Processed food: What are you talking about?

August 14, 2012

Can we start really thinking about what we’re saying when we use the term “processed food”, and when we reject or moralize about foods based on that phrase? This phenomenon has become central to anti-vegan discourse.

Just because it’s a vegetarian “meat-substitute” (although it might behoove us to just see it as good plant-based protein that exists in its own right, apart from the existence of meat) doesn’t mean it’s processed, folks– at least, not processed in the evil way neocarnist discourse always refers to. You know the conversation: processed = bad, not processed = good. I can’t really offer a definition of “processed” beyond that, as it’s currently used, because there doesn’t seem to be one.

Let’s break down some examples of foods that are currently trendy to preach against based on their “processed-ness”:

-Tofu. Let’s clear this up, folks: Tofu is made with a blender and cheesecloth from three to four ingredients including water, an emulsifier (a big word, but something that is used in countless simple foods, both vegan and non), and a bean. You can buy that bean GMO-free very easily; many, if not most, explicitly vegetarian products like tofu which involve soy are GMO-free now. What’s non-GMO as far as soy goes are a) those soy fillers in all kinds of other food products, including many animals products, and b) the unbelievable amount of soy that’s fed to farmed animals.

You can even get soy from sustainable farms like Vermont Soy and Eden Soy. Those farms might even be local (gasp!!!) depending on where you live.

Actually, you can make this kind of tofu product with many different beans, as I learned while living with Burmese folks, who often make and eat tofu from lentils.

Right in your own kitchen. Right next to those vegetables you process by… cutting and cooking them.

-Similarly fallacious is all the moralizing about the “process” that goes into making wheat gluten or tempeh. These are products that actually have very few simple, healthy ingredients and can be made easily. You don’t need a Bunsen burner or a mask.

-And to make an alternative “milk” such as soy or almond, the idea is similar. Two or three ingredients plus a blender. Same with any “cheese” alternative that’s made with these things. All of these products are less processed than even the most organic and “happy” cheese.

I’m not sure why so many neocarnists take a moral stance against these plant foods, but most likely it has something to do with things like unblinking Michael Pollan-ism and the Weston A. Price Foundation’s government lobbying, reactive anti-science, and fear-mongering (particularly in regards to soy). Some well-meaning folks, I think, often lump in foods made from Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) with simpler foods made from tofu, nuts, or wheat gluten. TVP is made from soy flour and a significant number of steps are involved in its creation. Some TVP makers use hexane, which is controversial. But whatever one’s ideas about TVP, the current dialogue about it being an evil “processed” food cannot be removed from the influence of Michael Pollan’s hyperbolic, pseudo-scientific diatribe against TVP in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Additionally, hexane is used in multitudes of animal foods. As always, do your own research and use your critical thinking skills.

From the minute you rip a vegetable out of the ground, to the minute you collect rice grains from a stalk, to the minute you bring them home and clean, peel, cook, cut, ferment, freeze, marinate, combine, and flavor them, you are processing foods. You process them in your mouth, too, as saliva breaks them down, and then in your gut, where they are dissolved into their component parts. Life is a process and so is the food that enables it.

If you want to talk about foods with ingredients that are made in labs, talk about that. If you want to talk about GMOs, environmentally unfriendly packaging, huge industries, awful companies, and how complicated that all is across huge realms of both plant and animal foods, please do. But don’t conveniently muddle those concepts with the mere existence of vegetarian foods for the sake of a political agenda or a romantic, lazy paleofantasty about what’s “natural” and what’s not. In short, it is incoherent to consider these veg foods processed yet not consider foods processed that require creating, artificially inseminating, squeezing, prodding, torturing, then slaughtering an entire animal. If you want to talk about excessive food processing–by which I mean the actual time, physical and psychological energy, and other resources that go into the creation of a food–and how it might have moral implications, talk about this: We literally destroy huge pieces of the planet to actually raise entire huge, individual, sentient, ambulatory beasts!!! We artificially inseminate them by putting sperm into their vaginas with poles or our gloved arms, cut off their inconvenient body parts such as penises, testicles, tails, and beaks while they’re still alive, kill them with complicated weapons and machines, drain their blood and cut off all their skin, cut off and throw away their heads, cut out and throw away their organs, pull their reproductive secretions out of them (often after starving and blinding them into laying), squeeze and prod them with hands or machines til the insides of their bodies finally give you inevitably puss-and-blood laced milk which is then turned into convoluted dairy products like cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. Yet, incredibly, it’s a  loaf made of beans and water–no cutting off and throwing away a head involved–that’s called Frankenfood! While plant foods and agriculture are indeed complicated, there is absolutely no plant-food processing comparable–ethically, practically, environmentally, physically, psychologically–to the necessary extremities that must be visited while “processing” individual sentient animals for food. If they’re not the most processed food of all, I don’t know what is.

