The Economist called 2019 “the year of the vegan.” Indeed, we are seeing more and more plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. Many people are embracing a vegan lifestyle, if not wholly, at least in part. Concepts such as “meatless Mondays” are helping individuals incorporate more plants and less meat and dairy in their lives for their health and for the sustainability of the planet.
There are many personal and philosophical reasons to eat plant-based, varying from financial to religious. However, most people who choose this lifestyle have a compassion for animals, are concerned for the environment, or want to ensure optimal health.
Compassion for animals
For some, learning about the suffering of animals in the meat, egg and dairy industries was the catalyst in prompting them to change how they eat. Miyoko Schinner, owner of Miyoko’s, a Petaluma-based vegan cheese and butter producer, first made the connection as a young girl 50 years ago that people were eating living beings. She gave up eating meat, and after learning more about how dairy and eggs are produced, she stopped consuming those products as well. Schinner believes that human consciousness is evolving. The more we understand about how animals are sentient beings, the less we will think of them as a commodity. To her, the idea that we raise and care for animals with slaughter in mind is complete cognitive dissonance. “To whom do the animals belong?” questions Schinner. “Do they belong to us? Is it our right to do whatever we want to them? This is where human consciousness has to evolve.”
Ironically, the local, farm-to-table movement is precisely why Schinner believes the North Bay is decades behind other parts of the country, and even the world, where plant-based eating is more prevalent and vegan restaurant options abound. “There is a lot of resistance because of so-called humane and organic meat,” says Schinner. “People have bought into the idea of local and humane. They’re okay with the thought that [the animals] only have one bad day. They feel good. As one activist put it, it’s a humane hoax.”
Unfortunately, claims of humane animal treatment sometimes aren’t based in reality. Cotati-based Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a nonprofit that aims to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system by filing high-impact lawsuits, often fights against false advertising campaigns. “We’ve certainly made a name for ourselves in challenging false claims,” says Stephen Wells, executive director, ALDF. “They are rampant in the animal ag industry because they’re realizing that people place a higher value on animal welfare. You’re seeing all kinds of products with pictures of happy animals on Old McDonald-type farms. Unfortunately, claims are not well regulated. Through investigations, we are finding that animals are not being treated as well as claimed.”
In one local case a few years ago, ALDF sued Petaluma-based Judy’s Family Farm for false advertising. The parties settled the dispute, with the company agreeing to inspections from a third-party farm inspector and to change its packaging. The previous label showed pictures of hens in a beautiful field, but the reality was they lived in metal sheds. “Animal agriculture is the source of the most suffering in terms of the number of animals involved and the degree that animals experience,” says Wells. “So reducing the consumption of animals is the simplest thing one can do to reduce their impact in terms of animal suffering. There is still a mythology about what the animals’ lives on a farm look like. That is far from what happens in modern animal agriculture, which is overwhelmingly [driven by] factory farming.”
ALDF was a supporter and member of a coalition of businesses and organizations that managed to pass Proposition 12 in California last year. The measure, known as The Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act, requires an overhaul of factory farming in the state. It establishes new minimum space requirements for egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and veal calves. California businesses are banned from selling animal product that doesn’t meet these requirements, which Wells hopes will set an example for the rest of the country. “It’s far from creating what anyone, except maybe the industry itself, would call humane conditions for animals,” says Wells. “Nevertheless it does include some significant improvements and an outright ban on the most horrific practices.”
With a plethora of influential and scientifically-backed books such as T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study and Michael Greger’s How Not to Die, and documentaries such as Forks Over Knives, What the Health, or more recently, The Game Changers, it is hard to refute the overwhelming evidence that a plant based diet is simply better for your health.
