Saturday, November 12, 2011

I Could Never Go Vegan

“I think it's great what you're doing, but I don't think I could ever go vegan.” This phrase, “I don't think I could ever go vegan,” is one that I hear a lot in my activism, or even just day to day interactions with people. With that one statement people entirely shut themselves down to being influenced by any argument we might have to make. I could spend days presenting every case for why other animals deserve similar consideration for their interests and how they are being callously denied their most essential interests currently, but if the person I was presenting to opened with, “I don't think I could ever go vegan,” my money is on my arguments falling on deaf ears 99 times out of 100. Recently I've started using the following reply when people tell me that they could never go vegan:

I totally understand that not everyone I talk to is going to go vegan right away, but the things that are happening currently [on factory farms] are things that I think anyone would be troubled by. We each make decisions every day about what we consume, and even if someone isn't going to go fully vegan, every time they make a choice to avoid animal products is a major victory for the animals suffering on our factory farms.

There are a lot of things I've liked about this response. While a moment ago they were someone who could never go vegan, I've subtly recast their statement to emphasize that they merely were not taking the leap right away. Additionally, I've encouraged them to start looking at each individual decision they are making and emphasized the relative importance of the decision for the animals. Finally, I'm always very careful to use terms like “we” and “our” as often as possible when discussing making decisions and always use the more generic “someone” or “people” instead of the more accusatory “you” and “your” when the former terms are not possible.

In giving this response to someone last week I started wondering: “Just how much impact does each one of our decisions have for the animals suffering on factory farms?” Luckily, the question is a fairly simple one to answer. To determine the answer I put together the table below with rough approximations of how long the animals used for the products below live in a typical modern production system and roughly how much product is generally acquired by the time the animals are slaughtered. I divided the time by the amount of product to get the amount of time spent suffering per unit of product produced.

Product Animal Life Unit Production Unit Suffering
Beef 600 Days 750 lbs 1,152 min/lb
Chicken 45 Days 3 lbs 21,600 min/lb
Pork 250 Days 200 lbs 1,800 min/lb
Dairy 1,500 Days 1,000 gal 216 min/gal
Eggs 1,000 Days 800 eggs 1,800 min/egg

The values in the table are only rough approximations and could probably vary by as much as a factor of 1.5 in either direction from farm to farm. Nonetheless, the table still gives us very useful data for how important each of our decisions is. The amount of suffering that goes into producing chicken and eggs far away outpaces any of the other products. If someone wants to know what is most important for them to give up right away, our answer should always be chicken and eggs. On the other end of the spectrum, dairy involves far less time spent suffering than any of these other products; yet, I still can't imagine any plausible amount of pleasure we could get out of a gallon of dairy that could possibly justify the over three hours a dairy cow was subjected to in factory farm conditions to support our demand (not to mention the plethora of easy dairy substitutes).

We won't be able to get every person with whom we speak to go vegan right away, but plenty of people will be willing to start looking at their individual decisions in more detail. Hopefully with this data and knowledge of the unimaginable horrors our fellow animals endure on our factory farms, more people will be willing to make all of their decisions victories for the animals.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Alexey Surov and GM Soy - A Recurrent Tale Against GM Foods

When I'm researching for any of my posts I try to do some background research into my opposition's position so that I can best address that opinion while supporting my own hypothesis. While researching on genetically modified foods I repeatedly came across references to a single study whose references threw up many flags of suspicion. None of the sites referring to the study provided a name of the study, a journal that the study was published in, or a link to the study itself. Nearly all of them seemed to include the same quotes from one of the researchers in the study identified as Alexey V. Surov.