Let’s move this conversation forward; or, (another) study: pasture-raised cows produce four times more methane emissions than feedlot cows

January 23, 2012

A new study confirms higher rates of methane emission from grazed cows over feedlot cows. Abstract and full study available here:

Direct measurements of methane emissions from grazing and feedlot cattle

This study, citing and building on studies which already demonstrate that cattle farming represents a mass contribution to the emission of methane–one of the most consequential greenhouse gasses–examined and measured output from large samples of cattle in undisturbed (non-laboratory/non-constructed) settings.

Its main conclusion: “These measurements clearly document higher CH4 production (about four times) for cattle receiving low-quality, high-fiber diets than for cattle fed high-grain diets.”

To advocates of pasture-raised beef and dairy: Please start discussing this kind of information and please stop spreading the myth that pasture-raised beef is good for the environment. That there are a lot of problems with agriculture-in-general, including plant agriculture and monocultures, is not in dispute. But from the mass destruction caused by grazing, to the mass methane emissions, raising animals on pasture is not simply detrimental; it’s more detrimental than on feedlots, in terms of land/habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions.

This article by Mike Tidwell was recently brought to my attention, and impressed me as a very good, simple overview of the environmental impact of carnism, on humans as well as ecosystems and individual animals. Tidwell points out that even many folks’ beloved fall-back, “free range” and “sustainable” chicken and egg farming, produces far more greenhouse gas emissions than its terrible factory-farming sibling– 14 percent more!

This is to say nothing of the myth of “humane” meat that we have discussed elsewhere.

We’ve listened to the “humane” meat-ers. We’ve listened to the Weston A. Price Foundation’s non-scientists and non-nutritionists misconstrue information about teeth, soy, cholesterol, and raw meat. We’ve listened to Lierre Keith straight-up hate on vegans and paint caricatures of health and sustainable agriculture. We’ve listened to Michael Pollan and Joe Salatin’s carefully (and conveniently) constructed happy-meat, return-to-pasture narratives. We’ve listened to people who don’t come from gatherer-hunter cultures say, “let’s hunt, then!” and we’ve tried not to be dicks when we’ve pointed out that, if even a fraction of billions of today’s non-tribal humans started hunting for their meat, ecosystems would almost immediately shatter. We’ve listened to Barabara Kingslover as she drives 3,000 miles in her car to eat another location’s local food. We’ve listened to really excited ex-vegan bloggers talk about how they literally feel the energy of nutrients x, y, and z rushing through their body the minute they eat meat again for the first time (something which isn’t physiologically possible.) We’ve gotten a good share of what anti-vegans–both the subtle and the not-so-subtle ones–have to say. For all our faults and snark, we’ve tried to listen–we actually really have.

And for all of this, there’s one thing they all seem to say some version of, and I agree with it: We need better, more diverse, more creative, less mono-culture based farming methods. Nobody here is saying otherwise.

But it’s time to move the conversation forward: the ethics of, and cognitive dissonance that is necessary for, “humane meat”, grass-fed meat, and pasture farming are highly questionable; and we have to contend with those questions now if we want to deal with the crises of ecology, psychology, and ethics that are literally destroying the earth.

