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?

Changes to the blog!

May 29, 2011

Hey, friends.

Carolyn and I just wanted to let you know that we’ll be making some changes to the way we run our blog over the coming weeks. We initially started this project because we were so disturbed by the intellectual dishonesty of The Vegetarian Myth. As frustrating as it has been at times to engage with such willfully obtuse writing, we feel like we’ve done a credible job of deconstructing much of the text. Our past posts will stand as a contribution to a growing knowledge base compiled by those who are skeptical of the ecological sustainability and ethical legitimacy of paleo-diets.

Food politics are more of a national conversation than ever now and that is a good thing. Even if they’re not sure what the answer should be, more and more people are trying to shake off the nightmare of agribusiness cartels, monocrops and CAFOs that have typified the last century’s food production systems. As radical vegans, we feel compelled to take part in this conversation on how to transition away from a manifestly unsustainable system. Specifically, we want the world to understand that there is no such thing as an “ethical” mode of food production that depends on the systematic murder, reproductive and sexual domination, castration and confinement of nonhuman animals.

Naturally, the marketing agencies employed by those aforementioned agribusinesses want to have their say as well. With budgets in the millions, you can bet that their voices will be heard. Major corporations seeking to appear ahead of the curve are aggressively selling us images of “happy” meat and dairy and, with them, a lower threshold of guilt. Carolyn and I have been at turns disturbed and disheartened by recent trends in what seems to be an anti-movement of reactionary ex-vegans and vegetarians. What made Lierre Keith’s book infuriating enough for us to dedicate so many hours of our lives to its deconstruction is that (presumably) she’s not on the take from corporate marketers! Rather, she purports to come from within our own movement: a self-described ecofeminist who nevertheless believes that other creatures actually appreciate her desire to violate their bodies owing to a connection she projects upon them.

But at the end of the day, though we feel the need to debunk her neurotic and manipulative narrative, we don’t find her personal contribution to food politics all that noteworthy. There comes a point with projects like this at which you either have to change topics or write a book. The Vegetarian Myth does not merit a rejoinder on that level.

What follows from here is going to be our contribution to the ongoing discussion of what our food should be, where it should come from and how it should get to us. We will be lending context to the status quo account of current affairs with the hope of enlivening our readers’ understandings of the ongoing relevance of radical veganism. We’ll be making connections between animal liberation, anti-capitalism, human rights, feminism, and other modes. We’ll be continuing to expand upon the conversation about ecology, agriculture, veganism, and carnism– especially carnism that’s wrapped in radical language. We will also be soliciting essays and articles from outside contributors on their own personal stories of ethical living and ecological wisdom. And if Lierre Keith says anything that’s just too dumb to pass up, we’ll probably comment on it.

Check back here soon for new content.

Carolyn and Alex

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

Lierre Keith, trans-hatred, veganism, feminism, liberation: a start

January 7, 2011

I want to thank the Transmeditations Blog for bringing this information to our attention in a post that elucidates Lierre Keith’s really unsettling (to say the least) and quite explicit hatred, sterotyping, and writing off of trans/gender queer folk. Please read it.

I repost this not in an attempt to take a shallow dig at Lierre Keith, though it is challenging for me not to take that dig. Indeed, this post, Keith’s simplistic and offensive comparisons between various complicated social identities, her lack of willingness to see the vast, matrix-like complicatedness of gender, sexuality, bodies, and minds, her use of assumption and stereotype, and her rehashing of old theories/writings from a particular group of notoriously trans-hating “radical”, white, US second-wave feminists — this all gave me a sick feeling in my stomach and made me feel deep anger and sadness. However, I’m reposting it because I want to question the whole idea that one can be effectively involved in radical food politics without a substantiated, nuanced, creative, and non-reactionary (a.k.a. fear based, backwards-looking) exploration of gender.

Another radical vegan explores Lierre Keith’s rabid trans-hatred here.

For now, let me say this: In this blog, we seek to challenge not only Lierre Keith (honestly, she doesn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme, not even really in the semi-grand scheme) but to challenge ideas being put forth by generally well-intentioned but reactionary critiques of veganism. Often these ideas leave out veganism’s critical and real connections to ecology, capitalism, gender, racism, and human rights in general. Lierre Keith represents just one of a group of thinkers who disconnect these issues explicitly and implicitly (usually implicitly). Indeed, hardly any of her core ideas are original. It is the picture she paints, the picture she supposedly lives, which lends itself to a larger analysis that goes far beyond her.

We are not only vegans, but human rights advocates. We see human and non-human liberation as intricately intertwined. We see connections between gender and veganism that go on for miles. These issues go beyond, even, ecology and environmentalism, leading us to questions like: What of domination, cages, jails, in general? What of questioning the very existence of breeding animals to be captive farming instruments/objects? What of our rabid defensiveness around this issue, our unwillingness to even entertain the  idea of a world without hundreds of billions of animal objects? What of the fact that animal agriculture represents the most large-scale, violent manipulation of reproductive systems, others’ sex, and bodies-in-general that has ever existed? What of challenging the deep-seated construction of the human/animal dichotomy that so mirrors the false dichotomies of human identities (black/white, man/woman, et al.?) I want to write a larger post on this issue at some point… a post about vegan feminism, about human and animal liberation, about so many ways in which veganism must be considered as a radical, liberatory philosophy and practice directly related to, and intertwined with, human liberation. I’ll write that post soon. For now, good night, and don’t forget to revolt.

“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.

Don’t Buy This Book!

October 21, 2010

It’s always important to be familiar with what you’re critiquing, but that doesn’t mean you have to give Lierre Keith your money. Just download the book. I defy anyone to make it through the first chapter without clenching their teeth.