The Huffington Post published this account on April 20, 2010, which appears to have spread like wildfire within days to hundreds of other blogs and media outlets:

"This study was just routine," said Russian biologist Alexey V. Surov, in what could end up as the understatement of this century. Surov and his colleagues set out to discover if Monsanto's genetically modified (GM) soy, grown on 91% of US soybean fields, leads to problems in growth or reproduction. What he discovered may uproot a multi-billion dollar industry.
After feeding hamsters for two years over three generations, those on the GM diet, and especially the group on the maximum GM soy diet, showed devastating results. By the third generation, most GM soy-fed hamsters lost the ability to have babies. They also suffered slower growth, and a high mortality rate among the pups.


Surov told The Voice of Russia,
"Originally, everything went smoothly. However, we noticed quite a serious effect when we selected new pairs from their cubs and continued to feed them as before. These pairs' growth rate was slower and reached their sexual maturity slowly."
He selected new pairs from each group, which generated another 39 litters. There were 52 pups born to the control group and 78 to the non-GM soy group. In the GM soy group, however, only 40 pups were born. And of these, 25% died. This was a fivefold higher death rate than the 5% seen among the controls. Of the hamsters that ate high GM soy content, only a single female hamster gave birth. She had 16 pups; about 20% died.
Surov said "The low numbers in F2 [third generation] showed that many animals were sterile."

The story also included a few other useful details relating to the study itself. It was conducted on Campbell hamsters and the research was “jointly conducted by Surov's Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the National Association for Gene Security.”

Generally this would be sufficient information to track down a study, especially one published as recently as July 2010, so I started searching PubMed and Google Scholar for studies using combinations of the search terms “Alexey V. Surov”, “Institute of Ecology and Evolution”, “Russian Academy of Sciences”, “Campbell hamster”, “Soy”. Nothing.

A little further investigation into how the story originally broke online turned up that the story had not been broken by the Huffington Post at all, but actually by an English language version of a Russian news source, The Voice of Russia on April 16, 2010. Interestingly, this story includes a different spelling of the researcher's name, “Alexei”, and a slightly different name for the institute, “Institute of Ecological and Evolutional Problems”.

At this point it was apparent that I was searching for a Russian language study that, despite it's massive reporting amongst English language media, would not be possible track down in English. Luckily, was glad to help me track down additional information on the “Институт проблем экологии и эволюционной проблемы”, which Google Translator was kind enough to inform me was Russian for “Institute of Ecological and Evolutional Problems”. There I was able to track down a researcher by the name of “Суров Алексей Васильевич”, which matched my translation for “Alexey V. Surov”. It seemed I was quickly closing in on an actual study, and after translating the words hamster and soy into Russian (and interestingly coming across Russian translations of the same news stories published across English media) I was able to track down the original study.

The English translation of the study title is, “Changing the physiological parameters of mammals feeding genetically modified plant”.I have provided a link to the study in Russian, so you can use your favorite translation tool to translate it into the language of your choice. The images associated with the study seem to no longer be hosted on the website, but by doing a Google Image search for the file names of each of the images I was able to track down a copy of all but one of the images still stored on the Google servers.

To summarize the study, the researchers started with four groups each with five pairs of male and female hamsters. Group 1 was fed a diet of non-GM soybeans, group 2 was fed a diet of genetically modified soybeans, group 3 was fed a diet containing a different variety of genetically modified soybeans, and finally group 4 was fed a diet free of soy entirely. The researchers then bred the hamsters within their respective groups for an additional two generations and then killed the final generation at the age of 45 days to measure various biological parameters relating to their development.

The following is a translation of the results given in the paper (note F1 and F2 denotes the first and second generation of offspring from the original pair):

Group 1 did not differ significantly from group 4 (control), both in F1 and in F2. Probably food containing soybeans, does not contain components that can significantly affect-Gut on the studied parameters.

Group 2, which added to the diet of soy GM-1 differed significantly thin-Shimi figures of reproduction and development of the control group (1), which is evidence of the negative effects of food, "GM-1" on the growth and development of animals.

Group 3 differed for the worse from all the other groups, which indicates, there exists an even more about the negative impact of food containing GM-2.