There is, at this point, simply too much available information to ignore regarding the destructiveness of animal farming and the unnecessary suffering of animals. There is too much information to ignore regarding the existence of viable, healthful, plant-based alternatives to meat diets and animal farming. We can’t continue to ignore this information if we want to have conversations about diet that aren’t disingenuous. We can’t refuse to discuss the fallacy, the gaping logical inconsistency, of “humane” captivity and slaughter, and the environmental destruction of animal farming–the latter of which is an issue for both entire species and their individual bodies. We can’t keep falling back on the simplistic vegan straw man of “but monocultures–but soy–but the paleocene–but protein”. These straw-men have been debunked to death. Healthful, animal-friendly plant-based alternatives to this mess of meat agriculture and carnism exist, right now, today. Just because these plant-based alternatives are inconvenient to a Western culture that is steeped in the ideologies and practices of meat, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Our refusal to look at them does not erase their reality.

If you need more information about any of these issues or about striving towards sustainable plant-based lives, we’ve discussed it a lot in this blog. Please refer to other posts such as those here and here, do a quick google or JSTOR search, or refer to our resources page or our sustainable vegan agriculture page. You might also consider checking out The Humane Myth.

The (Actual) Truth About Soy

June 7, 2011

This warrants reposting. A few years back, we were seeing a lot of stories in the mainstream media suggesting that high soy consumption could put you at risk for breast cancer, amongst a host of maladies. Most of the news agencies (even Fox) have since recanted, deferring to a litany of peer-reviewed research of the kind Zen Habits cites. Unfortunately, they seem to have inadvertently made a lot of two-drink experts (you know, they kind of person who becomes an expert on everything once he gets two drinks in him) with their initial misstep. As we all know, the best way to send them sulking back to the bar is to arm yourself with information.

I won’t allege any sort of media conspiracy to turn people off healthy food and onto meat and dairy; the media mirrors the United States’ obsession with finding some kind of perfect nutritional formula to make our bodies run at mythological efficiency. The media, in their ever frantic scramble for eyeball hours, seem to have seized upon a meme planted by the Weston Price Foundation in spite of WPF having been roundly and repeatedly discredited as purveyors of pseudoscience.

We live in an unprecedented age of information sharing. It’s never been easier for any old yahoo with a library card to, oh I don’t know…let’s say, start a blog to deflate a would-be demagogue through elementary fact checking. That’s why it’s such a shame how many people are willing to cede instant credibility to any soundbite followed by a citation. It may make a good conversation piece at parties or it may make your viewers stare at the screen just long enough to see the first few seconds of the commercial break, but it can’t be the groundwork for an intellectually honest conversation about issues that matter. If we take questions of sustainability, food justice and animal rights seriously, then we need to make a serious effort to educate ourselves. That involves doing primary research and not simply relying on syntheses by authors who support opinions we already hold. Like they say at l’Académie Française: “get off of Wikipedia, I’ll see you in the stacks!”1

1Nobody at l’Académie Française has ever said, written or thought this. You see why it’s important to check footnotes?

Problematizing ecology, local, and grass-fed… again

March 30, 2011

I originally posted this as a comment, then thought, well, this is a lot of writing just to be a comment. So here goes:

Eighty percent of corn and soy crops are used for livestock feed, not for vegan food. The problems of grain, soy, and monocultures are simply not ones that can be pinned on the vegan movement. To paraphrase Gary Francione, the problem of designer foods is not inherent to veganism any more than the problem of designer clothes is inherent to wearing clothes. There are plenty of designer foods that meat-eaters eat, and there are plenty of vegans who eat mainly local and organic, plenty of vegans who don’t eat soy or tons of corn and wheat, etc. To claim that all vegans eat all grain and soy, or that a vegan diet only consists of grain and soy, is a disingenuous straw-man argument.

Veganic/stock free permaculture is a thriving practice all over the world. It seems many locavores are willfully ignorant of this fact, and I’m not entirely clear why. Veganic permaculture is by far the most sustainable farming practice. There are many books and internet resources on this if you need more information.

