A couple weeks ago I attended the second annual Ivy League Vegan Conference at Yale. I found almost all the presentations and panels fascinating, and felt the need to share them. So here’s a run-down of every event.
The first speaker, Dr. Milton Mills, woke up the audience on Saturday morning with a humorous and enthusiastic presentation titled “Are Humans Designed to Eat Meat?” Mills compared the anatomy of humans, herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores, demonstrating that humans’ bodies are built to thrive on plants, not flesh. Everything from our posture to our skeletal and digestive systems, Mills argues, is much more similar to that of herbivores. For example, unlike carnivores, herbivores and humans have appendices; long gestation periods; saliva enzymes and long digestive tracts to break down fibrous foods; poor night vision; pillar-like legs; and developed facial muscles perfect for cropping, grinding, and chewing plant foods. In responding to a question from the audience, Mills explained that, like herbivores, humans have the capacity to break down vitamin B12 to a usable form- a mechanism that would be biologically unnecessary if we had evolved to get our B12 (already in a usable form) only from animal flesh.
Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at Bard, then presented “The Environmental Effects of Diet.” Eshel stressed that food systems are the key form of geoengineering, aside from greenhouse gas emissions. It is through agriculture, Eshel explained, that humans alter the earth most significantly via deliberate perturbations; he described agriculture as a form of “anthropogenic planetary agency,” citing the fact that 47% of U.S. land is used for food production. Common conceptions about the lighter environmental impact of local foods, Eshel cautioned, may be misguided; the results of one study he performed suggest that local tomatoes are extremely energy inefficient due to transportation-related emissions. However, Eshel also found that “pure plant diets” require far less land and nitrogen; “all three deleterious effects of food production [greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and nitrogen discharge] can be dramatically reduced by consuming less animal-based foods,” his study found.
Lunch and a career fair followed Eshel’s presentation; attendees juggled vegan pizza with business cards as they made their way through booths for vegan and animal-oriented nonprofits and companies. Among the organizations present were The Humane League, Farm Sanctuary, The American Vegan Society, and others; PlantBased Solutions, which provides sales and marketing services to vegan companies, represented the for-profit sector.
“Contemporary Issues in Animal Ethics” was the topic of the next panel, which was comprised by philosophers Shelly Kagan, Jeff McMahan, Lori Gruen, and Dale Jamieson. Kagan attempted to answer the question, “Does an individual make a difference?” by contemplating the probability of being the last person to buy a meat product, and therefore being the individual to cause more animals to be killed.
Jeff McMahan delved into the ethical issues surrounding “humane” animal agriculture, noting that there is “no possibility” of morally defending the practice of factory farming. At what point when an animal is killed, McMahan asked rhetorically, do the interests of humans outweigh the animal’s desire to live? McMahan offered a thought-provoking hypothetical: what if we genetically engineered animals so that they would be “pre-programmed” to die (painlessly) when their meat would still be “tasty” to humans? In the end, McMahan had more questions for the audience than answers.
Lori Gruen emphasized the need for animal advocates to make individual animal lives and deaths intelligible; “people get numb to the masses,” she explained, and referring to individual animals—as she did throughout her talk—is more moving than referring to animals in the aggregate. Gruen also highlighted the fact that “we can’t live and avoid killing,” citing the destructiveness of palm oil and the clearing of agricultural land. “The system we live in is built on the backs of other animals,” Gruen attested, and we must come to terms with our realization that “someone will probably die and I can’t save her.” “No one is saved by not eating animals,” Gruen concluded, and there are limitations to our good intentions.
Dale Jamieson argued that we should not rank forms of life- that we are not justified in giving beings moral significance by emphasizing their similarities to humans. By comparing the intelligence or moral worth of infants to that of chimpanzees, for example, we demonstrate the “arrogance of traditional human exceptionalism,” Jamieson contended.