While the translation is far from perfect, it is clearly indicated that the study found significant negative effects in the two groups fed the diets of genetically modified soy, while the two control groups were fairly similar. The study's conclusion lists that significant differences were found specifically in the following areas:

1) delay in somatic growth and development;
2) violation of the sex ratio in broods with an increase in the proportion of females;
3) reducing the number of young in broods;
4) The decrease in the proportion of fertile animals.

The evidence sounds pretty damning and the researchers' mistake is not at all obvious with a casual read.

Imagine for a moment, that we took 4 groups of hamsters and simply proceeded to breed them within each group for several generations. The expected outcome would be that characteristics within each small population would become much more uniform and that the different populations would genetically drift apart over a large number of generations. This first point, increasing uniformity within the group is important for this study. It means that the standard deviation of characteristics within each group will always tend to shrink while the diversity between the groups remains constant or grows over time. Without even having done anything, this will yield statistically significant differences simply by decreasing the standard deviation being used to calculate the statistical significance.

While the researchers did manage to find statistically significant differences between the groups after a few generations they did not show that the groups fed GM-soy were significantly different from groups fed non-GM soy or no soy whatsoever since they only had a sample size of one for each diet. Had the researchers wanted to conduct such a test they would have needed several groups of hamsters on each diet.

The results of this Russian study provide no evidence that the differing diets these hamsters were fed played any role in the different outcomes observed. Keep in mind that the predominant use of genetically modified soy around the world is as animal feed. Had chickens or dairy cattle started producing fewer offspring as a result of the genetically modified soy in their feed it would have long ago been recognized by the farming community. Perhaps unfortunately for the animals bound to suffer in our factory farms, there is no such sterilizing effect of genetically modified soy in their diets.


How can the tools of skepticism be used to prevent us from falling prey to a study like this in the future? Here are a few suggestions:

Make sure you can identify the title of the study in question and the journal in which it was published. Don't ever take a blog post or a news story reporting on the results as an accurate representation.

If you can't read the entire study for yourself, use the reputation and the peer review process of the journal in which the study was published to judge how thoroughly the research may have been vetted prior to publication.

Look for follow-ups or critiques to the study that may have been published. See if the research has been reproduced anywhere else or if any similar studies have obtained similar results.

Make sure the study used appropriate controls and statistical methods. Ask yourself: “If an identical study had been run with all samples/groups/etc following the control procedure, would a statistically significant result be obtained the expected percentage of the time?”

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The IRRI – Conducting Genetic Modification We Can All Support

We've all heard horror stories relating to the use of genetically modified crops. Nearly every time GMOs are brought up in a conversation you'll hear a tale about GM crops cross pollinating with crops in a neighboring field for which the owner of the neighboring field is then sued, or corporations like Monsanto using their political clout to push their Roundup Ready crops through to approval so that they can boost sales of their herbicide.

Tales like these undoubtedly tarnish many people's perceptions of GMOs. I did a quick search for “genetically modified organisms” and pulled up the first page I could find with concerns regarding genetic modification. The following comes from Environmental Commons:

Environmental Commons believes that genetic modication and engineering:

● Constrict farmer seed and variety privileges.
● Confer private ownership of otherwise commonly held life forms.
● Create unanticipated environmental effects.
● Threaten human health.
● Suppress the development and integrity of less intensive, more sustainable farming systems.
● Damage local farming economies.

Where a corporation can get away with using technology to corner the market and promote the use of their own products it will likely make business sense for them to do so, and, lacking necessary oversight, protecting human health and the environment may not be the top of their concerns either. These facts of free-market business are not unique to genetically modified crops, but they are often the face of genetic modification that many people are exposed to. I hope to use this post to give people a glimpse of one of the many ways GM technology is being used to benefit the world, and not just enrich a few individuals.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is a non-profit based in the Philippines with offices in 16 countries. Founded in 1960, the IRRI “develops new rice varieties and rice crop management techniques that help rice farmers improve the yield and quality of their rice in an environmentally sustainable way.” The IRRI mission statement describes a mission that seems to side with every objection that the Environmental Commons raised above regarding genetic modification:

