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The Simple Diet Change That Will Help the Planet

Author and activist Gene Baur shares some insights about how our food choices affect the environment and our health.

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Gene Baur, president and co-founder of the leading animal-rescue organization Farm Sanctuary and the man whom Time magazine dubbed “the conscience of the food movement,” is a hero for more than just the Whole Foods set. While my meat- and dairy-eschewing girlfriends swooningly call him “the Brad Pitt of veganism,” the tall, tanned and toned Hollywood, California, native, is a passionate and persuasive forerunner among activists who are hoping to teach more Americans that factory farming isn’t just bad for animals, it’s terrible for humans and the world we both inhabit.

In his new book, Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer and Feeling Better Every Day, which he co-wrote with Gene Stone, author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller Forks Over Knives, Baur provides a practical (and non-preachy!) guide for anyone who wants to lead a healthier and more sustainable existence. With Earth Day approaching—and as a drought-ravaged California grows ever more thirsty—Baur talks to Sonima about the scary truths of factory farming and its effect on the environment, as well as the easy lifestyle changes we can all make to help create effective, positive change for our own well-being and the health of our planet.

Your book talks about how we can live the “Farm Sanctuary Life,” eating in a more mindful, eco-, and animal-friendly manner. For someone who isn’t ready or willing to go vegan—pardon the pun—cold-turkey, what are some ways they might go about this?
Number one, just realize that we eat way too much animal food in this country. It’s a realization, and then an intention to shift away from animal products and toward more healthy, plant-based food. Participate in Meatless Mondays. One day a week, decide not to eat meat; by doing that, you start learning what kind of plant foods are available. Another thing is people can substitute. Like, instead of having spaghetti and meatballs, people can use meatless balls—there are a lot of varieties available in grocery stores these days. Or just leave the meat out and add veggies.

Related: Try this hearty vegan kale, quinoa, and sweet potato bowl on Meatless Monday.

We keep hearing about how there are so many health benefits associated with a plant-based diet.
Studies have shown that eating plant foods improves our health in a number of ways and could stop and reverse some diseases. Heart disease, for example, kills so many of us, and it kills us way too early. If we ate plant foods instead, we could lower our risk of heart disease, of stroke, of cancer. If people want to not only live long but live well and feel good, eating plants is the way to do that.

Let’s talk about the historic drought in California. Governor Brown has just imposed a 25 percent mandatory water cutback for residents and businesses. But I’ve read that the water that regular citizens use is a literal drop in the bucket compared to the amount used for factory farming—which isn’t affected by the Governor’s mandate, by the way.
To eat animal foods, we need to grow lots and lots of plants that are then harvested and fed to animals, and the animals are raised and cared for on a regular basis. It’s an enormous amount of resources, like water, that are used. For example, to produce one pound of beef, it would require as much water as taking a shower every day for six months. Eating plants directly is much more efficient. It takes about 10 times as many plants to produce one unit of animal food.

I read a scary statistic about factory farming in your book: Global meat production and milk output are projected to double by 2050.
I think what is happening is that, in developing countries that see more economic growth—in China, in India, for example—there is this push for more meat consumption. In the U.S. we’ve learned from our mistakes of eating too many animals and suffering the health consequences. In other countries, that hasn’t quite happened yet.

What was the turning point for you? What made you go vegan in 1985?
I grew up like most people, eating meat, and I didn’t think very much about it. Then, when I was in high school, my mom made a chicken dinner. I saw this dead bird on the plate, on his or her back, with the legs and the wings attached. It was clearly a living animal that was cooked and ready to be eaten. And I was turned off by it. As time went, that memory faded. But later on, as I travelled and got involved with environmental groups, I recalled that [image], and I recognized that I could live without eating animals. Then I began to learn about factory farming, and I realized that this is an industry that is horrible animals, horrible to the environment, horrible to workers, and was feeding consumers food that was making them sick. So I went vegan in 1985, and in 1986, I co-founded Farm Sanctuary, because there was just not enough attention on this issue, and it’s an issue that touches everybody. Each of us makes choices every day about what we eat, and those choices have profound consequences.

Can you recommend some easy, eco-friendly food-related things that people can do every day to help the environment?
Going to farmer’s markets is important. You’re supporting the local farmers, and food isn’t being transported from afar, which helps save on resources. Eating foods in season is a really good idea, and so is composting. That way we’re not filling up landfills and we’re actually making soil with our kitchen scraps. But the biggest thing people can do is just not eat animals. That’s the way to have the largest impact on our environment.

Related: How to Be a Conscious and Responsible Omnivore

But so many of our culture and our holidays are centered around meals, and a lot of those meals have meat at the center: ham for Easter, turkey for Thanksgiving, chicken and burgers for the Fourth of July barbecue. I have to imagine that it’s going to take a major shift in our culture for the majority of Americans to change.
It takes time. It’s a matter of developing new habits, and challenging certain beliefs that we grow up with — the belief, for example, that these animals are here for that purpose. It was beliefs like that that enabled slavery or prevented women from having the right to vote. So, it’s a matter of evolving, and recognizing that we share this planet with other animals, and how we treat them doesn’t only affect them, it affects us and says something about us. This is not about putting anybody down. It’s just about recognizing that when we eat animals and commodify them and brutally mistreat them on these factory farms, then we’re not behaving according to our best principles or our best humanity.

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