Gabriola Vegeteers


At last – a life worth living

by Sigrid Bjarnason, first published in The Flying Shingle, Monday, April 21, 2014

In 1952, when my cousin Birna was only minutes old, she was declared “Mongoloid” (as children with Down Syndrome were called in those days). As a result, Birna was taken away from her family and handed over to the medical experts at Woodlands Institution in New Westminster. Birna’s distraught parents were assured that she wouldn’t live long.

Although her existence was kept an uncomfortable family secret from my generation, I finally learned about her when she was 25 years old. On the way to her ward during my first visit to meet Birna, I followed the nurse down hallway after hallway as she unlocked heavy security doors along the route. She told me that when we got to Birna’s ward she would be sitting on the floor against a pole, legs splayed out on either side of her. Indeed she was. In fact, Birna spent all day, every day, sitting right there.

The only entertainment in the “day room” where Birna and her cohorts spent their waking hours was a TV way up at the ceiling, playing a soap opera no one was watching. Ward staff members were monitoring things through an office window. The 25 female residents spent their time sitting, wandering, rocking, ripping clothes off, hitting themselves or each other, all unfortunate enough to have been sentenced by the accident of their disability to this awful place.

The outside “play” area was a small empty square of shaded grass; the locked bedrooms contained nothing but beds; the bathroom was a bank of toilets against a wall, with no privacy; no one had personal belongings of any kind; beyond training to use a spoon, Birna had never had any education; she had no front teeth; very few of these residents went anywhere, ever.

It took only that one visit for me to decide that Birna’s life had to be better than this. So with the help of others, I set about changing it.

I’ll spare you the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious details of her move out of Woodlands into a new life in her own home, but Birna lived another 25 eventful years before dying of pneumonia at age 50.

When I went to visit her for the last time, Birna lay peacefully in bed in her favourite pajamas, her bedroom lit with candles, while music played softly. Friends and relatives were dropping in to say goodbye. Her staff – most of whom had known Birna for years – took turns climbing into bed, hugging, kissing, and holding her gently as she floated in and out of consciousness over her last few days. Birna died peacefully, surrounded by people who loved her.

Woodlands Institution is gone now, rejected as a cruel model of care. It closed because societal values shifted. Families refused to place their relatives there. Special interest groups formed and worked to create more compassionate alternatives. Once people saw the harm, they demanded better treatment for those powerless to advocate for themselves.

You might wonder what this tale has to do with animals or food. Well, Birna’s sense of wonder at the richness of the second half of her life after so many years of incarceration is surely being felt right now by our resident hens. They spent the first grim year of their lives crammed into tiny cages in a noisy, stinking, sunless barn, unable to spread their wings, denied veterinary care for wounds, every instinct stifled while laying eggs for humans – as helpless and unhappy in their situation as Birna was in hers.

Now the chickens wander freely around our property on Gabriola with their big buddy, Ernie the turkey. They spend their days scratching, dust bathing, pecking, flapping their wings, breathing clean air, and spreading their wings when the sun comes out to bask in every gorgeous moment of it.

I wonder when the shift in our attitudes toward animals will result in better treatment for the billions who are silently suffering terrible injustices, imprisoned in huge windowless barns, in cages on fur farms, in tiny zoo stalls or behind bars waiting to become research subjects or food.

Like those thoughtful people who forced the rejection of the institutional model that sentenced Birna and her fellow inmates to a lifetime of misery, when will we reject the much greater cruelty that we inflict on animals? When will enough of us demand compassion for all those countless animals now suffering and dying in despair? Have we got it in us to force that change? I think that we do.

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Local Meat and the Environment

By Nadia Roch, first published in The Flying Shingle, March 24, 2014

Eating local and eating vegan don’t have to be mutually exclusive; in fact, I’m living proof that it’s possible. Like everyone else though, I fail at eating and shopping 100% locally, but I’m not convinced that’s such a problem. To me the local movement has always been about fostering community, supporting individuals instead of corporations, a degree of self-sufficiency, and of course, minimising our ecological impact. It’s certainly not about perfection or pretending the apocalypse is near. And I’m not about to give up on veganism because it doesn’t fit a theoretical future where we will have to be entirely self-reliant. While that future scenario isn’t impossible, it’s certainly not probable.

What I do know now is our world is facing some deeply troubling environmental issues related to meat production – issues that are largely unaffected by whether or not we eat locally. Currently, 68% of all agricultural land is used for raising animals and 70% of all grain produced is used to feed livestock. Raising animals for food requires exponentially more land than growing crops alone. With the explosive growth of our population and world hunger reaching nearly 1 billion people, land use is of even more importance.

Then there’s greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change and global warming. Animal agriculture accounts for more emissions than cars and the transportation industry combined, and a 2008 study found that even though food is often transported long distances, the vast majority of emissions associated with food are actually from the production phase with red meat being the worst offender. A recent study also revealed that livestock emissions are actually twice the current estimates, which is especially concerning considering it accounts for 65% of nitrous oxide and 37% of methane – two of the most harmful greenhouse gases.

Let’s look at the example of beef – it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef. The full lifecycle of beef production also generates 13 times more emissions than vegetable proteins. By cutting out beef alone, you will save 300,000 gallons of water a year!

It’s indisputable, for every cow, pig and chicken that is slaughtered, exponential resources go into feeding and watering that animal. The amount increases even more for pastured animals, which require greater resources to produce, especially land and water. In fact, a study found that eating exclusively plants even one day a week has more of an impact than eating locally all 7 days.