According to Sal Iaquinta M.D., a head and neck surgeon for Kaiser Permanente in San Rafael and frequent author on this topic, there are several significant health reasons that compel his patients to reduce their meat and dairy intake. “A lot of studies show that people lose weight on plant-based diets. Another thing that pushes plant-based diets in the population that I take care of are people who have cancer. They become very interested in what they’re consuming and what they’re exposing themselves to. I do a lot of cancer treatment and plant-based diets lower the risks of GI cancers and other cancers. A lot of older people have a huge concern of Alzheimer’s disease. There are large studies with tens of thousands of people that show these diets display a reduction in cognitive decline.”
Unlike many other diet fads that have come and gone, Iaquinta believes that eating plant based is here to stay. As eating meat increasingly evokes negative connotations and is continually linked to heart disease, diabetes, many cancers, cognitive decline, and more, the numbers of vegans will continue to rise. Other diets that were meant solely for weight loss, such as the Ketogenic diet, the Atkins diet, the low-carbohydrate diet, and the Paleolithic diet all advocate eating meat. Yet simply eating a vegan diet keeps individuals naturally slim without the side effects that meat and dairy produce. Sometimes fad diets work in the short term as individuals lose weight in the form of water from eating less fiber-rich, water-dense fruits and vegetables, or because they are eating less processed foods which almost all diets support. However, cutting out the fiber from produce and grains, not to mention the vitamins and minerals they provide, and replacing that with artery-clogging animal fat simply increases the risk of a variety of diseases.
“There is a bigger sphere of influence [with eating plant based],” says Iaquinta. “We’re hearing about the benefits of this diet from so many different angles, such as losing weight, which applies to many Americans, the benefit of minimizing cognitive decline and cancer risks, and the environmental aspect. It’s different than other diets that were for people who wanted to lose weight.” Within the last generation, many myths about plant-based diets were debunked, such as vegans not getting enough protein, being weak, or only eating tasteless food. After all, the U.S. has never had a protein deficiency problem, and the large animals that people eat for protein are herbivores themselves. The fact is that if one eats a balanced, plant-based diet, protein needs are typically met without the negative consequences of eating animal fat and protein, which offer little in the way of other nutrients.
“A vegan diet can be very healthy,” says Kim Kulp, registered dietitian nutritionist with The Gut Health Connection. “There are a number of athletes who are vegan. One does not need to eat animal products to gain muscle. In fact, the only nutrient vegans can’t naturally get is vitamin B12. To get enough of this essential vitamin, which is only in animal foods, vegans can either take a supplement, or eat foods that have been fortified. A fortified food is one that has had vitamins and minerals added to it. Some foods that are fortified with vitamin B12 are certain breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast. When I work with vegans, I usually recommend they take a B12 supplement.”
Study after study proves the more plants we eat, the better. Even just replacing a meat-based meal with plant-based one a few times a week can have benefits. Some have difficulty making drastic changes, especially if they are used to eating animal products with every meal, and may need to gradually lean into this lifestyle. Doing so has become easier than ever as many traditional meat and dairy foods have a variety of alternatives on grocery store shelves. “Milk alternatives have grown in popularity, even for non-vegans,” says Kulp. “Many don’t tolerate lactose and are looking for an alternative. As for the “fake meats” such as soy crumbles (ground meat substitute) or cold cut substitutes, these are more popular for people who want to eat meat, but are trying to be vegan. There are many vegans who are happy eating plants in their natural forms, and are not interested in eating meat substitutes.”
Healthy and Good for the Planet
Besides plant-based eating being better for health, it plays a critical role in securing the future of the planet for coming generations. Animal agriculture is the world’s largest cause of land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, acid rain, deforestation, and climate change. In 2019, the Union of Concerned Scientists listed meat consumption as one of the biggest environmental hazards facing the Earth. Globally, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all of the world’s transportation systems combined. This includes all emissions from ships, planes, trucks and cars. “Eleven thousand scientists recently put out a warning that we’re in a climate emergency and not enough is being done,” says Wells. “One of the things they said that had to be done, along with switching to renewable energy, is that people have to eat a plant-based, or mostly plant-based, diet.”