Grass fed livestock don’t partake in the problem of corn and soy feed. But pasture/grass fed animals require more than twice the land of factory farmed animals. Grazing is one of the worst environmental problems that exists. Overgrazing has trampled and compacted land and been the largest contributor to desertification. Two-thirds of the American West, for instance, is grazing land. Clearing land for pasture is the major reason for destruction of forests and biodiversity including the atrocity of rainforest destruction. This is simply not a problem with even the least sustainable plant diets. Even the most industrialized plant diets use exponentially less land per yield than meat diets, especially grazed meat diets. Grazing is one of the most ecologically absurd situations humans have ever created. One researcher, Vacliv Smil, who has done very careful math has estimated that by 2050, if we are to feed the world on a meat diet, we will need 67 percent more land on the earth. Again, there is no comparable number for even the least sustainable plant agriculture, as plant protein is much higher yield per energy input than meat, and is consumed directly instead of being turned into an animal first.

Cows emit massive amounts of methane, one of the worst greenhouse gasses, and it is well documented that this is a major cause of global warming, surpassing all forms of transportation combined.  Grass fed and free-range livestock emit many times more methane than industrial livestock, in fact, because they live much longer. Again, this problem is simply not comparable to the problems of plant agriculture. Plants are not farting and stomping us to extinction.

Raising livestock, even grass-fed, is also by far the world’s number one cause of water usage and water pollution. Again, not comparable to the water usage of plant agriculture.

Furthermore, the issue of transportation of food over long distances is often cited by locavores, but the truth is much more complicated. The simple equation of food miles does not account for whether or not irrigation is used, whether or not food is grown in hothouses, whether or not food is in season, how food is stored, how food is cooked, how much food was shipped where and how, whether or not it is animal or plant food, etc. In short, transportation is about ten percent of a food’s energy cost. To quote James McWilliams, who has many problematic ideas but is right-on when it comes to food miles, “To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market.” Furthermore, simplistic food mile equations do not account for people who live in regions where food is not available, which opens up a sizeable, incredibly complicated can of worms in terms of human rights and food access. The local ethic, despite its benefits, simply does not take responsibility for the problem of food access in a globalized world where food is an inherently global issue. I am not saying I have a perfect answer to this problem, but I am saying that food access in a globalized world is complicated, and it deserves to be dealt with in a complicated way, especially if people who have social and economic privilege are claiming to be concerned with human rights.

But I digress. I don’t at all mean to tear local agriculture a new asshole. There are many reasons to eat local, especially in places where, unlike the Arizona desert where local food–including all meat–is all sustained by irrigation, local makes sense. I support eating local for several reasons, and I eat local as much as I can (and I’m a vegan… gasp). The point, rather, is that just because something is local does not mean it is the most environmentally friendly option. A life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a much more honest and comprehensive way than food miles to figure which food is the most sustainable.

If you are going to eat animal food, grass-fed meat from permaculture farms is the most sustainable way to do it. But veganic permaculture is exponentially more sustainable due to the minimized effects it has on land, water, and greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the less sustainable techniques of plant agriculture are more sustainable than the most sustainable forms of animal agriculture.

And this does not begin to get into the issue of the rights and interests of individual animals. I happen to believe that an egalitarian and ecologically friendly world is not possible when our personal and mass psychology is imbued with the idea that it is okay to unnecessarily use most of the world’s sentient creatures as mere instruments to our own ends. But that aside, I do understand the issue of animal rights lives in complicated philosophical, emotional, and spiritual territory. However, the issue of whether or not eating meat is good for the environment, especially in the long run, is quite simple: it isn’t. And there are viable, thriving alternatives. We might not like them because they challenge our deep-rooted food habits and assumptions, but within this generation there will be 10 billion people in the world, and save hitherto unknown technological interventions, there won’t even be any more land for meat-heavy diets.

Reality checks: grass-fed beef

March 20, 2011

Reality checks: grass-fed beef. Lots of this is sprinkled throughout our blog, but here we’ve tried to consolidate it into one post.

