When I graduated from high school in 1987, I chose to attend Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in the heart of the Iowa cornfields.
At Grinnell, first-year students arrive a week before classes begin, in order to figure out where everything is and to learn about groups they can join. I immediately signed up for various progressive groups on campus. There wasn’t an animal rights group, or a vegetarian or vegan group, but the leaders of the groups I joined were vegans—for human rights and environmental reasons. One of my new acquaintances suggested that I read Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé.
Lappé’s basic point is that raising animals for meat, dairy, or eggs, is vastly inefficient. Farmed animals are essentially treated as food conversion machines: put in a certain amount of soy, corn, or other feed into the animals, and get back some meat, eggs, or milk. Of course, by simply leading their lives, the animals burn off the majority of the calories fed to them, and some of their caloric intake goes into bones, blood, and other bits that are not edible. Lappé goes into much more detail, but the gist is this: If you eat meat, you devour exponentially more resources in the form of all the grains, corn, soy, and other foods fed to farmed animals than if you ate those crops directly.
The waste of eating dairy products, eggs, and meat—funneling crops through animals—while so many of the world’s people starved, had a powerful impact on me. These were people like me who simply had been born in another part of the world. Lappé’s arguments about the basic inefficiency and pollution involved in raising animals for food convinced me that I couldn’t claim to be an environmentalist if I still ate animal products. The power of both of these concepts working together convinced me to go vegan immediately.
In the early 1990s, I was running a Catholic Worker shelter for homeless families, and I was given the book Christianity and the Rights of Animals by Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey, an Anglican priest and professor of theology at Oxford University. Linzey’s essential message is about the nature of being an ethical human being in the world today. He frames his argument in a Christian context, but the argument is universal and applies to all of us: we should, where possible, make kind choices rather than cruel ones, and we should lead our lives with a goal of making the world more compassionate.
When I finished the book, I began to talk to everyone I could find about the simple fact that we make a choice every time we sit down to eat: Do we want to add to the level of violence, misery, and bloodshed in the world, or do we prefer to make compassionate, merciful choices? Linzey’s book and that very basic concept caused me to apply for a job at PETA in 1996, nine years after I adopted a vegan diet.
I’ve been a vegan for 27 years now, and I cannot believe how much the food landscape has changed. In addition to the beans, grains, and other whole foods that have been the staples of my diet, there are fantastic faux milks and meats in every grocery store. Where eating vegan at a restaurant used to be a bit of a chore, it’s now easy in rural America. Heck, we even have our own Month—Veganuary!
Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur – http://weanimals.org/