The statistics are staggering. Producing one pound of beef requires 2,500 gallons of water, and a cow must consume 16 pounds of vegetation. By comparison, it only takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat. Animal agriculture occupies more than half of all water used in the United States and is the largest source of water pollution in the country. Approximately 260 million acres of forest have been cleared to create cropland designated for growing animal feed. According to the Worldwatch Institute, two of every five tons of grain produced in the world is fed to livestock, poultry, or fish. Additionally, more than 80 percent of the world’s corn and more than 95 percent of its oat supply are fed to livestock. “[Animal agriculture] is overwhelmingly at the root of why we have so much pesticide and herbicide spraying because raising animals for food is extraordinarily inefficient,” says Wells. “We have to grow mass amounts of crops—way more than we would need to feed people—to feed the animals. That requires massive amounts of land and water and requires the spraying of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Then the animal waste, combined with fertilizers, runs into rivers, feeding algae that eat up oxygen and suffocate everything else. These dead zones are at the mouths of most major rivers and most continents now.”
Hope Bohanec, executive director of Compassionate Living, which hosts the popular Sonoma County VegFest, notes increasing interest in plant-based eating—in large part due to the environmental crisis rising every year. The annual festival, a celebration of compassionate, healthy and environmentally responsible living, has grown steadily since starting in 2013 with about 1,000 attendees. The organization continually changes locations to accommodate a larger crowd, and in 2019, the event hosted 5,000 people. “The environmental crisis has ramped up,” says Bohanec. “We are seeing so much devastation now in the weather. People are realizing it’s not something that’s far off. It’s in our backyard. It’s fires, floods, tornadoes, and it’s happening now and getting worse.”
Whether people are choosing plant-based because of their own health, the health of the planet, or the well being of animals, we’re living in an optimal time with more vegan products available that fit our needs for taste and convenience. “We’ve done numerous studies and surveys of people when they’ve tried a vegan lifestyle and then go back to eating animal products,” says Bohanec. “In the past, people reported that it was too inconvenient. They didn’t have access to the food they needed. That’s changing dramatically, too. Now there are vegan options at major grocery stores and at your local corner market. Thirty years ago, you’d walk into a restaurant and ask for something vegan, and they didn’t know what that meant. But now, there are vegan options. They understand what that means, and the chef will often make something special that’s vegan if they don’t have anything on the menu. Plant-based eating is easier than ever.”
Clearly, offering plant-based products to consumers is a boon for companies doing so. Since Beyond Meat—an El Segundo-based company that produces plant-based food that mimics the taste, texture and protein content of meat—went public in May last year, its valuation has more than quintupled to $8.4 billion at the time of this writing. One of the greatest challenges for Impossible Foods, which produces plant-based meat alternatives, is ensuring production meets demand. More locally, Miyoko’s has more than doubled its production during the past two years.
So what came first? Was it the demand for more vegan products? Or did more companies see the success of other organizations with plant-based options and jump on the (vegan) gravy train? Most likely, it was a bit of both. A few leaders had to first show success in the marketplace for others to feel confident the demand is sufficient enough to invest in these products. “There are companies that led the way despite the market because it was the right thing to do,” says Schinner. “Those are companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, LightLife, Tofurkey, and [Miyoko’s]. These companies did it because they wanted to create a new food system. Then there are companies that are jumping on the bandwagon because it’s the hottest trend. I go to industry conferences all the time and everybody is talking about wanting to expand their offerings. So it’s both.”
Regardless of these industry factors, it appears the culture shift is more than a trend and will continue to grow. Our bodies, and our planet, depend on it. “[Plant-based eating] is going to rise,” says Iaquinta. “I believe this generation of children is the last generation that will eat real meat with regularity. The plant-based alternatives are version 1.0 of the future of food. I think we’ll make proteins out of ingredients we normally don’t use, and they’ll be synthetically based. Giant herds of cows will dwindle. The costs, the environmental effects, and the fact that people don’t need [meat] regularly will essentially make dairy animals go extinct.”
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