How long have you been a vegan?” is a question I’ve been asked several times over the past couple of months. When you live in one place and hang out with the same people on a regular basis, they get used to your strange quirks. When you’re traveling around the world and meeting new people every week, you do find yourself answering the same questions over and over again, and nowhere is veganism more of a mystery than in New Zealand.
On my second day in New Zealand I saw a huge billboard advertising beer in the center of Auckland. It showed a random picture of the countryside with the slogan, “The Most Effective Cure For Veganism Is Bacon,” emblazoned across it. This threw me into a kind of angry, ambivalent mood. On the one hand it was an outrageous thing to say, but on the other hand I was encouraged that the word veganism had even made it into Kiwi vernacular. Well that was hopeful thinking. Never mind that I have encountered a person who has never heard of autism, I have encountered several people who have never heard of hummus!
Poor New Zealand. In terms of food and nutrition they are a little behind the rest of the civilized world. The latest buzz phrase is “gluten-free food.” I remember this concept hit the streets of Los Angeles around 1995 and was all over London by about 2001. That’s ten years ago (I know... scary isn’t it?!) In New Zealand it is still quite acceptable to put huge amounts of MSG into food, even food that is fed to kids, and if you ask if something is dairy-free, you’re likely to attract some odd looks. Why would you want something dairy-free? Roughly half the people I’ve met actually pronounce the word “VAYgan.”
Well the short answer is “8 years.” The long answer is, I gave up meat, dairy, eggs, and all other land animal-derived products, such as gelatin, 8 years ago, while keeping seafood in my diet. I had a variety of reasons that more or less fell into three categories: ethical, nutritional and environmental. About a year ago I stopped eating fish entirely for environmental reasons; I simply don’t want to contribute to the decimation of the world’s natural fish resources, which is scheduled to occur in less than 50 years. I still think farming fish is a little on the wrong side, ethically, although I remain in a long debate with myself over the issue. I confess I once caught a fish and pulled it out of water, thereby killing it. I do believe it is hypocritical to eat animals you would not be prepared to kill with your own bare hands. And before we go any further you should know that I am not, strictly speaking, a true vegan, because I eat honey and currently have no problem with this. I am aware that there is a warrant out for my arrest, the global vegan police are still looking for me.
With Bill Clinton coming out as a vegan recently, and the UN declaring that we should all be moving towards a vegan diet where and when ever possible, “vegan” is the buzz word of the decade. But veganism is a major political issue. Militant vegans will declare that it is unacceptable to be “mostly vegan,” that you have to follow some strict code if you wish to use the word. But I have to point out that, unless you are living as a Buddhist monk in Bhutan, you will never be 100% vegan. It is highly likely that you drive a non-vegan car, live in a non-vegan house and use non-vegan appliances.
I used to cling to this hypocritical dogma myself. While I readily admit I was only a fishy vegan for many years, I believed everyone should live true to the title they awarded themselves. I once gave a girl an earful for professing to be a vegan but occasionally eating something containing dairy or egg to please a hostess who had made some delicacy at a dinner party. And I ripped the poor child a new one when she, herself, served hot buttered rum, made with real butter, at a holiday party. She wasn’t going to drink the stuff herself, she just knew some of her guests liked it.
I’m currently having a slight change of heart. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a vegan (a honeyed vegan, mind, with nothing fishy going on), but my angry ambivalence has recently given way to a dry Kiwi-inspired sense of humor, and you are now as likely to find me joking about bacon flavored beer (please let this be an urban myth!) as you are to find me soaking my lentils. These days I will celebrate if I see just one person chose one vegan meal in place of a usual meat-centric one. I recently made a 12-year old a falafel sandwich. She’d never tried anything like it and she loved it. She ate bacon and cheese pasta for dinner the next day, but I know she’ll ask for falafel again. That is better than nothing. But what really shifted my attitude was a farm visit.
Within a few minutes of my arrival on a high country livestock station in the South Island of New Zealand, which is approximately a one-hour drive from the most basic local amenity, I was taken off on a guided tour of the 100 square mile property, led by the farm children, aged 6 and 7. First up was a feast fit for a vegan’s eyes. Their mother, the farmer’s wife, clearly has the Midas touch when it comes to growing vegetables. I have never seen such sumptuous heads of broccoli, so many varieties of lettuce, such huge zucchini and so many waxy-looking new potatoes. Yellow squash, mint, strawberries, rhubarb, red cabbage and carrots completed the vegan smorgasbord. But my paradise was shattered with one cluck of a chook.
I confess, I think of egg-laying hens and I am enraged at the idea of thousands of cooped-up feathered animals (seriously... read the regulations on what is legally acceptable as “free range”) being kept in captivity for the sake of a fluffy omelet. But here were ten clucking girls with the run of the yard. They looked healthy and perfectly happy to me. And there were two eggs ready for collection.
The children and I were reaching a slight impasse. They had never met anyone who didn’t eat eggs. They’d heard of vegetarians, and had even met a few, but could not fathom why a person wouldn’t eat eggs or drink milk if no animal was going to die. Talking of animals dying, I couldn’t help teasing them a little. On hearing that the farm boy's favorite meat was venison, I had to ask whether he was planning to barbecue the cute deer they’d rescued from a barbed fence. They’d named him Bambi.
“No!” squealed the farm girl. On further enquiry about whether they were intending to eat their horses, cats or guinea pigs, I was assured that they do not eat their pets.
“So let me get this right,” I feigned. “It’s okay to eat animals unless they have names. If you give them a name, you don’t eat them.”
“Iggs-actly,” the farm girl reassured me. I was relieved that their cute Shetland wasn’t going to be served up as pony escalope.
