions at the time was SimpleTreats by Ellen Abraham and that had a profound influence on my baking. In fact, Abraham’s book was, in part, the inspiration for my own organic bakery, Bake It Healthy. I also loved Dreena Burton’s books from day one and still find that her recipes always appeal to me, and are perfectly reliable every time.

Starting my blog also opened up an entire world of vegan connections that I would never otherwise have had. I’m so grateful for all the friends I’ve made through my blog, some of whom have become friends offline as well.

9. What issue is nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like people to know more about?

Well, given where I’ve been putting my attention lately, it would have to be candida. This syndrome (caused by too much yeast in the body) is one that is thankfully gaining more attention in the media, but still has a ways to go before it’s recognized by conventional medicine as a bona fide illness. Because it’s so often an “invisible illness” with no overt signs, people can be labeled as hypochondriacs or overly anxious and doctors believe there’s nothing wrong with them. And getting treatment is double difficult for anyone on a plant-based diet, since almost all of the common anti-candida diets out there are closer to Paleo than vegan. I wanted to prove that you can beat candida on a vegan diet. It’s eminently doable!

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"

Veganism is finally gaining recognition and coming into its own in the world.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Against Non-Human Animals: How Language Shapes Our Worldview


Imagine for a moment a scene in which a turtle is talking to another turtle about a nearby rabbit. They are in a little vegetable garden together, and the main turtle, let’s call him Sheldon, nudges his friend, let’s call her Shelley, indicating the rabbit with his wrinkly turtle head.
 “See that guy over there with the long ears?” asks Sheldon.

 “You mean the non-turtle animal?” asks Shelley.

“Yes, that one. He seems to really like the carrots,” says Sheldon.

With Shelley’s framing, the rabbit has been described by what he is not, which, in this case, is not a turtle. This framing positions turtles as not only the dominant species but also the main benchmark by which this other being in the garden, the rabbit, is understood. When other beings are filtered and described through a lens that ineluctably points back at those who are describing them, they are, in effect, measured against another’s contours. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine why a vegan would find this kind of structuring problematic. At best, it is sloppy and at worst, it is another example of anthropocentric arrogance.

The phrase non-human animals is an example of a thoughtful restructuring of language, created to challenge how we conceptualize ourselves and it is used by vegans as a way to remind people that, yes, humans are animals, too. The intention behind using it is a good one. Despite this, I have always done my best to avoid the phrase because it sounds and looks and sounds clunky to me but I have used it when I felt it was better than the common alternative, which is the distorted separation of “people” and “animals” in our language, as if we were not also animals. A few years ago, though, I realized that there was something else that bothered me about the phrase, and it wasn’t just an aesthetic one. Once I fully worked out the problems with the phrase, I stopped using it altogether and I think other vegans should consider doing the same. Here's why: I believe that when we say “non-human animals,” we are unintentionally reinforcing the same human-as-center-of-the-world conceit that underpins the mindset that allows for the domination of other animal species. Remember that rabbit? His own autonomy vanished when viewed through distinctly turtle-centered lenses: he was no longer a rabbit, he was some other entity that was simply not a turtle.

Given the enormity of what other animals face, I will admit that this sounds like a trivial thing to get hung up on. I would argue, though, that as we move ahead in re-conceptualizing coexistence, the language that we use is of critical importance. The theory of linguistic determinism posits that the words we use shape and even help to determine human thought. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed plainly, “Language disguises thought.” The thought that is disguised by that ungainly (but, again, well-intentioned) phrase is that other animals disappear and are replaced by our own example as the dominant point of reference.

The words we choose have real consequences and these consequences can inadvertently reinforce the very status quo that we are trying to dismantle. It is a minor alteration, but I think we should leave behind the expression "non-human animal." Ask yourself if you would like to be referred to as a non-male human being (if you’re not a male) or a non-white homo sapiens if you were not Caucasian. Can you see how a ripple effect of such framing could diminish your own rights to sovereignty and equality, as well as reveal an intrinsic partiality that necessarily denigrates those who aren’t part of the dominant standard?

Given all this, I propose that we rethink using the term “non-human animal” and come up with something that is more respectful and less self-absorbed. Of course contexts always vary, but when we are trying to communicate that we are not talking about humans (who are also animals) but other animals, I propose that we say something along the lines of other animals or other beings. I’ve heard others who say fellow animals. That works, too, but to me it sounds a little precious. Other animals has its flaws, too, as there is a built-in “othering” element that distances and leaves room for objectification but this is the best that I have arrived at so far.

Your thoughts are appreciated. What do you think about the expression “non-human animals”? Do you have a preferred alternative?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Ginny Kisch Messina

GinnyKisch Messina is a bright, steady light of compassionate, knowledgeable and dependable outreach in a culture often overstuffed with flyaway bits-and-pieces of erroneous information. As a respected registered dietitian, Ginny has instructed at the university level, developed nutrition materials for many organizations, and co-authored a variety of books that manage to make the subject of nutrition both accessible and interesting to laypersons, such as with Vegan for Her and Never Too Late to Go Vegan. She also maintains a popular blog, which is a great source for nutritional information and analysis.