1. There is no such thing as “humane” animal agriculture. The dichotomy between “humane” and “inhumane” animal farming is uncritical and false. There is terribly inhumane animal agriculture, as we all know, on factory farms. Then there is a range of less terribly inhumane, but still inhumane, animal agriculture taking place on organic, “free range”, “grass-fed”, local, and permaculture farms. “Free range” doesn’t mean anything; it is a marketing word that has no established standard, and no inspection agency monitors “free range” farms. “Free range” farms often connote farms on which thousands of animals are packed into factories or other structures, never allowed outside–it’s just that there are no cages or bars. Most free-range, organic, and local farms, even the least inhumane of them, send their animals to factory slaughterhouses for their death, as per animal slaughter legal regulations. Similarly, “grass-fed”, “organic”, “permaculture”, and “local” imply nothing about how an animal is treated and do not account for animal interests beyond what humans want. Even at their least inhumane, such as farms on which animals live much of their lives outside, some or all of the following are always taking place: animals are bred to be docile and held captive; they are impregnated against their will over and over for life so that they stay pregnant for milk and eggs; they are forced to give birth and have their bodily products and their babies taken from them; they are hooked up to machines and “rape racks”; they are violently slaughtered, often by humans who they came to trust and depend on; they are capitalist commodities; they are conceived of only in relation to their use for humans and reduced to the status of objects and instruments.

2. Animal agriculture does not magically stop being the major cause of global warming, surpassing all forms of transportation combined in its emission of greenhouse gasses, when done locally. Global warming is not simply a problem of factory farms. It is a problem of local and organic animal agriculture, animal permaculture, and all other animal farming. The number of animals needed to feed humans by any farming method is literally tens of billions per year. In fact, pasture-raised animals have a higher carbon footprint per pound than factory farmed ones. They emit two to four times as much methane, one of the deadliest of greenhouse gases, than feedlot animals. This fact severely complicates arguments about eating local animal food vs. non-local vegan food, yet is generally ignored by local-vores. 

3. Animal agriculture does not magically stop being a major cause of unnecessary water and resource use when done locally. Those billions of animals need to drink water, and, depending on the exact type of farming, use a range of fossil fuels and electricity to be merely kept alive. The average meat-based diet requires fifteen times more water than a plant-based diet. Again, there’s nothing about local, organic, and/or grazed animals that significantly changes this fact.  

4. There is no necessary connection between renewal of topsoil and animal grazing; there never has been. Non-animal methods of topsoil renewal include, and are far from limited to, composting, green manure, humanure, crop rotation, ley farming, organic plant material covers, cultivation of legumes, and on and on. Livestock are not necessary for sustainable farming. Veganic farming and permaculture is a widely established and thriving practice. 

5. “Sustainable” animal agriculture uses up to twice the amount of land than factory farming. “Sustainable” animal agriculture destroys land and ecosystems. Creation of the massive amounts of land for grazing animals requires mass deforestation and destruction of species, resulting in unspeakable damage to ecosystems. Grazing animals, especially cows, trample land and, contrary to the claims of many local-vores, are responsible for much destruction of topsoil. In some places in the American Midwest, for instance, land previously used for grazing has been rendered useless.

Animals Australia writes: “In Australia, 58% of the land is used for agriculture and principally for grazing animals and the production of crops used in animal feed. Worldwide, livestock now use 30% of the earth’s entire land surface. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), ‘the number of people fed in a year per hectare ranges from 22 for potatoes and 19 for rice down to 1 and 2 people respectively for beef and lamb’. To create grazing land, trees and vegetation must be cleared, and habitats must be destroyed. Livestock trample or eat any remaining native vegetation. According to many experts on desertification, the Sahara Desert—a once lush and fertile region—was caused by slashing and burning, primarily for animal grazing—the same method used throughout the world today, and now being used in the Amazon.”

John Robbins writes: “Even with U.S. beef cattle today spending the last half of their lives in feedlots, seventy percent of the land area of the American West is currently used for grazing livestock. More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland. Just about the only land that isn’t grazed is in places that for one reason or another can’t be used by livestock—inaccessible areas, dense forests and brushlands, the driest deserts, sand dunes, extremely rocky areas, cliffs and mountaintops, cities and towns, roads and parking lots, airports, and golf courses. In the American West, virtually every place that can be grazed, is grazed. The results aren’t pretty. As one environmental author put it, ‘Cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.’ Western rangelands have been devastated under the impact of the current system, in which cattle typically spend only six months or so on the range, and the rest of their lives in feedlots. To bring cows to market weight on rangeland alone would require each animal to spend not six months foraging, but several years, greatly multiplying the damage to western ecosystems. The USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry.