So it’s okay to eat the sheep and the cattle, and the cute pigs I met the next day, but nothing that has been given a name. Animals that have been named do not get eaten.
I had a sudden urge to run up the hillside, gather the troops, and start naming them all, or at least shout out at the top of my lungs,
“Mothers! Save your children! Name them... quick!” While I knew Bambi was safe, I was worried for his brothers, and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and cousins two or three or four times removed.
The tour of the farm continued, with a long drive with the farmer’s wife, across some of New Zealand’s most beautiful countryside, the Southern Alps loomed over us all the while. I saw sheep and deer and cows and bulls and baby calves and lambs and llamas, and they all looked incredibly healthy and happy. If this wasn’t how it is, would this land be a concrete jungle? I couldn’t help wondering. I paddled in a glacial stream with the farm girl, cupped my hands and drank water from it (something I had never done before), and I watched the 7-year old boy help his father make hay to feed the thousands of animals in the winter. That evening, the farm boy and I chopped the fresh vegetables we’d picked from the garden, and made a huge dish of roasted vegetables. I ate mine with beans and they ate theirs with lamp chops. Not once did they question my choice.
When I went to bed that night, I lay awake in the dark with a certain unease creeping over me. And it had nothing to do with my problems with eating animals. On the contrary, I was conflicted. Much as I hated the idea of breeding animals for food, much as I believed consuming animal products is a veritable health risk, much as I supported the UN’s call for a move towards a vegan diet, I really, really liked and respected these people I was staying with. This farmer, who was out in the fields during every hour of daylight, his wife who could grow vegetables the quality of which I’d never seen in my life, his kids who helped out responsibly on the farm... they were wonderful people. What’s more, they fully respected the choices I’d made. Their livelihood depended on the sale of meat and I was a conscious objector. And they still respected me. Wasn’t it only right that I return that respect? These kids were gorgeous; they were intelligent and responsible, and affectionate, and had huge personalities. Their mother was one of the kindest hearted people I’d ever met. She looks after the pets (including the children, her husband, the shepherds, and all the named animals), she feeds them, clothes them (the ones without fur, which does not necessarily include her husband), waters them, and gives them fantastic hugs. She also tends to the vegetable garden, grows giant lilies and roses, and keeps house. She’s amazing. I liked them all and they seemed to like me. Before we’d sat down to dinner, I’d watched the mother read the ingredients on the back of a sauce bottle and look up with a commiserating sigh as she explained that it wasn’t vegan-friendly because it contained skim milk powder. I hadn’t seen a Kiwi read an ingredients label yet, let alone make the connection that skim milk powder is, indeed, an animal product. It was this level of respect, this care, this hospitality that I was losing sleep over. Because I knew I had to return it somehow.
This family did not wake up one day and make an active choice to go and kill animals for a profit. This farmer inherited this massive farm from his parents. It is a stunning property that I will always feel incredibly privileged to have visited. What right did I have to deny them their inherited family business? What gave me the right to declare that what they did was wrong or cruel? Yes, I know the science, I know the results, I know what harm the consumption of animal products can do, but the fact that I can choose not to consume them is a privilege! These were not ignorant people blindly consuming products from fast food conglomerates; these were people getting on with the livelihood that had been thrust upon them. The 7 year-old farm boy is already learning to hold a gun because he knows he will, one day, inherit this farm from his father.
I finally drifted off to sleep, but I noticed one or two changes in my behavioral patterns the next day. I roamed the farm with less judgment than I’d had the day before. I watched sheep get “drenched,” I marveled at a pack of deer (who shall remain nameless) roaming across the highest peaks of the farm, and as we all helped ourselves to a hearty dinner, I turned a blind eye as I watched the farmer stick the tongs he’d just used to pick up his steak deep into the bowl of veggies. I bravely used the same tongs to help myself to a healthy portion of stir-fried veggies with chickpeas à la steak jus.
You’ll never get me to agree, in principal, with the practice of raising animals for food, and I still believe that one day, maybe in a few hundred years (hopefully less), without too much disruption to the livelihoods of good families, livestock farming will become an outdated practice, almost as unpalatable as cannibalism and slavery. I know this is unlikely to be in my lifetime, but I can start by making a stand. Blessed with the privilege of free speech, I can make a point, I can tell people all my reasons for being “mostly vegan,” but at the end of the day, I would never want to deny a family their livelihood. If someone has inherited a business that involves raising animals for meat and, with all the best will in the world, they can’t see anything wrong with doing that, and if they have the highest standards, and treat their animals with the greatest care, and can pretty much tell you where every piece of meat they put in their mouths comes from, then this vegan cannot, currently, argue too vehemently against that.
So here is my plea to you. Drink milk if you like it, but find out the facts about what it can do to your body by reading The China Study, or Skinny Bitch. Eat meat if you like it, but find out exactly where it comes from and please, please don’t support cheap food chains; that’s not real meat, that’s (in the farmer’s words) “crap that is swept up off the floor when they’ve finished cutting up the animal.” The big giants of industry will try to persuade you otherwise, but don’t be fooled. They do not care about animals and they do not care about you, the only thing they care about is their profit margins. If you must eat meat, eat it sparingly and only buy it from a local farmer. Get to know him, tour the farm, and be comfortable with his practices before you buy his meat. If you can’t do that, please eat chickpeas, beans and nuts until you can.
That billboard in Auckland was wrong. The most effective cure for veganism (if “veganism” can be defined as “the pious attitude of people who stop consuming animal products as far as they are able and proceed to seethe at others who do so much as sniff a gelatin-laced jelly bean”) then I can tell you that the most effective cure for veganism has nothing to do with bacon, and has everything to do with staying on a well-run livestock farm that is lovingly cared for by a good Kiwi family.