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Chippewa Valley community members find positives and negatives in veganism

February 27, 2018

Looking over the back edge of the carrier truck, Wally didn’t know the risks of jumping out of a vehicle  at 70 mph on hard asphalt.

The 9-month-old, 250-pound commercial pig was aboard a truck headed to a packaging plant in South Dakota, where he would’ve been slaughtered.

Now Wally resides at SoulSpace Farm Sanctuary in New Richmond, Wisconsin.

Following the increased popularity of veganism around the world, Eau Claire and fellow Wisconsin community members break down the three most common reasons people are becoming vegan. © 2018 Sydney Purpora

Despite his odds, Beth Berhow, a member of SoulSpace’s board of directors, said Wally made it out of the accident with minor injuries. After relocation from the Sioux Falls Humane Society in South Dakota, he is now one of many rescued farm animals at SoulSpace. His journey has inspired people to take action and Wally is now an ambassador for other animals that “don’t get the chance to jump.”

“There is absolutely nothing like meeting an animal that you used to eat and be able to look them in the eye,” Berhow said. “It’s really powerful.”

Eating a vegan diet has become an increasingly popular trend around the world, with sales of plant-based food sales rising to 8.1 percent in the US in 2017, according to a report from Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute.

Veganism is on the rise and people who are in support of the lifestyle say it lowers abuse of animals, is better for the environment and provides health benefits. However, those who are opposed say otherwise. 

Treatment of animals

On Dec. 15, 2017 the Miami Herald reported three employees were arrested for animal cruelty at McArthur Farm, a dairy farm in Okeechobee, Florida, after video footage revealed abuse.

The mistreatment of animals in the food industry has caused people to stand up against animal cruelty, many of whom chose to become vegan.

However Jane Mueller, an ambassador for Eau Claire County Dairy Promotion Committee and the owner of Mueller Hilltop Farms Inc., said there will always be “bad people” in every profession and she is not one of them.

“I’ve been a corporate farm since 1972, it’s just a tax thing. It’s just me and my two sons and we wouldn’t mistreat our animals because they’re our livelihood, they’re part of our family,” Mueller said. “We cry when a calf dies, because it’s real.”

Mueller said people against livestock, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), mock the family heritage of farmers. She believes there is a misconception in the number of farms that abuse their animals, and her dairy farm in Fall Creek, Wisconsin doesn’t mistreat their animals.

Currently 98 percent of the domestic milk suppliers in the US participate in the National Milk Producers Federation’s National Dairy FARM Animal Care Program, according to their website. Their care manual requires that all age classes of cattle should be able to easily stand up and lie down comfortably.

At the farm, Mueller said they raise female cows until they are 2-years-old and can breed. After giving birth, the cows are brought into the farm’s milking herd where they are milked for an average of six to eight years. For three out of four of the seasons she said they are free to roam in their pastures.

Mueller’s commercial plant farm sells milk to a creamery for cheese production as part of a co-op for farmers in the Midwest. During the milking process the cows are in tie stalls while workers come with a milk machine. The pens prevent the transfer of germs, while regulating the cow’s health and food intake.

Regardless of these conditions, Berhow from SoulSpace Farm Sanctuary said all animals deserve to be free.

“For me, veganism is about justice,” Berhow said. “It’s about the fact that their bodies are not mine, their lives are not mine. They should have the right to live their lives free as they please.”

The sanctuary farm’s mission is to rescue and rehabilitate animals from cruelty and neglect. Berhow said they strive to change the way people think about and interact with animals, especially animals people don’t normally think of as companions.

“They have the ability to feel pain, they have the ability to form friendships and they have families, they have individual personalities if we allow those to come out,” Berhow said. “A lot of times animals are crammed into feedlots or huge barns or cages and they’re so stressed out or so overwhelmed that they’re not able to perform any of their normal activities.”

Berhow said they want to “bring light to the truth” by sharing their information about the industry and the animals involved with others.

Ecological footprint

In addition to being against the mistreatment of animals, vegans also choose a diet free of animal products is to reduce their carbon footprint. In 2016 a group of researchers from the United Kingdom found that plant-based diets could reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 70 percent and water use by 50 percent.

Gary Onan, a professor and chair of the animal and food science department at UW-River Falls, said he agrees that livestock production leads to GHG emissions, but aren’t directly related to an increase in emissions.          