William Crouch, founder of 80,000 Hours, centered attendees’ focus again on careers during the next presentation. 80,000 Hours is a service that provides advice to those wishing to pursue ethical careers; the service helps people to answer the question, “How can I best use my scarce time on earth to make the biggest possible impact?” Crouch concentrated on a career option he calls “Earning to Give,” which entails pursuing a highly lucrative career with the goal of donating large amounts of money to effective non-profit organizations. Earning to Give, Crouch offered, can make a difference that wouldn’t have happened anyway, and can multiply one individual’s positive impact. Crouch left the audience with four main suggestions for effecting the most change through a career: do something that wouldn’t have happened anyway; remember that you can benefit indirectly; keep your options open; and focus on the most effective causes.
The final panel for the conference’s first day featured three experts in law who discussed “Ag-gag, Undercover Investigations, and the 1st Amendment.” Cheryl Leahy, a leading animal rights lawyer and lecturer at UCLA, ran through some of the cruelest practices common on factory farms, which she argued are “inherently violent places.” Lewis Bollard, a Yale law student whose essay, “Ag-Gag: The Unconstitutionality of Laws Restricting Undercover Investigations on Farms,” won a prestigious contest, outlined the specifics of Iowa and Utah’s “ag-gag” laws. These laws, passed in March of 2012, essentially criminalize undercover investigations of factory farms. Bollard described several of the challenges animal rights organizations have and will face in contesting these laws, which he says are unconstitutional.
David Cassuto, professor of law at Pace University, concluded the ag-gag talk by bringing the debate into the context of all laws applying to animals. Cassuto noted that 28 states specifically exempt animals in agriculture from state cruelty laws, and that 98% of animals in the United States have no legal protection whatsoever. “Commodification of animals the issue,” he argued; cruelty itself is only a symptom of our warped legal structure. Cassuto described what he calls the “victim vacuum”: a system in which animals are denied victimhood and access to recognition by the law. The irony of the ag-gag laws and the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, Cassuto explained, is that they turn animal enterprises into victims and animal activists into criminals, while the real victims—the animals—remain invisible.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, delivered the conference’s keynote speech that evening. Pacelle’s remarks were optimistic – they focused on the bond with animals that humans have always shared and celebrated. Pacelle highlighted the progress animal welfare advocates in general, and the Humane Society specifically, have made over the past several decades. “We really want to be mainstream,” Pacelle stressed, “we always prefer the course of least resistance … we talk more about animal protection than animal rights. It’s about human responsibility more than animal rights.” Pacelle highlighted the Humane Society’s welfare-oriented approach: “I want people to take little steps … I want to celebrate farmers who are doing things a better way. You don’t have to be perfect; you don’t have to be orthodox.”
The long first day of the conference concluded with a discussion among students about strategies for college activism. Participants shared suggestions and advice about leafleting, engaging campus media, encouraging active membership, and seeking funding.
The following morning conference participants attended one final panel: “Plant-based diets and Recent Findings in Nutrition.” Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd explained to the audience how our brains process flavor, as well as how obesity is driven by a physiological process involving self-control, drive, and memory. Dr. Gary Wu of the University of Pennsylvania described the role bacteria in the human gut may have in health and disease. One study Dr. Wu conducted found that Western diets—high in animal proteins—may correlate to higher levels of a certain gut bacteria
Dr. Michael Greger, author of NutritionFacts.org, made the conference’s last presentation, “Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death.” Dr. Greger sifts through thousands of studies published in medical journals every year; he used dozens of these throughout his talk to illustrate how the 15 leading causes of death in the United States can be prevented, treated, and reversed by a plant-based diet. One study I thought was especially fascinating found that the blood of people on vegan diets was eight times more effective in fighting prostate cancer cells growing in a petri dish. Another found that the blood of women who had been eating a plant-based diet for just two weeks killed far more cancer cells than the blood of those same women before they switched to veganism. I highly recommend checking out Dr. Greger’s videos about these studies and others on his website.