The Chef and The Genomicist

Imagining a Food System Without Animals

In early August, vegan chef Miyoko Schinner and genomicist/investor Ryan Bethencourt met at a roundtable event exploring the Future of Food. They decided to take their conversation to a broader audience, addressing this question: What would our world look like if we removed animals from
our food system entirely?


Letter #1

Hi, Ryan! It was great seeing you at the roundtable the other day. I’m glad we had a chance to share even a glimpse of our vision for the future of food. As vegans, it’s natural for us to dream of a more compassionate world where animals are no longer considered food but sentient beings with a life purpose of their own. Of course, along with saving animals, come huge environmental savings: restoration of wildlife habitat from overgrazed and overworked lands, reduction in greenhouse gases (possibly even a reversal of global warming), vast improvements in water, energy, and resource conservation, and so much more. Then there are the health benefits for all, with positive repercussions on the nation’s economy as rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other often-preventable diseases decline. In fact, there is so much upside to adopting a plant-based diet that we vegans sometimes wonder why the whole world just doesn’t get with it, and fast.

But sometimes it’s good to consider why the world doesn’t just get it. And it isn’t just because we vegans can be so annoying at times. (Although I know we can be!) A few months ago, I was truly inspired by a talk I heard by one of my heroes in the animal rights/welfare movement. So naturally, I tweeted about it. A 4th generation dairy farmer I didn’t know and never heard of tweeted back about how we vegans were trying to destroy life for all farmers. It was out of the blue, and it shocked me. I was merely trying to share my joy and sense of inspiration, and here was someone attacking me for it. My first temptation was to react and dash off a nasty reply. “Hey, @***farmer, #dairyfarming destroys the planet. #Blameyourself.” Or something to that effect.

But I knew that that wouldn’t entirely charm him.

So I tried a different approach. Instead, I responded that we vegans weren’t trying to destroy anyone’s life, but wanted simply to create a better world for animals. The farmer wasn’t touched, and quipped back that “our lives are one with animals and the land” He had cared for animals his whole life. His life would be unimaginable without them. Whoa. That made me think: here was someone with a vastly different experience from me, from other vegans. Let’s get real — most of us vegans have little or no experience with the very same farm animals we are most passionate about saving. Was there any validity in this farmer’s words? What would life be like for him if, say, some fantastical legislation were passed outlawing animal agriculture? What would happen to his animals? What would happen to him? How would he make a living?

One of the solutions, of course, would be just to tell him to convert his farm to growing crops. Or as the former chevre makers/goat farmers of the Sanctuary at Soledad Goats did, start making cheese from nuts instead of goats. Ryan, do you know about them? I find such stories so inspirational — Carol and Julian Pearce gave up their award-winning goat cheese enterprise and went vegan when they decided they could no longer continue the cycle of using animals for profit. Now they have a sanctuary for farm animals! In other words, just get creative, and a million ideas pop into mind, especially from the vantage point of the vegan. It just seems so easy.

But step into the shoes of the 4th generation dairy farmer who has never known anything but his land and cows, and the prospect of giving it all up becomes quite frightening. The farmer tweeted that the rate of suicide among rural farmers was high. Fear of the shifting economic realities of animal agriculture was clearly rampant in the rural community.

And yet, this farmer was clearly intrigued — threatened and intrigued — by veganism. He was following my tweets, and even asked whether it was better to slaughter or euthanize animals when they became too old or sick. He seemed to truly care but was torn between his love for his cows, making a living, and the meaning of his life.

It became clear to me that we need solutions not only for the animals, but the people willing to give up animal agriculture. Otherwise, economic realities will always prove to be a roadblock to a more compassionate, vegan world.

Just like most things, the answers aren’t black or white. It’s important to educate people about the impacts of animal agriculture, and what it’s doing to human health, the environment, and the enslaved animals themselves. You and I know that it’s simply not sustainable. But we need to offer solutions as well — not just scream from our mountain top. We need to find viable solutions — both affordable and available –in foods that can substitute for meat, dairy, and eggs, in a truly satisfying way so that people will be willing to make the transition. We can’t scare them into changing — we need to win them over with better alternatives for their health, pocket book, and souls. And in addition, we need to find real-life solutions for people involved in these industries.

You, with a technological approach to creating new foods, and I, with a more culinary approach, have a lot to discuss, and a lot we can offer. I’m excited to hear your thoughts on how we can work together to create a world with less suffering for all.

Miyoko


This fall, Medium is exploring the future of food and what it means for us all. To get the latest and build on the conversation, you can follow Future of Food.