7. No matter what kind of meat-eating it is, it destroys more animal and plants than veganism. The majority of corn, soy, and grainstuffs produced in the world go towards feeding animals for meat diets, not vegetarians and vegans. Even when corn, soy, and grain are taken out of the equation, pasture farming is responsible for a level of destruction of ecosystems that is simply not comparable to the problems of plant agriculture. All meat and dairy require mass amounts of land and plants in order to exist.

8. Even the most sustainable animal agriculture would literally require mass human die offs. There is simply not enough land to feed all people on this model of food production. “Sustainable” animal agriculture can accommodate only a privileged minority of humans. Lierre Keith’s analysis, and similar ones, do not account for dietary racism, classism, and sexism. They do not account for food access in urban areas. When we begin to calculate the numbers regarding how much land would be needed to feed cities on even the most sustainable animal diet, the numbers become completely absurd. A convenient Derrick Jensen-flavored paleofantasy about undoing cities and reversing civilization is interesting, but completely useless when trying to navigate, in the complicated real world, how exactly to solve problems of food production in light of capitalism, racism, imperialism, sexism, classism, and war. Our pretty fantasies of a keeping a “sustainable” animal farm in our yard, or supporting all of the local “humane” farmers, are impossible to bring to fruition once we start considering how many people live in the world, who does and doesn’t have access to resources, and why. Of course, sustainable vegan agriculture does not solve these problems of overpopulation and mass social disparities, and as long as food production and the economy are pervaded by capitalism, we are in serious trouble. But compared to animal agriculture, veganic agriculture massively reduces waste of resources and ecological destruction, and creates inherently less expensive foods (made falsely expensive by government subsidies of animal agriculture and big corporations).

9. Even where grass-fed beef has benefits over factory farming, they are hugely trumped by the benefits of reducing or eliminating animal foods from your diet.

Some resources:

Humane Myth: Encouraging Truth, Transparency, and Integrity in Animal Advocacy

Five Myths About Grass Fed Beef

Beware of the Myth of Grass-Fed Beef: Cows Raised At Pasture Are Not Immune to E. Coli bacteria

Animal Aid’s Slaughterhouse Investigation Debunks “Humane Meat” Myth

Discovery News: Grass-fed beef has bigger carbon footprint

New blog discovery: Say What, Michael Pollan?

February 21, 2011

This is an exciting discovery: A blog called “Say What, Michael Pollan?” Check it out.

Much as I appreciate what Michael Pollan has done to raise awareness about food-related issues, I’m sometimes frustrated by things he says or writes that seem slanted or even incorrect. This blog is an attempt to encourage Pollan to check facts and think through arguments more carefully.

Thank you, Adam Merberg. We will be checking this out in much more depth.

“On Ex-Vegans”

December 21, 2010

Interesting commentary from the Unpopular Vegan Essays blog on why we should take “ex-vegans” with a grain of salt:

Unpopular Vegan Essays: On Ex-Vegans

From this essay: “When we combine the above varieties in meaning, character, reasons, and egos, as well as the individual anecdotes and tales of drama, we see that the stories of ex-vegans can tell us nothing of significance or of any reliability about veganism, what vegans are like, what being vegan is like, or what good reasons there are for going vegan. For that kind of information, we should consult longtime vegans, unbiased dietetic professionals and vegan nutritional books and materials, abolitionist animal rights books and education materials, and most importantly, commit to veganism and vegan education ourselves.”

Interestingly, there are several places in The Vegetarian Myth and in subsequent interviews with Lierre Keith where she states that she often “binged” on animal products; in other words, she wasn’t even a vegan: Here’s an analysis of a radio interview Lierre Keith did, in which she talks about bingeing on animal products once a week.