Will eating local, including local meat, solve the very real environmental issues of meat? No, but it certainly has many other merits that can be worthwhile. But for me, the bottom line is that eating less meat or no meat at all has the greatest positive impact on the environment.


Click to access Mekonnen-Hoekstra-2012-WaterFootprintFarmAnimalProducts.pdf

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Soy you say?

by Sigrid Bjarnason
Originally published in The Flying Shingle, Monday, February 24, 2014

I have a memory (from sometime in the early ‘70s, judging by the bad hairdos) of standing with a circle of people talking while we waited – for a plane? No. A train? Maybe. Anyhow, there was this huge beefy guy wearing a big brown hat talking about his enormous soybean farm somewhere in the U. S. of A.

I was about to share my favourite soybean recipe with the group when – in the nick of time – I realised something. This farmer was not growing soy destined for hippie-burgers. He was growing soy as feed for hogs destined for slaughter. I no doubt narrowly avoided an awkward moment. He would have been horrified to think that I actually ate the stuff myself.

Soy continues to be grown in huge quantities today, primarily to feed animals who are then fed to humans. I saw a film called Meat the Truth at the Vancouver Public Library a few days ago. It cites research showing that it takes seven kilos of soybean feed to produce just one kilo of meat. Not a very efficient way for humans to obtain nutrition.

Meat the Truth also examines the alarming quantity of greenhouse gases and pollution that result from the intensive farming of animals. The inescapable conclusion? If you eat lots of meat, you can’t call yourself an environmentalist no matter how much you walk or bike.

On the plant front, non-GMO, traditionally-prepared soy is a healthy option for humans. Tofu, tempeh, natto, edamame, and miso are all wonderful sources of nutrition. They contain protein as well as many micronutrients. Soybeans – some fermented, some not – have been a staple food in Asian countries for centuries. Some of the healthiest, longest-lived people come from places in the world where modest portions of soy are eaten once or twice a day, every day.

Want to eat healthy soy yourself rather than filter GMO soy through pigs, cows, and chickens? Here’s an easy, delicious, nutritious recipe for baked tofu from Isa Does It, the new cookbook from Isa Chandra Moskowitz:

Classic Baked Tofu
1 (14-ounce) block extra-firm tofu, sliced into 8 slabs

3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon mustard
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾ cup vegetable broth
2 teaspoons garlic powder

In a bowl big enough to accommodate the tofu, mix together all the marinade ingredients. Add the tofu and marinate for an hour (or overnight) flipping at least once.

Preheat oven to 425 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place the tofu in a single layer on the baking sheet, cover with tin foil, and bake for 15 minutes. Remove tin foil, flip the tofu, and spoon on more marinade. Then bake uncovered for another 12 to 15 minutes. The tofu should be browned at the edges.

This is a tofu dish you can serve hot for dinner or keep in the fridge for sandwiches or salads. For that matter, add it to any savoury dish that you think would benefit from a healthy and delicious low-fat alternative.

I like to think that the hefty cat in the big brown hat with the soybean farm would quite enjoy a sumptious slab slathered in barbecue sauce, nestled next to a mess o’ butter beans and a slo-baked spud.

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Changing tastes

by Sigrid Bjarnason
Originally published in The Flying Shingle, Monday, January 27, 2014

Like many of us at the start of a new year, I’m full of hope, and for good reason. After pondering recent developments in the areas of animal welfare and food – two closely-related passions of mine – I realise there’s more than a few positive signs afoot.

Here, in no particular order, are some things that have recently caught my eye.

You know tastes are changing when:

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Animals deserve our consideration

by Nadia Roch
Originally published in The Flying Shingle, Monday, December 30, 2013

Growing up in a city and living without pets, I never gave much thought to animals. Even when I started to question the origins of my food, I went to great lengths to avoid connecting the dots between the meal on my plate and the cow in the field.

I was taught that animals had no capacity for emotion and operated on instinct alone. I was told animals were dumb and that they gladly gave their lives to feed me. I never questioned these assertions until I had a chance to spend more time with animals.

Through my interactions with cats, dogs, and even a few horses, I started to doubt the story I’d been told. It was very clear to me that the animals I encountered were acting from more than just basic instincts.

I also realised how silly it was for cats, dogs, and horses to be off the menu, while chickens, pigs, and cows were okay to eat. How could farm animals be that different from our pets?

The truth is that animals are much more than instincts. One of the central arguments for animal rights is that animals are sentient – able to perceive and feel – therefore they deserve moral consideration and the right to be protected from unnecessary suffering or death.

In 2012, an international group of scientists formally declared that animals are in fact conscious in The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. The overwhelming body of evidence shows that animals are in fact aware and can act beyond basic instincts.

There’s no shortage of specific examples of animal sentience and intelligence. Baby chicks can perform basic arithmetic without prior coaching and pigs have proven smarter than dogs and even toddlers. At a recent potluck on the island, I had the pleasure of witnessing Ernie, a rescued turkey, proudly display his feathers and interact with a group of onlookers despite a welcoming spread of his favourite foods. He was even keen to remain a part of the festivities by trying to follow us back inside and when that failed, he spent time at the glass patio doors.

With the knowledge of animal sentience and new discoveries each year of how they display not only awareness, but intelligence, I believe it’s time for us to put aside the old assumptions and show animals the respect they deserve.

It’s the start of a new year – the perfect time to go vegetarian or vegan. It’s a choice that has clear benefits for the planet, humans, and of course, the animals.