A longtime vegan whose well-reasoned approach to nutrition is guided by the latest in peer-reviewed research, Ginny doesn’t make far-fetched, easily refuted claims, unlike the preponderance of various “wellness gurus” who claim that their interpretation of the ideal vegan diet offers a magic bullet against disease and illness. Ginny could probably have made a lot of money touting a specific dietary plan as the one true path to wellness and staying slim, but she has resisted this seductive siren’s call for something far more respectable, though less personally lucrative: By reminding people that a vegan diet does have some real health advantages, the fact remains that no one is indestructible, and that creating exaggerated claims about veganism doesn’t do the cause or the animals any good. Instead, by steadfastly chipping away at common myths and misconceptions, while maintaining her principled, rigorously science-based approach to nutrition, Ginny is creating something much better, and longer lasting, for the world: An educated interpretation of the most current knowledge of plant-based nutrition and a dedicated reminder that veganism is rooted in compassion, not dietary faddishness. For these reasons and more, Ginny Kisch Messina is a vegan rockstar.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I really didn’t have any of those influences or experiences. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a strong connection to animals and an extreme reaction to their suffering. I just didn’t see my food and clothing as having anything to do with that. While that seems mindboggling to me now, it also makes me realize how important it is to help people see the food on their plates as real animals. It’s hard, because we are so conditioned not to see that.

I started connecting those dots when I was in my 20s and was experimenting with vegetarian cooking just for fun. It had nothing to do with animal cruelty - I knew nothing about factory farming at that time - but instead, the idea of eating animal flesh suddenly felt simply wrong to me.  

I didn’t learn about factory farming until I went to work a few years later at PCRM in 1990. This was also my introduction to an animal rights culture and to the whole concept of veganism which, until then, had felt very extreme to me. So, while my heart had always been open to animals, my eyes weren’t opened until well into adulthood.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

They could have shown me that my choices have a direct effect on animals - their welfare and their rights. They could have shown me a “why love one but eat the other” meme, which I think would have helped me to make the connection. And they could have fed me some vegan mac ‘n cheese and a good vegan brownie so I would have seen how little sacrifice is involved in choosing a compassionate lifestyle.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

People can’t do something if they don’t know how to do it, so I’m a very big fan of food activism. Potential vegans need to taste great vegan food. They need recipes for super easy meals (or really, they need meal ideas; most people don’t have time for recipes).  They need to know that vegan diets include treats and comfort foods. I think it’s much easier to get someone to hear a vegan message once they know that vegan food is good.

And then we simply need to get them to think about the impact of their choices. Humor can be good for this, or any message that is a little provocative. Vegan Street is great at this, of course, and I also love the Vegan Sidekick cartoons.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

The fact that we have truth on our side. That this is a movement built on values of justice and compassion. And that it is increasingly easy to be vegan with really good food, incredible cookbooks, and some exceptional convenience products.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Probably the biggest one is that we are dealing with habits and beliefs that are so deeply ingrained and we don’t have good data on what works. We desperately need research on the best ways to promote veganism and to help people stay vegan.    

I think it might also be harmful in the long run when we overstate the benefits of vegan diets in an effort to get more people to stop eating animals. The idea that a vegan diet is the only healthy way to eat isn’t backed by science and it’s probably not true. It’s a waste of valuable resources to try to prove something that probably isn’t true. It also forces us to cherry pick evidence and distort findings.  I worry that it detracts from the strengths of our movement - the integrity that is at the root of an ethic of justice - when we misrepresent the science behind nutrition.

Also, some of the bad nutrition information that circulates on the internet and elsewhere can set people up to fail on a vegan diet. This is largely why my work focuses on sharing the best guidelines - based on what we know right now - for staying healthy on a vegan diet.    

Finally, I think we need to stop making it so hard to be vegan. We need to allow new vegans to sometimes fall short of their goals without feeling that they have failed at being vegan. We need to drop the unwarranted restrictions against veggie meats and soyfoods and vegetable oils and all of the other things that fit very well in a healthy vegan diet and make this way of eating a far more realistic choice. We need to avoid turning veganism into a restrictive fad diet because restrictive fad diets generally don’t change the world.  

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

I’m vegan because there is always suffering and death behind the use of animals for food and clothing. As long as there are alternatives - and there are some pretty great ones - I just don’t feel that I can contribute to any of that suffering. And because I’m a dietitian, I’m confident that vegan diets are safe and nutritious.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

My evolution continues to be both professional as a vegan nutritionist, and personal as an activist. On the professional side, those who have had the biggest influence on my thinking and approach to nutrition are Jack Norris, RD, Reed Mangels, PhD, RD and my husband Mark Messina, PhD. They are my go-to experts for unbiased and critical perspectives on nutrition research.  

On the personal side, I’m inspired by many, many activists, especially those doing grassroots activism - handing out leaflets and food samples. And, of course, the very brave activists who shed light on what is happening inside of farms and slaughterhouses.

I also read a lot of blogs and websites that provide different perspectives - those focused on abolition, utilitarian approaches, direct action, etc. I often find my own viewpoint challenged, and that’s good. It relates back to my answer to question 5: We don’t have data on the best tactics, and so we need to stay open to all experiences and viewpoints.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Burnout, stress and depression are definitely issues for me and so I try to maintain at least a little bit of balance. I do the usual stuff - meditation and exercise. I keep a journal and have done so since I was a teen. I read a lot for pleasure and that’s my absolutely most essential and beneficial leisure activity. I’m learning to play piano and I crochet with vegan fibers in the winter and garden in the summer. And sometimes I just have a glass of wine and watch re-runs of Modern Family.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Advocating for homeless and feral cats. I volunteer at my local animal shelter and am on the board of a local spay/neuter group. I’ve done lots of TNR and cat fostering over the years. It’s really where my heart is, but also, I think it’s so important to remember that veganism doesn’t start and stop at your dinner plate. We have an obligation to all animals and especially the ones in our own neighborhoods and communities.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

A moral imperative for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a choice about what we eat and wear. A willingness to commit to an ethic of justice and compassion, and to make choices that reflect that ethic.