Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cesar Chavez

Today is the birthday of Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993). The founder and president of the United Farm Workers of America was also a civil rights leader, an environmentalist, and an animal rights advocate.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Chavez was committed to the principles of non-violence. He believed that positive social change required the enduring sacrifice of many people peacefully and thoughtfully working together for a common cause. In addition to leading countless nonviolent demonstrations, strikes, and boycotts, Chavez fasted to bring attention to the working and living conditions of migrant farm workers, and other vital issues of social and environmental justice. He saw veganism as an essential element of a nonviolent life, and he urged others to respect animals by not eating them.

In 1992 the organization In Defense of Animals awarded Chavez its Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contribution to human and animal rights. Chavez said in his acceptance speech: “We need in a special way to work twice as hard, to make all people understand that animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves. And that the basis for peace is respecting all creatures. That’s the basis for peace.

“And we cannot hope to have peace until we respect everyone—respect ourselves and respect animals and all living things ...

“We cannot defend or be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them, exploiting them in the name of science, exploiting animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting animals in the name of food.”

What is particularly special about Cesar Chavez was his recognition that the exploitation of people, animals, and the environment are all forms of violence, and all interconnected. That is what he was trying to teach us.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

White House Vegetable Garden

Ground was broken last week on an organic vegetable garden on the south lawn of the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama led a group of students from a nearby elementary school as they created the 102-square-meter plot that will consist of raised beds planted with over fifty varieties of fruits and vegetables, including berries, tubers, legumes, greens, and herbs. One item that won’t be grown is beets. President Obama reportedly can’t stand them.

“I want to make sure our family as well as the staff and all the people that come to the White House and eat our food, get access to really fresh vegetables and fruits,” Obama told the fifth-grade students.

It will be the first such garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt started a “victory garden” during World War II.

The Obama’s hope that the garden sets a positive example and encourages people to improve their food choices for the benefit of their own health and the health of the environment.

Vegetable gardening saves money, it puts people back in touch with the earth, and creates a healthier, more sustainable, more diverse, and more decentralized food supply.

Hopefully this garden will start a trend. At a time of increasing awareness of the environmental costs of transporting food long distances, and when people in the US and elsewhere are working fewer hours and taking home less money, growing some of your own food makes more sense than ever. News of the Obama garden and the desire to reduce my grocery bill, motivated me this week to plant some seeds in my own vegetable garden, which had sat dormant for several years. My garden is much smaller, but will include beets.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarianism Makes No Sense

Vegetarians who don’t eat animal flesh, but do include eggs and dairy in their diets, are known as lacto-ovo-vegetarians. They represent the largest of the several categories of vegetarians, which also includes lacto-vegetarians who consume dairy but not eggs, ovo-vegetarians who consume eggs but not dairy, and vegans who consume no animal products and also avoid other uses of animals, such as for clothing, shoes, furnishings, etc.

I have sometimes seen vegans described as eating only foods from the Plantae (Plant) kingdom. However this is technically not true in accordance with the most widely accepted biological taxonomic system. Plants certainly represent the vast majority of what a typical vegan eats in terms of both volume and caloric value. But vegans also may eat mushrooms, yeasts, and various molds found in such foods as soy tempeh and miso; all of which are members of the Fungi kingdom. Microscopic organisms found in cultured soy and in most other foods that haven’t been recently cooked at high temperatures, are members of the Eubacteria kingdom.

From the perspective of the abolitionist vegan, one who recognizes animals as sentient beings and denies the moral legitimacy of animals as property, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism is no different morally than a diet that includes meat. Animals used for their milk and eggs are considered property in exactly the same context as animals used for their flesh. In both cases, the vast majority of these animals experience a lifetime of slavery followed by untimely death at the slaughterhouse. While the average lacto-ovo-vegetarian most likely eats a smaller overall quantity of animal products than the average meat eater, resulting in less net animal use and harm, the remaining animal use in the form of dairy and/or egg consumption is still wrong, and is still morally unjustifiable.

From the perspective of the vegetarian who accepts the use of animals short of killing them, eating dairy and/or eggs is flawed logic. In the modern system of production the dairy cows and egg laying birds are ultimately killed when their continued existence ceases to be profitable for the producer. Eating dairy and eggs directly supports that killing.

From the perspective of someone who adheres to the welfarist position—that it is acceptable to own and use animals as long as their treatment conforms to some set of minimum guidelines, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism may have made some sense in a long-gone era prior to the factory farm practices that have arisen in response to the huge global demand for dairy and eggs. It certainly doesn’t make sense now. Some of the worst cruelty takes place in the production of dairy and eggs. While labels such as “free-range,” “cage-free,” or “organic” may in some cases represent slightly less cruelty; plenty of cruelty remains. So-called “humane farming” practices have more to do with marketing and making consumers feel more comfortable about continuing to eat animal products, than protecting the interests of animals.

From the perspective of an informed person who is concerned about the environment, a lacto-ovo-vegetarian’s contribution to water consumption/pollution and greenhouse gas emissions—while substantially less than the typical meat eater—remains significantly larger than it would be if they became a vegan.

Finally, from the perspective of an informed person motivated by health concerns, not eating meat due to it’s high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat, concentrated pesticide residues, and lack of dietary fiber and phytochemicals, makes a lot of sense; but so would also avoiding dairy and eggs for the very same reasons. Nutritionally there is little difference between meat, dairy, and eggs. They are all forms of animal tissue.

Conclusion: Differentiating between meat, dairy, and eggs appears in all of the above cases to be arbitrary. From multiple perspectives lacto-ovo-vegetarianism makes no sense, while veganism makes plenty of sense.