My Beef with Veganism

Full Disclosure: I don’t have a TV at the moment, so I don’t have access to Oprah’s show right now.

I heard about Oprah’s vegan challenge through the grapevine (you know, Twitter). I was immediately skeptical. The last time I saw Michael Pollan on Oprah, his segment was followed by a vegan segment with Alicia Silverstone. Pollan, in case you don’t know, is an advocate of unprocessed, whole-foods, mostly plant-based eating. Ms. Silverstone’s segment was about how and why she became a vegan. The cameras followed her through a shopping trip at Whole Foods Market, and I distinctly remember a number of processed, soy-based meat alternatives going into her shopping cart. And this was after Ms. Silverstone herself spoke of the importance of eating whole foods.

One of my Twitter-folk shared this blog post by food writer Dawn Viola of Wicked Good Dinners:  Oprah’s Vegan Challenge, Not a Vegetable in Site. Turns out I was right to be skeptical: “…Kathy had filled Jill’s entire shopping cart with processed soy and meat substitutes, cheese substitutes, milk, butter and egg substitutes, without one fruit, vegetable, grain, nut, seed or bean represented in its natural form.”

So this is why I get frustrated with some vegans (I definitely know vegans who lead a mostly whole-food, meat-substitute-free lifestyle). I don’t see how processed meat substitutes made of corn and soy are sustainable — they’re certainly not healthy. In an episode of Krista Tippet on Being, Dan Barber talks about New York State’s ecology:

“My ecological conditions are dictating that we eat a lot of meat because we’re grassland. What we grow best… is an amazing diversity of healthful grass for animals. …For me to be a vegetarian, and be a strict advocate of it wouldn’t be listening to the ecology of it that the land is telling us it wants to grow.”

Flock in Winter, Spring Lake Farm, Meredith, NY. Photo: Ulla Kjarval.

Flock in Winter, Spring Lake Farm, Meredith, NY. Photo: Ulla Kjarval.

I simply don’t buy the argument that eating vegan in New York State is the healthful, sustainable choice. Now, if you live in southern California, where the growing season lasts 13 months out of the year (which is weird, I know, since there are only 12 months in the calendar year), going vegan makes a whole lot more sense. Eating a lot of beef and dairy makes very little sense out there since the land is not naturally grassland. There’s a lot of desert, and sustaining livestock involves irrigation and all sorts of finagling with the natural terrain. Dan Barber continues:

“If you want to be in New England, and you want to improve the ecological conditions of where you are, you’re eating meat. There’s no question about it. There is no healthy ecological system that I’ve ever seen that doesn’t include animals. It just doesn’t. Because the manure from the animals is a free ecological resource that amends the soil that gives you better tasting and healthful vegetables. That’s been around since the beginning of time.”

In a future post, I’ll discuss the health benefits of eating grass-fed meat and dairy. Also, the differences in the fat/nutrient profiles of grass-fed versus grain-fed meat.

Cattle Grazing at Spring Lake Farm, Meredith, NY. Photo: Ulla Kjarval

Cattle Grazing at Spring Lake Farm, Meredith, NY. Photo: Ulla Kjarval

8 thoughts on “My Beef with Veganism

  1. Melissa Danielle

    It’s experiences like this one that made me want to disassociate myself from veg*ns. I practice a whole foods plant-based diet, but I prefer not to call myself a vegetarian. When I look at what my veg*n friends, clients, and colleagues eat, how I could I be? I eat considerably more vegetables than they do, and I rarely consume processed foods, especially meat and dairy substitutes.

    If you’re not in a transition phase, substitutes should be less than 20% of your plant-based diet. There are at least 1,000 ways to make satisfying and balanced 100% plant-based dishes that don’t require the use of substitutes.

    Eat a damn vegetable!

  2. Ricky Ferdon

    I am a vegan. Good point on the “ecology” of the land. I, for one, do not seek nor eat substitute meats, etc. Besides, I’m in the rural Deep South, and such is not very available without going to a bigger town/city with health food options. I don’t crave a meat “texture” or such – I might, though, like a soy cheese or yogurt. I always loved mayo, and do enjoy Veganaise. My decision to become vegan is from a moral/conscious launch. The large scale factory production of meat, dairy and eggs is by nature abusive and enslaving to the animals. It also places the workers into moral crevice. I could accept eggs from, say, a individual “out in the country” who raises chickens that roam free and who does not employ insecticides, hormones and such. I could accept milk and cheese from one who raises his cows in open fields, without the hormones and drugs. But I can never accept the flesh of any creature for food. No matter if it’s free-range, grass-fed, hormone-free or any other method designed to make it seem “okay” to eat it, the animal still must be killed and bled for the flesh to be available for consumption. And anyone who says the livestock does not know pain, fear, anxiety and the like, is simply detached from reality. I believe and enjoy the health benefits of being vegan: there is no such thing as cholesterol in the plant kingdom, and it’s presented more and more that we all would benefit from more fruits and vegetables in the diet. Of course, I was a meat eater. Therefore, I don’t believe in radicalizing my veganism. I have too much libertarian in me to tell someone else how she/he should conduct their lives (food choices). But thanks for your presentation, I enjoyed it.

  3. jodie

    Every single vegan blog that I’ve seen that has written about the Oprah episode has also criticized the extreme use of processed vegan “meats” as well as the lack of fruits and vegetables that were represented in the episode. And to commentor Melissa Danielle, please don’t lump us all into the same category. It’s just plain rude and disrespectful.

  4. Melissa Danielle

    I am not lumping anyone into a category. I specifically said, “when I look at what my veg*n friends, clients, and colleagues eat”, not, what “all vegans” eat. I don’t know you, so you don’t fall into “my veg*n friends, clients, and colleagues”.

  5. Adriana

    Right on. I think the episode also revealed a general disconnect with people at the frontlines of the food movement (such as it is — people keep saying we don’t really have a food movement, but that’s another story). But it also exacerbates the rift between vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, omnivores. All of us who care about whole food cooking and recognize the harm of highly-processed foods need to ally ourselves together.

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  7. jodie

    Yes, but your first line in your comment is that this makes you want to disassociate from veg*ns. I won’t say that I don’t like Gardein and Daiya among other processed vegan products, but I try hard to make the majority of my diet is beans, greens and grains, with some fruit thrown in.

  8. Izetta Irwin

    @Adriana I agree that there’s a rift. I love the folks who care primarily for human wellbeing and work so that people will have better food options. I’m going to remain one who feels my allies are those who want to make things less horrible for animals.

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