The Challenge, Part I: A Vegan Goes Grainless and Soyless (and Organic)
Today and tomorrow will be guest posts. Susan Clay and Mountain Krauss, two loyal readers of Eating Plants, issued each other a unique challenge. Here is an account of Susan’s experience. We’ll hear from Mountain tomorrow.
By Susan Clay (aka “CQ”)
On January 1, 2013, my life changed. Not because of a New Year’s Resolution. I don’t do those. But because of a challenge. A challenge I posed to fellow blog commenter Mountain. I offered to do two things between January 1st and 31st: quit eating grains (plus soy and corn) and go organic. And I invited him to join me in trying a new-to-him ethical diet: no animal products, except for eggs from his rescued hens. Mountain accepted, with the caveat that he would “need [his] grassfed Irish butter.” Done deal.
Why this unconventional cuisine compact? Well, it started in earnest when Mountain insisted in a mid-December Eating Plants blog (http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=2782) that the monoculture-grown grains vegans eat harm animals and the earth. Actually, I already knew he was right, because after he first made that claim last spring, I’d searched the web and discovered that polyculture, veganic grain crops — a food fit for what one could call “vegans-plus” — do exist. But they’re in the experimental stages of development. My research led me to ask one of those experimenters to write an article on her findings. She did so, and I edited it into the form of a comment on this blog, which James then published as the guest post “Vegan Permaculture” last May (http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=1463).
I’ll quote a few sentences from that post, so that everyone understands why I didn’t pooh-pooh Mountain’s contention.
Is a vegan diet that includes grains less violent than the diet of a meat-dairy-and-egg-eater? We’ve been going ’round and ’round that question on various posts in the Eating Plants (now James-McWilliams.com) blog, haven’t we? Recently, I found someone who has been attempting to reduce the harm to animals from grain production down to zero.
Helen Atthowe of Montana is a vegan agricultural ecologist who is behind http://www.veganpermaculture.com and whose writing, photos and videos of her veganic permaculture farm are featured on it. According to Atthowe, humans who eat grain cannot, for the most part, escape causing suffering and death to other living organisms.
Consumer demand for bread, pasta, cereal, crackers and chips, Atthowe laments, has homogenized the landscape into a monoculture of annual grasses—wheat, corn (maize), rice, oats, rye, and barley grains, all called cereal grains. Even organic vegan cheesy puffs use monoculture grains. (Another monoculture crop, soybeans, is a grain legume; livestock are fed almost all the soybeans grown in the U.S.)
This vast production of grain by modern agribusiness inevitably kills many birds, small mammals, and insects. It is also hard on larger wild species, not to mention on the land itself. At present, a typical vegan eats the same grains as non-vegans simply because there are not yet any commercially viable veganic grain production systems. But thanks to the efforts of some dedicated scientists around the world, annual grains grown as single cash crops will not remain the only large-scale option much longer.
Indeed, grains can be grown and are being grown in less disruptive polyculture systems. Polyculture systems, says Atthowe, closely mimic nature’s ecosystems, within which insects, birds, small mammals and other wildlife thrive. These polyculture grains can be grown as perennials, with reduced tillage and hence less disturbance of the organisms who rely on a stable soil system.
True, the fact that I was causing easily-avoidable harm to animals took an inexcusable seven months to sink in, but sink in it finally did — not just theoretically, but practically. I craved a change that would be meaningful and permanent, like the shifts I made from omnivore to vegetarian in 2002 then to 99% vegan in 2005 and to fully vegan in 2010.
One of the biggest admissions I had to make to myself is that I was addicted to pasta. Several times a week, if not every night, I would have sizeable helpings of spaghetti with either tomato sauce or vegan butter — or equal doses of both. January was the month I came to terms with and overcame that addiction. I have no desire to return to such a counterproductive, destructive habit. In future months, after I use up the on-sale pasta I’d stocked up on pre-challenge, I won’t buy more.
Nearly halfway through the month, I learned from email exchanges with Mountain that the term “paleo,” which he had used from the beginning, involves more than simply forsaking grains and soy products. It is a diet also absent legumes (beans and peas and peanuts, for example) and sugar. Feeling that I was being an imperfect paleo, I resolved to cut out the rest of the non-paleos, even though I had made a four-bean casserole the previous day. (Into the freezer it went.) When, on January 14, I stopped adding soy-based vegan salad dressing and soy-laced vanilla frosting to fruit salads to make them palatable, I learned that organic navel oranges are plenty sweet and that peanut-butterless apples and un(vegan)sugared bananas are delicious when I’m famished. That said, I confess to using a dab of soy spread the three or four times I was weary of vinegar on veggie salads. Mea culpa.
On only one other occasion did I violate my self-imposed rules, but it was an innocent error. An out-of-state friend was in town and invited me to lunch at his ritzy hotel. Having checked out the menu on the website, I had a hankering for the only vegan-paleo option I could find: sweet potato fries. But by the time we sat down, my friend, who remembered I’m vegan, was insisting I order a real meal. He asked the waiter if the sauce on the pumpkin ravioli could be changed from cheese to tomato. “Yes” was the answer. So I agreed. Seriously, I completely forgot that ravioli is a pasta made from grain. I hadn’t eaten ravioli in absolute ages, and I was so focused on it being an animal-free entrée. By the time the mistake hit me, it was too late, and I felt, despite my chagrin, that it would be unkind to my host, to our waiter, and to the chef to either cancel or change the order — or to ignore the food once it was set before me. (No, I am not rationalizing. I’m explaining how I arrived at what I felt was the best choice!) So I ate half of it, then stopped, even though I was still hungry. Sure, the pasta was good, but it didn’t set off an urge to pig out on it. For that proof of being “cured,” I’m grateful.
Inevitably, this post has been all about food. Altering our food choices was the challenge that Mountain and I agreed to take on.
But for me, and I’m sure for Mountain, it was about more than simply adding and subtracting certain physical objects on our plates. As I wrote to Mountain in late December (I’ve adapted my words to suit this audience): “To me, this is about being willing to open my eyes to more light and my heart to more expansive love. It’s about purifying — unselfing — my motives. It’s about listening and learning. And it’s about making the best choices I know how to make and am capable of making — choices that benefit all living beings and harm no one. It’s about never saying, ‘That’s it. I’ve done enough!’”
Today is February 1. I’m eager to continue the adventure by remaining partly paleo and mostly organic. Yes, I’ll finish the grains and legumes already in the house (“waste not, want not”), but by degrees and in moderation. And yes, I’ll buy the occasional loaf of organic wheat bread. But I will never resume being a grain-aholic. The field mice in Kansas have a new friend.
The Challenge, Part II: A Paleo Goes Meatless and Milkless