I’d never have guessed my first children’s book would provoke such backlash. That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, though well received, has also caused some controversy, garnering attacks from the likes of animal agriculture trade magazines and even Farm Bureau CEOs. Though veganism is swiftly gaining momentum, it still provokes knee-jerk reactions— for me, each case of opposition is a study of the invisible forces that shape our thinking about food, health, and animals.
When my subsequent children’s book, Vegan Is Love, was reviewed by Nicole German, a registered dietician on Diet Blog, her critique perfectly illustrated the real reasons why “experts” often dismiss or malign veganism: fear, ignorance, and industry collusion.
“The main problem I have with this book,” German writes, “is that children are impressionable, and this is too sensitive of a topic to have a child read this book.”
We tend to shelter children from the “adult” world because we fear shattering the fragility we imagine they inherently possess. We follow this concept of childhood because we inherited it from the Victorian age—not because it is universally accepted. Throughout history and the world, various cultures consider their children to have capabilities beyond what we acknowledge here in the West. In some cultures kids are contributing members of the community by the time they’re four—watching siblings, pounding grain, helping collect firewood. Kids are more competent and sturdy than we think. Surprised parents have repeatedly told me that their child reacted with curiosity—not fear—when they learned about factory farming in my books. During readings, I’ve never once seen a child overwhelmed—only adults. Kids learn when we teach them.
I do, though, agree that kids are impressionable, which is exactly why they need information at an early age that will help them make educated choices. In my experience, when kids understand options, they choose wisely.
With constant media and technological stimulation, kids are being “impressed” upon by biased messaging up to hundreds of times a day—by whom? Follow the money. Seventy-five percent of government subsidies go to meat and dairy while less than half a percent goes to fruits and vegetables. The Milk Mustache campaign, driven by the National Milk Processor Board (administered by the USDA) spent $190 million in 1998. Colluding industry-led campaigns like these cause massive increases in demand, in this case, billions of pounds of fluid milk.
These profit-seeking systems are the ones we should be concerned about influencing our kids—not a picture book about choices. If we don’t intercept the all-pervasive, concerted efforts between Big Ag, Big Pharma, and federal nutrition programs, today’s youth will inevitably join in the animal cruelty and the dysfunctional cycle of disease and medication we are experiencing in this country at an all-time high. The most important message to teach kids is that we don’t have to fear anything we have the power to change.
“[This book] could easily scare a young child into eating vegan, and without proper guidance that child could become malnourished,” writes German.
Typical of doctors and nutritionists educated through conventional programs, German’s paternalistic, cautionary advice is based on remedial knowledge of veganism. Yes, everyone needs protein (some more, some less). But this warning perpetuates the most common myth about veganism—that it leads to deficiencies. Even without science, this is an issue long disqualified by the nations of people who have thrived on plant-based diets throughout history—the Essenes, many Buddhists, Hindus, Rastafari, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jainists among others. With all the supporting evidence—from scientific research to factory farm exposés—we should really be warning people that going from a plant-based diet to an omnivorous one is the path that is more likely to lead to disease. Studies continue to show the link between animal products and chronic disease (which, on a side note, one might interpret as the physical or even spiritual manifestation of consuming ill, abused, and terrified animals).
The highest quality proteins—the most absorbable and least toxin-accumulative—come from plant-sources like spirulina and chlorella, for example, which contain approximately 60-70 percent protein with 40 percent absorbability. The protein in red meat, fish, and chicken is less than 20 percent absorbable, especially because amino acids like tryptophan are heat sensitive, destroyed during cooking. It takes a lot of animal flesh to supply sufficient amounts of protein, meanwhile, we’re building a toxic load not worth its weight in nutrients. When 80+ percent of cows on American farms have bovine leukemia, isn’t it in our best interest to regularly eat almonds for calcium instead of pus-filled milk? There may be nutrients in milk from a cow untainted by environmental toxins, but that’s not what’s for sale—anywhere. It doesn’t exist.
German also writes, “The worldly problems presented in this book …are meant for the government, businesses, and large groups of adults to conquer.” The problems presented in my book are caused by government, big business, and large groups of consenting adults. They will not be the ones to fix them. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
In U.S. history, social and legislative change has always been achieved from the bottom of the ladder up, not the top down. Most of the rights we experience as part of daily existence—from the 40-hour work week to equal opportunity housing—are due to the activism of regular citizens, specifically the working class, people of color, and women, who led until government and big business were forced to follow.
We can’t afford to wait for the next generation to grow up before teaching them to live consciously. Sugarcoating or avoiding truths only hinders what children are actually capable of— psychologically, spiritually, and physically. And hindering their capabilities delays the potential we have to green our society, improve our health, and do best for all living things.
Unless one works behind the scenes or actively seeks out the truth, it is unlikely one would know the degree of collusion between government and big pharma, agriculture, and food corporations in getting us to abide by their guidelines and consume their products. When the level of their organization and calculation becomes clear, the reality is dizzying. The revolving door between “watchdog” institutions like the FDA, the USDA, the Department of Health and Monsanto, large processed food corporations, and pharmaceuticals ensures the alignment of public services and education with industry interests. The very Dietetics program at the University of Georgia where German received her degree is accredited by the American Dietetic Association, which regularly receives sponsorship from corporate giants like Monsanto, the National Dairy Council, Aramark, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo.
From elementary school to graduate programs, everything from school events and lectures to vending machines and curriculums are known to be organized for potential gain by colluding industries. Medical students are routinely influenced and educated by pharmaceutical-sponsored events and learn to deal with disease by prescribing medication, not advising changes in diet. What they prescribe will often depend simply on whichever brand got a hold on their school first.
In Western medicine, there is little connection between food and health—and these corporate alliances aim to keep it that way. In 2002, Pharmacia merged with Monsanto to become one of the top-tier companies in both agriculture and pharmaceuticals. They want us to think we can eat whatever we want without consequence. When we become ill, we go to doctors who prescribe their medications. It’s win-win.
So, veganism, relatively new to the mainstream, is bound to remain extra-curricular. Neither moral nor ethical imperatives, nor environmental toxins, may ever be addressed as part of nutritional science, nor taken into consideration in the nutritional profiles of different foods. Neither will the cognitive and emotional lives of animals.
And so, conventional nutrition degree programs produce advisors like German, who suggest that you can’t get full unless you include animal protein in a meal. Her idea of a healthy choice salad dressing contains 30+ processed ingredients including 6+ kinds of milk products fortified with vitamin A (protocol for replacing nutrients lost in processing). But look, no added sugar! So it’s healthy! Calorie-counting, trans-fats, and Trader Joe’s-informed “health” (TJ’s private label foods come from companies like PepsiCo, Frito-Lay, Danone, and Tasty Bite, by the way), are all fine distractions from understanding true health and the consequences of animal agriculture.
I am not attacking German personally, but the system that produces views like hers. Like most, she trusted that system. But at this point, “experts” like German should either find new occupations or take their knowledge up about 600 notches, because what they’re really doing is harm—in German’s case, the extent of which is masked by her inclusion of small bits on truly healthful, cruelty-free foods.
It may seem dramatic to have built a grand case against such a small critique, but this is truly what comes to my mind when I know that on the flip-side of a pebble hides a mountain. It is the underbelly of things I’ve always been interested in. It’s why I write children’s books. I want the next generation to be exposed to alternative thinking, educational experiences that will allow them to compete with “expert” opinions about health, animals, and the environment as they grow into adulthood. I believe in the capabilities of children. They need but little guidance in learning to love deeply, think critically, and act responsibly. No corporation or industry can interrupt this kind of education.