“You sit back and think, ‘Well greenhouse gases have shot up in the last hundred years, have these cattle contributed to that increase?’ And the answer is no,” Onan said, “because they are merely a replacement for ruminants: bison, elk, mule deer, that were producing just as much if not more methane long before the whole greenhouse gas effect.”

Calling himself a “meat scientist,” Onan focuses on livestock production and the management systems of cattle and hogs. During his research, he found that GHG emissions of livestock is directly linked to what they eat.

Onan said the Western world produces less emissions per pound of beef because of the production processes being used, feedlots. Grass-fed cattle produce more GHG per pound than those fed in a feedlot.

About 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land is used just to feed livestock, according to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). And livestock supports the food security of almost a 1.3 billion people.

Feed crops make up one-third of cropland and pastures make up 26 percent of the world’s ice-free land, according to the FAO, is broken into feed crops, which take up one-third of

Vegans who choose the diet for environmental reasons believe the switch to plant-based consumption would reduce the amount of land usage.

The Vegan Society reported “studies indicate that a varied vegan diet requires about a third of the land needed for conventional Western diets; 3.5 billion humans could live off the food currently fed to livestock.”

Conversely, Onan said the pastures that livestock are fed on for 80 percent of their lives has no other use and would be wasted if the vegan diet is adopted by the entire population.

“The Great Plains of the United States, grass all over, absolutely worthless for growing other crops because it’s too dry unless you irrigate it which we do for some parts,” Onan said. “But then you’ve got mountain ranges and all kinds of rough terrain where you couldn’t grow a crop if you wanted to, but cattle and sheep can graze there and they can produce billions and billions of tons of human edible food off land that has no other productive use of food production whatsoever.”

Nutrition and natural medicine

Many vegans, like Berhow start eating plant-based foods for a healthier life by cutting out products that are harder for the body to digest, such as dairy and meats.

Looking into this approach, a group of researchers in Switzerland in 2014 compared the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diets on quality of nutrition. They concluded that the vegan diet was the healthiest by surveyingng  people from each dietary group and comparing their diets to a combination of nutritional guidelines.

Despite these findings, Karen Hurd a nutritionist running her own practice in Fall Creek, Wisconsin said the vegan diet is incomplete in terms of nourishment.

“I do tell them all that if they’re going to be a total vegetarian, if they’re not going to eat any efficient protein, then I will only be able to help them to a certain point because they will never be totally well,” Hurd said.

Hurd said it is possible to eat mostly plant based foods and stay well, but it’s important to also consume a sufficient amount of daily protein. In order to stay healthy she said eating protein three times a day is necessary because every cell is composed of protein.

With a master’s degree in science and a degree in comprehensive nutrition and biochemistry, Hurd said the body’s need for protein comes down to the cellular level.

“If you start looking at the microbiology you’ll find out everything is made of amino acids and if you don’t have the amino acids that are necessary you cannot make those enzymes you cannot make those cells and you will never be at your tip-top health,” Hurd said.

There are products on the market today that advertise vegan protein in the form of pills or powders, but Hurd said these supplements won’t satisfy the body’s needed protein levels. She said these supplements contain mostly artificial sweeteners or use soy and pea protein not made of the correct amino acids.

Hurd has many clients come in with major health problem who are on a diets anywhere from vegetarian to paleo to omnivore who “just want to get better.” So when someone comes in saying they don’t want to eat anything with a face, she tells them at minimum they have to eat eggs to get the correct protein their body needs.

The standard food pyramid has been changing every few years Hurd said, but when it comes to a balanced diet she leaves out a piece of the stack — dairy. She said there are three problems with dairy: high naturally occurring sugar content, saturated fats and protein casein.

The largest of the three problems Hurd said is the protein casein because humans do not have the enzymes to break it down for energy and nutrients.

“There’s only one animal that has the enzyme to break down cow’s milk or anything made out of cow’s milk, and that’s a baby cow,” Hurd said. “Baby cows have the enzyme because they are supposed to drink the mothers milk.”

Another issue, Hurd said, is that people think dairy is an adequate source of protein because it is a saturated fat.

Veganism has impacted the livestock and dairy industries, the environment and health of people around the world. With vegan numbers continuing to climb, the debate, on both sides, is sure to continue.

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