RIZELLE ROSALES; Mast Mag Editor; email@example.com
EDITOR’S NOTE: BROOKE THAMES IS THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF MAST MEDIA: People who know the Pacific Northwest may be familiar with a number of things: bike lanes, gourmet dog treats, Chihuly glass, the smell post-rain and vegan stereotypes. The original concept for this piece involved having a curious omnivore and a passionate vegan submit separate opinion pieces, but we thought it would be more interesting to put them in the same room. I moderated an interview with omnivore Brooke Thames and vegan Marcos Giossi to delve into his experience of the vegan narrative and briefly break down larger questions surrounding accessibility, ideology and implementation of this lifestyle.
BT: We can start by going over our history with food…
MG: I grew up in a bicultural environment. My mom is Mexican and she remarried to a Mexican man, so there was a lot of Mexican food growing up, a lot of tamales and pozole. My dad’s side is… Swiss maybe? Not sure, but they’re very removed from where they’re from, so there was a lot of American food. I had a good amount of meat growing up, a lot of chicken actually.
BT: How long have you been vegan?
MG: Two years ago I became vegetarian, and a year ago I went vegan. A friend of mine first exposed me to veganism through the arguments to go vegan, so I started researching them because I wanted to know more and I wanted to be able to justify my actions—I’m a philosophy minor, so I’m really into being able to justify the things you do and your values and all that. It took me a year of being vegetarian and sort of grappling with the arguments for veganism… and eventually I just decided, well, this seems like a good thing to do! It was a long time of trying to poke holes in the argument and figure out if it was for me.
BT: I always grew up eating meat as a part of our daily meals as a kid. My dad really likes to barbecue so we always had steak and stuff like that. I had lots of barbecue and fried chicken and stuff. I knew that vegetarianism and veganism were things that existed in the world… but it feels like such a huge thing here at PLU. I work for catering so I know there’s a ton of people who are vegan and vegetarian! My roommate is also vegetarian, and so I’ve been more widely exposed to it. I haven’t really considered it for myself, but I’m interested in learning why people choose to do it.
BT: What kind of privilege is involved in veganism?
MG: There’s that implicit privilege of food choice, a privilege that not only vegans hold but most omnivores in the U.S. hold as well. And there are people who don’t hold that same privilege of food choice as those who do reside in the U.S., because of things like food deserts and people who are working three jobs and have to buy the nearest processed food that’s cheap… I think that’s important for anyone with food choice to kind of realize that privilege and realize… how all those decisions affect our overall food system.
BT: What are the main arguments of veganism?
MG: Most of the time, people go vegan for three main reasons. Health is a big one that I didn’t really consider going vegan… I mean, health is important to me, but not nearly as much as the animal ethics side and the sustainability side. Those two were the most convincing arguments for me, and that’s where I ended up not being able to justify my old habits and I decided to go vegan. The argument on the animal ethics side is that animals are capable of suffering—they’re sentient beings. They’re not like plants where they don’t have a nervous system or a brain, that sort of thing. Animals are capable of not only experiencing pain, but remembering pain and anticipating pain. So the argument is that because we share that faculty, we should do what’s in our power to not cause that pain for animals… You can tell when an animal is having a good time and doing what their instincts are telling them to do. After seeing footage of mass quantities of animals in our food system, where their best interest is not in mind when they’re being produced for a specific purpose, for our gain. Whether it’s for their eggs, for their milk or for their meat, we don’t have their best interest in mind. We have our best interest in mind. We’re using them without regard to what they are and what they want.
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RR: In your opinion, does ethical meat consumption exit?
MG: That was my final argument against veganism actually! There’s more expensive, posh “pasture-raised” meat [out there]… For me, I couldn’t justify that for two reasons. Even when animals are given those resources, they’re still slaughtered. We try to find more humane methods, but even those sometimes aren’t effective. We’re also killing the animal much earlier than their natural lifespan, and that was problematic for me because animals in the wild sometimes don’t achieve their longest lifespan, but I feel like we’re not even giving these animals a chance. The other reason I couldn’t justify it was because I felt that it was unfair of me to be using these resources. The implication of using these resources to produce meat when we could be using less resources, and also because other people don’t have the option to spend money on expensive meats. It kind of creates an even deeper divide between the people who have that option and the people who don’t.
RR: What do you think turns people away from veganism?
BT: Based on my recent meditation with veganism… At least for the people who do have the option to be vegan and choose not to…. I feel like it comes down to the weird feeling about veganism. You can either get really attracted to veganism, like the ritzy trendy part of it—and also the people who want to make compassionate choices—but on the other end, some people are really turned off. I think some people can view veganism as being really pretentious—
MG: Like the holier-than-thou sort of thing?