Our mission
To reduce poverty and hunger, improve the health of rice farmers and consumers, and ensure environmental sustainability through collaborative research, partnerships, and the strengthening of national agricultural research and extension systems.
Our goals
● Reduce poverty through improved and diversified rice-based systems.
● Ensure that rice production is sustainable and stable, has minimal negative environmental impact, and can cope with climate change.
● Improve the nutrition and health of poor rice consumers and rice farmers.
● Provide equitable access to information and knowledge on rice and help develop the next generation of rice scientists.
● Provide rice scientists and producers with the genetic information and material they need to develop improved technologies and enhance rice production.

The IRRI has primarily used selective breeding in pursuit of these goals. One of the organization's first successes was with IR8 rice, also known as “miracle rice”.

When grown with irrigation and nitrogen-rich fertilizers, IR8 produced more grains than traditional varieties. IR8 changed the world food situation according to Tom Hargrove, a former communicator at IRRI. Indeed, the looming famines did not materialize since miracle rice was introduced, as well as other food varieties.

IR8, however, while successful at staving off famine in the Phillippines, did come at a cost of increased input and additional environmental impact. Since the original success of IR8 at increasing yield, the IRRI has increased it's emphasis on improved sustainability and minimal inputs. By breeding rice plants to out compete weeds, the IRRI has developed varieties that can thrive without herbicides even amongst fierce competition with only minimal weeding. By combining these with varieties bred for different climates, they have been able to create “drought-tolerant, salinity-tolerant, submergence-tolerant, and high-yielding varieties suitable for irrigated conditions.”

Rice developed at the IRRI is used widely around the world, and undoubtedly has increased output while reducing dependence on chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Nonetheless, as our knowledge has grown and technology has improved, the IRRI aims to move beyond results they are able to obtain through selective breeding alone. According to their guiding principles in researching GM rice:“IRRI believes that genetic modification and genetically modified rice have the potential to safely deliver unique benefits to rice farmers and consumers that cannot be achieved through other breeding methods.” While no varieties of GM rice are yet grown commercially, several have been approved for commercialization, and many more are being developed by the IRRI.

The use of genetic modification comes with a number of benefits in achieving the goals of the IRRI. Unlike conventional breeding, which requires numerous genes to be exchanged in order to transfer a desired characteristic, and comes with no guarantee a trait will even be incorporated into a given offspring, genetic modification allows a particular trait of interest to be incorporated into a new variety without having to worry about unwanted genes being incorporated as well. Genetic modification also increases the variety that the IRRI is able to achieve, by allowing them to use genes that would have otherwise been difficult or impossible to breed into their variety.

Additionally, the IRRI is using genetic modification to aid their traditional breeding programs. By incorporating or knocking out specific sections of DNA in rice, they are able to better understand the function of each of those sections and can then use that information to see if DNA associated with a desired characteristic has shown up in rice bred using traditional methods. This does not introduce any genetic material that wouldn't have been introduced through traditional breeding, but it does allow them to more quickly and confidently create a variety that can meet a given need.

Currently, the IRRI is, “researching the development and delivery of GM rice with improved
● drought, heat, and salinity tolerance;
● photosynthetic capacity to increase yield and enable it to become more efficient in using water and nitrogen fertilizer (C4 rice); and
● nutritional value of the grain, including higher pro-vitamin A (Golden Rice), improved protein quality, and higher iron.”

Developing crops that are able to better adapt to the environment, that use water and fertilizer more efficiently, and that have greater nutritional value are things everyone should support. Golden Rice in particular, which was genetically modified to produce beta carotine (a source of vitamin A) could potentially prevent hundreds of thousands of children each year from going blind or dying from vitamin A deficiency. Perhaps most importantly, Golden Rice has been licensed for humanitarian use, so that anyone earning less than $10,000 from growing this variety can use and keep the seeds without any need to pay royalties.

