Mr. Spock Changed My Diet
Why being vegan is logical, humane, and easier than ever.
Posted Jun 12, 2019
Thirty years ago I became vegan.
I’d long since stopped eating meat, which was challenging enough as a lover of steak, chicken, bacon, and lamb chops, but what would I put in my tea if not dairy products? Could I really give up pizza and baked goods made with eggs? What would I do when I was invited to someone’s home for dinner?
I would learn to negotiate these challenges because, after discovering how cruelly animals were treated in industrial farming systems, I knew I couldn’t keep harming them for no better reason than because I liked the taste of their flesh, milk, and eggs.
I learned that cows were branded; pigs were castrated and tail-docked; and chickens had half their beaks sliced off, all without anesthesia.
I learned that “breeding sows” were confined so tightly they couldn’t move while gestating and nursing their young, and that egg-laying hens were packed into cages for the duration of their lives.
I learned that dairy cows were impregnated and forced to bear a calf each year, and that the calves would be removed from their mothers within a day, so that we could take the milk for ourselves. I also learned that cows were forced to produce up to 10 times the milk they’d normally make for their calves, which was why half the dairy cows in the U.S. wound up with mastitis, a painful udder infection, necessitating antibiotics in their feed.
I learned that cows would sometimes bellow out for days when their babies were taken away from them, and that sometimes they managed to break out of their confinement to run after the trucks carrying their calves.
I also learned that if a calf was male, and therefore of no use to the dairy industry, he’d likely be raised for veal—chained in a tiny stall, unable to take more than a single step forward or backward, fed an iron-deficient diet to keep his flesh pale, and deprived of exercise to keep his muscles tender.
I knew that all of these cruelties, which were perpetrated on cows, pigs, lambs, chickens, and turkeys by the millions every day, would be illegal if done to a pet dog, cat, or parakeet.
It wasn’t enough to read about and watch videos of these cruelties. I wanted to see for myself if what I’d been learning was true. As a humane educator, I had the opportunity to do so. I took groups of students to visit one of the largest egg-laying facilities on the east coast. Rows of stacked cages extended as far as the eye could see. The sound of the 500,000 hens was deafening. The stench of their year-long accumulated excrement made us gag.
The hens looked awful. Their combs were pink and floppy, instead of red and erect. Many had open wounds and missing feathers.
The eggs that rolled onto a conveyor belt were placed by mechanical arms into cartons. The graphics on those cartons depicted a reality very different from what we’d witnessed. There was nothing “fabulously farm fresh” about these eggs.
A year later, I brought another group of students to visit a veal production facility. The smell there was overpowering, too, and the calves, tied by the neck in solitary stalls so they couldn’t even turn around, were so desperate to suckle, they latched on to my fingers.
I’d first learned about the concept of vegetarianism when I was a teenager, from Mr. Spock on Star Trek. The Vulcan thought it was illogical to cause unnecessary suffering and death to sentient beings. If the emotionless Spock was vegetarian, then surely I, who loved animals, ought to be one, too. It took some time, but eventually, I couldn’t escape Mr. Spock’s logic or the stirrings of my own heart, which made it clear that I shouldn’t participate in causing harm and suffering if I didn’t have to.
Since I became vegan, much more information has come to light about the impacts of animal agriculture not only on farmed animals but also on the environment. A meat-based diet is one of the biggest contributors to our climate crisis, the depletion of aquifers, water pollution, ocean dead zones, deforestation, and soil erosion.
Some insist that a vegan diet isn’t healthy, but the data belie this assertion: A plant-based diet significantly reduces the risk of heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, and several forms of cancer.
Nonetheless, meat consumption continues to rise. Which is why this five minute TED talk by my friend Bruce Friedrich is so compelling. Bruce understands that to create change, we have to change systems.
Desires too often eclipse values. Traditions and habits can feel hard to break. People find themselves part of systems that don’t support change. But if choosing a vegan diet were as simple as eating similarly priced plant-based (and soon cell-cultured) versions of your favorite animal foods, would you choose those versions? If it also meant that you wouldn’t be consuming antibiotic residues, growth-hormones, pesticides, PCBs, and other chemicals that get concentrated as you eat further up the food chain, would you consider that an added bonus?
Mr. Spock found it shocking that his human colleagues ate sentient beings. By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation aired 20 years later, humans no longer killed animals for food, at least not on the Enterprise. The system had changed.
As I celebrate my 30-year “veganniversary,” I see system change accelerating, and I believe that eventually the animal agriculture industry will be a relic. But timing is critical in order to avert potential environmental catastrophes and the suffering of more than a trillion land and sea animals each year.
Fortunately, for those who want to eat a plant-based diet, or significantly reduce their consumption of animal foods, it’s easy now, and little sacrifice is required. In contrast to 30 years ago, you can now eat all the (plant-based) "meat and cheese" you wish—and depending upon the brand, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference.
Our personal efforts to model a message of humane and sustainable eating can and do spur the demand for plant-based foods and drive the system changes that protect human health, animal well-being, and the ecosystems that support life.
Let’s make the shift so we can all live long and prosper.