Veganism has come a long way from being an obscure diet associated with hippies (v.2.0) a decade ago. Today, there are entire restaurants—like Fressen and Hogtown Vegan—catering to animal-free diets. Even cafés and meat-loving restaurants are cashing in with vegan snacks, lattes and entrees.
Wednesday afternoon between noon and 6 p.m. at Yonge-Dundas Square, Gene Baur, founder of US-based animal rescue organization Farm Sanctuary will be handing out veggie dogs (there will also be free cookies) as part of the vegan event 10,000 Tastes, 10 Billion Reasons. Later that evening, he’ll be giving a lecture at UofT on agricultural issues. We spoke with Baur about his organization, his thoughts on PETA and his appearance in a McDonald’s commercial.
What is Farm Sanctuary?
We’re a non-profit animal-protection organization that’s been rescuing farm animals from cruel treatment since 1986. We educate what happens to animals that are raised for food and advocate for reforms and work to pass laws to prevent certain cruelties. We also encourage citizens to eat in a way that aligns with compassionate values. We believe most people don’t like to see cruelty done to animals but many people support that unknowingly by buying meat, milk and eggs from factory farms.
How did it all start?
I was very young when we founded it back in 1986. Before that, I grew up in Los Angeles and worked in commercials and as an extra in TV and movies. I was actually in a McDonald’s commercial when I was really young, so that’s pretty funny. In college I studied sociology, volunteered in hospitals and worked in fast-food places and farmers’ markets. After college I did some teaching, worked with Greenpeace as a canvasser and then in the mid-’80s I became more active in advocacy organizations and became a vegan.
What was the most memorable animal rescue?
Hilda, the first animal we rescued. The Lancaster Stockyards in Pennsylvania was the largest stockyards east of Chicago at the time and it’s been around for about 100 years. I was walking around, documenting the conditions and saw this big pile of dead animals: sheep, cows, pigs. You can hear the buzzing of insects and there was a thick blanket of maggots devouring the carcasses. In fact, there was a calf that was decayed to a skeleton. Among the pile was a lamb that was alive. We took her to a local veterinarian and she ended up living for 10 years. I’d say over the years we’ve rescued more than 10,000 animals. Between our two farms in New York and California, we have about 1,000 animals.
What’s responsible for the rise of veganism?
I think there’s a convergence of issues. There’s more awareness of the cruelty in factory farming with the internet, YouTube and photos being widely distributed. There are growing healthcare problems. In the US, heart disease and cancer are the number-one killers and both can be seriously lessened by switching more to a plant-based diet containing whole foods instead of processed junk food. There are also the environmental consequences of basing a diet on animals. The UN put out a report called Livestock’s Long Shadow that talked about how livestock industry is one of the top contributors to serious environmental problems including climate change. As we face more economic challenges, I believe there will be a natural tendency towards more plant-based farming.
Would you like to see everyone become a vegan?
I’d love to see that, but I recognize everyone has to make their own choice. It’s my belief that this is the best way to live and the most humane way to live and the healthiest. There are a lot of things in this world we cannot control but one thing we can control is what we eat. Choose food that makes us healthy and makes us feel good and not make us say, “Oh, I don’t want to know where that came from.” Our food choices have big consequences on our health, the well-being of animals and the planet and I just want people to be mindful of that.
Textured vegetable protein is used a lot in vegan cooking but it’s a highly processed soy product. What’s your stance on TVP?
I see it as a transition food for people used to eating meat or Sloppy Joe’s. TVP and products like that aren’t the best food and we should be moving towards more whole foods. The closer we get to the source, the better. It’s better than meat, though.
Are you one to roll your eyes at someone eating a steak?
Oh no. Not at all.
What do you think of organizations like PETA that use nudity and other shock tactics?
I think, in the long run, PETA has done more good than bad because they’ve raised a lot of these issues to the public. But they’re also polarizing in their approach. We may have similar ideas in that animals shouldn’t be exploited but we go about achieving that outcome in a different way.
Basically, treating people with respect and making someone who’ve never thought about this issue to start thinking of it. Most people don’t want to see animals suffer and prefer kindness to violence. Those are basic beliefs and values so we reach out to people and hope that they make choices that go with their own values and interests. It’s not in people’s interests to eat food that makes them sick or support a farming system that’s repugnant.
Well, a lot of new restaurants are supporting local farmers that don’t use the factory farm system.
Those are steps in a better direction but ultimately even local farms kill the animals and there’s violence associated with that. They’re better than factory farms but I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily good either because the animals are still seen as production units.
But can a person eat meat without feeling guilty?
I couldn’t but I can’t speak for others.