Genetic modification is a technology with the potential to save countless lives, and improve the quality of life for countless more, all while minimizing our impact on the environment. Next time you hear someone railing against this innovation, make sure you point out the ways it is already being used to achieve goals everyone ought to support.

For more about genetically modified foods, check out the Skeptical Vegan's post on the subject.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Animal Millionaires

Hello to all my loyal blog readers. First of all, I would like to apologize for the long hiatus between posts. I started working at a new job in mid-December, and while this has been able to meet many of my needs, it has kept me away from updating this blog for the past couple months. This blog is certainly a project I wish to continue however, and I hope to get back into fairly regular updates as I settle into my new position.

Recently, as I was getting to bed at my new early bedtime, I decided I should put together a list of goals for myself. I wrote down all of one item on this list before I got distracted and eventually fell asleep. The one item I put down on my list was, “Become an animal millionaire”.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term it is one that Erik Marcus brings up fairly regularly on his blog. An animal millionaire is someone who, through their actions, has led to a million animals' lives being saved.

What would it take to become an animal millionaire?

Some people choose to foster animals to help save them from certain deaths in shelters. I imagine I could probably foster roughly 15 cats or dogs at a time, over their roughly 15 year life spans. Given that I likely have roughly 60 years left to live myself, I could probably save 60-ish lives by fostering animals. This would also come at a cost of tens, possibly even the low hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Another technique many have chosen to take for the animals is illegal direct action. Supposing I chose to put my direct action directly towards saving animals (as opposed to causing property damage), my most optimistic projection would be that I could rescue a few thousand animals before earning an extended sentence in my own cage.

This is at least far better than the marginally legal direct action group Sea Shepherd, which manages to get Japan to miss their whaling quota by a few hundred in a good year (out of a quota of roughly 1000 whales). This comes at a cost of millions of dollars to the animal rights movement, and a crew of what appears to be dozens of people. Sea Shepherd's activism comes at a cost of roughly $10,000 per whale saved and saves a mere 10 animals per person-year of work by the crew.

Legislative challenges vary greatly depending on the piece of legislation. California's proposition 2 will likely impact the lives of billions of animals once it goes into effect; although, it is unclear how many, if any, lives will ultimately be spared by this piece of legislation. This came at a cost of roughly $10 million from the YES side, and required perhaps a couple thousand person-years of work. Missouri's proposition B on the other hand will influence the lives of no more than a couple hundred thousand animals per year. It came at a cost of $1.7 million in support to the YES side and likely several hundred person-years of work.

What if we spent our time trying to get as many people as possible to go vegan? If we really put our energy into it, we could talk to several hundred, perhaps even a couple thousand people per week. Obviously the vast majority of people would not make a large lifestyle change from their brief conversation with us, but out of speaking with a few thousand people, it is not unreasonable to think we could get at least one to make a change (along with hopefully pushing many others in the right direction). In a wealthy nation like the United States, getting just one young person to go vegan will typically save the lives of roughly 2000 animals over the remainder of that person's life. Vegan Outreach makes conversing with this many people on a regular basis entirely possible. They print out booklets that, in addition to presenting information to people in a clear and effective manner, also serve as excellent conversation starters with interested people.

Using Vegan Outreach materials, one of their leafleters, Vic Sjodin, managed to pass out booklets to over 100,000 people in a single semester. You may not be the veritable leafleting god that Vic is, but any person donating a full year of their labor to the cause, could most likely get out 100,000 booklets over the course of that year. Depending on how effective of communicators we are on behalf of the animals, it is entirely reasonable that we could get 50-100 people to go vegan over this time period, at a cost of no more than $12,000 to print those booklets (plus perhaps a few thousand more in gas costs). Getting a mere 50 young Americans to go vegan would amount to a million lives saved.