BT: Yeah exactly, and the culture revolving around it. That’s why I think some people choose not to do it even if they have the option to, just because they were rubbed the wrong way. I’m also thinking about lower income individuals as well, and really trying to gauge how easy it is for a family that has been eating meat up to this point who are really pressed for time and worried about so many other things. To answer your question, I think some people are turned off by the pretentious stereotype, and there’s also a group of people who don’t have the resources to do it easily.
MG: I think access is a huge part of it. The definition of veganism is to exclude as far as is practicable and possible, any use and abuse of animals for their food, clothing or any other purpose.
“ The privilege of food choice comes with responsibility. ”
A really important part of that definition is the “possible” and “practicable.” So I mean, I wouldn’t condemn anyone who has to make the difficult decision of feeding their family every night if they’re in a spot where all they can do is what’s cheapest. In the U.S., what’s cheapest isn’t what’s best. Not just in terms of the welfare of animals, but the welfare of the planet, and the person’s health and their family’s health. So I don’t think any good would come of shaming anyone in that situation or anything like that.
RR: Is there a bad way to practice veganism?
MG: Some people, at first, they don’t really think about the animal ethics part, they’re doing it for a self-motivated reason. Those people are most likely to have a vegan diet. There’s a difference between doing the diet and having the worldview. I think another reason why people don’t go vegan is that people see it as extreme and daunting. I mean, I used to have that worldview! And now here I am, and I don’t feel extreme at all. But I think it feels like a big change, and I think if people are learning about veganism and finding that they align with the ethics and the worldview… they can mitigate that daunting-ness! It can be gradual. It’s a process of changing habits, and you can do it step by step.
BT: Can you tell us more about the environmental factors?
MG: It really boils down to trophic levels in the food web. Only ten percent of the energy consumed by primary consumers from plants actually goes into the primary consumer. When we eat animals that eat plants, it’s much more resource intensive because it takes a lot more plants to feed the animals. A tenth of the calories that we get from animal products—we can get 10 times as many calories just from consuming the plants directly. To feed animals, we’re using a lot more land and a lot more water and a lot more fossil fuels for farming. There’s a lot of synthesis studies that take into account the different peer-reviewed scientific articles that say we can effectively undermine our emissions globally through plant-based living. It makes a big difference.
RR: How does cultural tradition play a role in veganism? How do you respond to traditional dishes in other cultures that involve meat?
MG: I try to be compassionate and as respectful and understanding of other cultures as I can. I have to juxtapose that with the fact that I don’t see it as fair to be killing animals for personal gain. I see it as tangential to other issues of injustice. For example, in the U.S. there are movements trying to dismantle aspects of our culture that are very unjust and hurt people. Patriarchal and imperialistic ideas, those also perpetuate injustice. People are cognizant of that and want to make a change. For me and for a lot of vegans, we see the exploitation of animals also as an injustice, and also worthy of slowly dismantling that to make our society more just and more equitable.
BT: In the vegan community, do you discuss other motivations outside of animal and environmental justice?
MG: Absolutely! I have to take into account how my actions are affecting other classes, and I have experience trying to make the food system more just… but I can only really speak for myself. I really do hope that vegans are taking that into consideration and I try my best to do that too. It’s all connected, and social justice is very important to me alongside animal justice. There probably are vegans out there who haven’t fully come to terms with the privilege of food choice that goes along with their identity, but I think that it’s very important to make that a part of your vegan identity. The privilege of food choice comes with responsibility.
BT: What’s your reaction to people who understand veganism, but don’t choose to practice it?
MG: It can be a little disheartening, especially when people are aware of what’s going on in the industry, but I also know that changes can be big and daunting. Meat tastes good, and animal products taste good—and vegans know that! It’s hard when people say “you don’t know what you’re missing.” But for vegans, the taste doesn’t justify the harm… I can see and be compassionate towards why people don’t make that change. I think that’s important to keep in mind when interacting with people… they’re human beings, and we’re all going through stuff.
RR: A question for both of you: what needs to happen for veganism to gain momentum and win over the majority?
MG: I think right now, veganism is a small movement. Right now, we’re only 0.5% of the U.S. population. With any really small minority group, often times, they’re initially perceived in terms of stereotypes and that sort of thing. I think that, as different kinds of people who hold lots of different identities incorporate veganism into their lifestyle, maybe those stereotypes will start to break down a little bit more. That, I could see making veganism bigger and more accessible. I think a big part of it is: “what is this identity and how does it relate to how I’ve constructed the narrative of who I am?”
BT: First, you have to somehow effect a change in the system of values. Not everyone thinks the same way about animals and not everyone thinks the same way about meat production. At least from my perspective, America is like, “Meat is American! Hamburgers are American!” and all that stuff. If we’re talking about America specifically, I think a harder challenge than just changing structures of wealth inequality is changing the way we think about our values in terms of meat… which I think is way harder to do. Even just the hamburger… it’s American. If you’re going to be American, you’ve got to eat hamburgers. Equity is at the forefront of my social justice-minded-ness, so I think in order to to make this a reality we do have to dismantle racism and classism and all those intersections.