All of the figures in the above table are admittedly very rough estimates. Reasonable error bars on these would be as much as a factor of ten in either direction. Yet even admitting that much uncertainty, there is a clear winner if we are interested in doing what is best for the animals, and that difference is so much so, that using this method, any one of us could easily become an animal millionaire multiple times over within our lives.

Imagine yourself taking just one day every other week to leaflet at a college campus or a concert that young people will be attending. Similarly, imagine yourself setting aside just a couple hours worth of work from every paycheck to donate to Vegan Outreach. Taking these two small steps will set you up to easily reach the goal of becoming an animal millionaire within a decade. I challenge all of you to see which of us can accomplish this simple task the most times over.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Laying Hens

I'm going to do my best to describe why laying hens endure the most suffering of any animals as best I can without sounding like a total downer. It certainly is possible to gather some chicken eggs without having to harm chickens in the process, but for any sort of eggs you would buy at the store the process that makes economic sense is far different from the cruelty-free strategy. Egg laying hens and broiler (meat) chickens are not of the same species. There is no demand for male chicks of laying breeds and these are disposed of in whatever is the cheapest way the hatcheries can get away with. Mercy For Animals did an undercover investigation at the United States' largest hatchery just last year, showing one typical process of male chicks being ground up alive.

The laying hens are packed about 5-7 into slanted battery cages. The cages are slanted so that eggs will roll out and make them easier to gather. The current recommendation by the United Egg Producers is to give each bird between 67 and 86 square inches of space, less than a sheet of printer paper. Chickens in the wild naturally form a hierarchy called a pecking order. Chickens will peck at each other to establish dominance and the lowlier chickens will get out of the way when they don't wish to assert dominance. The battery cage conditions prohibit chickens from getting out of the way, so ordinarily chickens in such conditions would peck at each other incessantly causing one another serious bodily harm. To combat this, the beaks of the laying hens are cut off at birth, making it so that the pain the chickens feel when attempting to peck at each other will be a sufficient deterrent to combat their natural social habit.

Producers have also discovered that keeping the lights on for unnaturally long periods of the day increases the amount the chickens lay. Thus the chickens are kept awake in their cramped quarters for the majority of the day, eating and laying for their existence. After a year in such conditions the hens production begins to drop. An ordinary lifespan for a hen might be for around a decade, but once production drops, it makes more economic sense to raise a new hen than to continue to feed and house one that is producing at a lower rate. Yet the producers don't ship them off to slaughter just yet, by starving the chickens for a period of one to two weeks and keeping them in near perpetual darkness (sometimes depriving them of water as well) they can induce the chickens to molt. According the the American Veterinary Medical Association, “Egg production resumes and increases rapidly to a profitable rate following an induced molt.” This gives the producers one last spurt of production before they send the spent laying hens off to slaughter.

Slaughterhouses and factory farms don't typically exist in the same facility, and the slaughter process is designed, like the rest of the process, to maximize efficiency rather than benevolence. Caged chickens are often literally thrown onto trucks and carried at the producer's leisure to a slaughter facility where the spent bird's meat is typically only useful in processed foods or as pet feed. Typical slaughter for these animals will involve hanging them upside-down by their legs and running them down a production line to have their necks automatically slit, allowing them to bleed out along the way.

Many of you have probably heard that in 2008 California passed Proposition 2, banning the use of battery cages by 2015. While this is probably a step in the right direction, it does nothing to address the worst of the suffering the animals must endure. They will be taken from their cages and merely dumped onto the floors. Beak trimming, forced molting, chick grinding, and bleak lives of densely packed confinement will still be all these fellow animals are allowed to enjoy.

This is all assuming that the predictions of the Proposition 2 opponents don't come to pass.

We estimate that 95% of that output and employment would be lost by 2015 as the egg sector gradually contracted to no more than 5% of its current size due to the proposed ballot measure.

Idaho, Nevada, and Georgia have all made efforts to court California's farmers with promises of fewer regulations that drive up their costs.

Buying free-range eggs, while it may sound like the obvious solution, is not what many of us hope it to be. Free-range producers still produce with competition and economic incentives to keep prices low, and this often comes at a cost of welfare in the process. Peaceful Prairie Animal Sanctuary took footage of free-range hens they had rescued shortly before slaughter showing no noticeable differences from their conventional counterparts.

These free-range birds had all outlived their unwanted male counterparts, had all been debeaked, and were obviously debilitated from their short lives of laying.

I know someone is going to try to accuse me of merely picking out isolated cases that are not an accurate representation of the process. They are going to say that clearly it doesn't make economic sense for farmers to abuse their animals, because stressed and hurt animals produce poorer products (these talking points are almost as predictable as Republicans saying “no” these days). These accusations are baseless. None of the clips I show present isolated cases of abuse, but production lines designed in ways that clearly involve great suffering when run as intended. These aren't outdated or isolated production techniques either, but part of the what the industry says is, “approximately 98 percent of all layer flocks in the U.S. [...] housed indoors and in cages.”

So, do you think the pleasure you enjoy from eating eggs is greater than the suffering the birds endure to produce that product for you?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sarah Palin's Alaska

Sarah Palin's Alaska is a show that I imagine few if any of my blog readers watch. Yet this week's episode caught the attention of many in the animal rights community for its focus on Sarah Palin and her daughter Bristol bludgeoning halibut. Here is a preview from TLC I was able to track down for the episode.

This only shows a small bit of what was displayed in the episode. Having now watched it myself, I would estimate that about half of the hour long episode was dedicated to Sarah and Bristol's time upon a halibut fishing vessel, where they are both shown attempting to beat the life (or the struggle) out of several halibut with a club (with admittedly limited success), momentarily slicing the gills to allow the halibut to bleed out onto the ship, and even holding the still beating heart of one of the fish after it has been sliced apart. At one point during this gruesome ordeal we hear a voice over from Palin expressing that while she understands this appears brutal, it is also the safest and most humane way to kill the halibut.

While the Palins may have managed to stir up controversy on the subject, what happened in the episode was by no means unusual. I was able to find numerous similar clips on YouTube of halibut being beaten into submission, this next clip being perhaps the most brutal of them.

One reader on the Washington Post Blog comments:
As a commercial halibut fisherman in southeast Alaska, I have personally clubbed thousands of halibut. I can tell you that is the only way to do it. A good size halibut can break your boat, your legs and your neck if you don't stun them. It is far more humane than letting them gasp to death on deck. After stunning, a slice to the gills bleeds them out in a hurry. Bleeding them is why they taste so good. Unless you are a vegetarian, you can't really say much about the killing of your food. It's a fact that things die so you can eat.

Luckily I am a vegetarian, so I do have something to say about the killing of these beings. None of the clips I viewed showed the slightest concern for the suffering of the animals. In the episode with the Palins several fish seem to just be left sitting, bludgeoned into submission, but without their gills slit to even begin the bleeding process; clearly alive the entire time. These halibut are left, often for hours at a time hooked underwater, then they are dragged to the surface where they often have additional hooks jabbed into them to pull them aboard, where they are then brutally beaten with nothing more than the crudest mallets until they lose the will to struggle, and are then slowly bled out aboard these vessels until the last breath of life drains from their bodies.

The only sense in this immense cruelty is the economic sense it makes for those participating in the process. There is not the slightest sign of concern for the suffering of the animals given along the way. Not an effort to pull in lines sooner, not an effort to pull them aboard without jabbing into their flesh once again, not even the kind grace (sarcasm) of a captive bolt to put them out of their misery without struggling against repeated blows to enjoy another breath.

These animals, like so many others, are treated as if their interests deserve no consideration. Even when it wouldn't cause us the slightest inconvenience, we still forgo what would lessen their suffering if it does not benefit ourselves as well. We vegans are often accused of placing ourselves upon a pedestal of moral superiority, but those who act as if we have some god-given right over others have placed themselves upon a much sicker pedestal of superiority. For those of us who don't think there is any ethical sense in this purposeless abuse, we make a difference by decreasing the economic sense these beatings make for those without any concern for the suffering of these cousins.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Vegan No More

This past Friday, the vegan world got rocked by an announcement from a formerly vegan blogger who went back to eating meat. Tasha, the former Voracious Vegan, made this announcement on her Voracious Eats blog in a post titled A Vegan No More. Tasha's post nearly perfectly echos numerous aspects of Lierre Keith's Vegetarian Myth, describing how her time as a vegan left her suffering bouts of depression, low energy, B-12 deficiency, and numerous other physical and psychological troubles, and that somehow out of these troubles that very literally boggled her mind, she managed to come to a well-reasoned truth, that the only way to restore her health was through the consumption of animal products once again. She even goes so far as to echo Lierre's signature line that “life requires death”. Ginny Messina over at The Vegan RD does an excellent job of pointing out this similarity with Lierre's book, along with discussing how poorly several of her health issues were addressed by a doctor who seemed set on merely echoing the Weston A Price Foundation's selling points.

One thing this event emphasized for me, however, was the importance of skepticism in the animal rights movement, both in the message we sell to non-vegans and in correcting the misinformation we hear from other vegans.

In the post Tasha describes how she had been told, and had unskeptically accepted, that a vegan diet would be a miraculous panacea for her health.

Everything I had ever been told by vegans had said that this was the optimum way for humans to eat.

Just as I described in my Why Skeptic post Tasha describes how her beliefs were impacted simply by her desire for them to be true.

I wanted veganism to work. I wanted desperately for it to be right, for my ethics to outweigh my physiology.

When these unrealistic hopes and nutritional misinformation she had been fed didn't pan out, she was all too ready to gobble up an entirely new set of pseudo-scientific claims when a few bits of her previous worldview were shown to be false.

I listened patiently, refuting her [the doctor's] claims with the knowledge I’ve gleaned over the years. After all, I wasn’t just a regular vegan, I was a hardcore, self-righteous and oh so judgmental vegangelical. I never passed up an opportunity for some preaching. She was prepared. Just as patiently she explained how many of the ‘facts’ I was quoting were just plain wrong, or had been presented in a way that distorted the truth. It was horrifying and I almost passed out in her office because I was so worked up.

What if instead of blindly believing that a vegan diet would be a panacea of health Tasha had taken advice from Ginny of the Vegan RD, Jack Norris, or any registered dietitian following the advice of the American Dietetic Association. Had we taken the time to address misinformation within our own ranks we could have prevented this meteoric impact into the animal rights movement. Now, we are instead left with a smoldering ruin of Weston A. Price inspired naturo-babble.

I think Ginny (the Vegan RD) makes an excellent point about what causes some vegans to fail.

I believe that a lot of vegans get sick and return to eating meat when all they needed was more sound information about vegan diets and less misinformation from the pseudo-scientific anti-vegan world (as well as the pseudo-scientific pro-vegan world.)

The enemy of success in the animal rights movement is not anti-vegan information, but misinformation on both sides.

I have talked with Jamie of Skeptical Vegan and we have agreed to go through several of the new pseudo-scientific claims being made by the Voracious Eats blog in greater detail.

One of the best bits of skepticism I saw in response to the Voracious Eats post, however, was a comment left on Reddit in response.

I am a meat-eating omnivore and I'd love to be validated but this piece just has a funny smell to it. We very quickly go from health problems to painting vegans as self-rightous woman-haters. It feels like in an earlier draft they were perhaps anti-semetic puppy-kickers but it got switched before publishing.

Seriously, how many closet meat-eating vegan bloggers would out themselves after a simple email?

While I can agree that maintaining a healthy vegan diet can be difficult and perhaps impossible for some people I just can't believe this article which is so obviously playing on misplaced emotions to persuade the reader.

I assure you that there are no closet meat-eaters behind the scenes at this blog.