death by sensationalism: revisiting perceptions of vegan diets

a few weeks ago, a friend of mine linked to an article about a vegan couple charged with the murder of their infant son, Crown Shakur. i spent some time reading the news coverage of this story, and the entire case struck me as deeply strange. the couple's son died of extreme malnourishment, and was severely emaciated by the time he was brought to the hospital. the parents do appear to have been vegans, and to have fed their baby apple juice and soy milk.

however, this story has been taken up in the media (and by many people) to illustrate the dangers of radical lifestyles gone wrong, proof that some vegans are so blinded by their slavish commitment to forgoing animal products that they might endanger or even kill their own children.

while i'm not surprised to see the story interpreted this way, i think it suggests more about popular views of veganism (and similarly politicized diets) -- supposedly practiced by people whose good sense is easily overwhelmed by their radical convictions. last week's Op-Ed in the Times just reinforced this line of reasoning. Nina Planck, in "Death by Veganism," argues that the Shakur case should "prompt frank discussion about nutrition," and as a former vegan herself, came to the enlightened conclusion that "a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible." she then makes a currently popular move, referencing "indigenous cuisines" to support her views. never mind that there are societies that consume no dairy, and very little meat (many parts of east Asia come to mind, and it should always be remembered that meat is often expensive and considered a luxury, while our neolithic ancestors most likely ate a lot of roots, nuts, and other gathered foods, only occasionally supplemented by meat). moreover, "traditional" diets cannot necessarily be considered a fail-safe guide to healthy eating. of course, Planck's argument that animals provide the best quality of protein leaves out the most pertinent fact -- human meat offers the most easily digestible protein of all!

cannibalism aside, i don't disagree that meatless diets require more attention to certain nutritional issues (though conversely, one might point out that the Standard American Diet doesn't include sufficient vitamins, minerals, and fiber, or fruits and vegetables). in a consumer society saturated with cheap food products, eating healthy already requires careful attention to labels and meals, whether it's avoiding transfat and high fructose corn syrup, or including enough whole grains and vegetables, and attending to organic and sustainable modes of food production.

but ultimately, this discussion is irrelevant to the death of Crown Shakur. back to the actual news coverage, it appears that the infant died because he was not fed enough of anything -- according not to the defense, but to the prosecutors. Shakur's parents were not convicted of killing their child by veganism, but by severe malnourishment. nothing about this case suggests that vegan diets themselves be scrutinized for dietary insufficiency -- in fact, the American Dietary Association endorses vegan and vegetarian diets, saying "[w]ell-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence." of course, it may be more challenging to plan a healthy vegan diet for small children, but any more so than trying to address the issue of childhood obesity? sensationalism aside, thoughtful veganism still appears to be a far healthier choice than the diets most Americans consume -- and feed to their children.


plastic world

a scary heads-up -- this article documents how literally tons of plastic debris are accumulating in the world's oceans, disintegrating but not biodegrading, and leaching organic pollutants into the environments, and our food chain. the article further suggests some of the many possible links between the various chemicals given off by plastics and rampant health problems in the US such as cancer and diabetes.

in some ways, this news isn't surprising -- we've known for many years that plastic does not biodegrade, and at the same time, it's become increasingly ubiquitous to postindustrial living. i'm trying to imagine how i would eliminate disposable plastic from my life, and realizing that even after the most basic trip to the grocery store, i'd return home with shrink-wrapped cheese (made with carcinogen-laden PVC), plastic containers of yogurt (#5, polypropylene, notoriously difficult to recycle partly because there's no aftermarket), plastic bagged organic lettuce (so much for the value of organic!), and plastic inserts in cereal, oatmeal and cracker boxes -- even if i remember to bring my reusable cloth bag. shopping at a farmer's market or buying from a CSA helps with plastic-free produce, but it remains endemic to the way most of us obtain our food (to say nothing of eating out -- how many restaurants still use styrofoam containers for take-out and doggie-bags?).

while i'm feeling renewed motivation to cut down on plastic all together, consumer action really isn't a sufficient solution. while many cities now offer curbside recycling (although notably, Chicago's program is still appallingly flawed and ineffective), it's unclear how much plastic makes it to a recycling plant -- numbers 1 and 2 are apparently the easiest to recycle, again, because there's a market for the recycled material, but plenty more is shipped overseas, handsorted, and unless easily recyclable, probably tossed (often creating hazardous working conditions and environmental contamination in the process). a longterm solution requires substantial government regulation (and business self-regulation) to ensure that producers, not consumers, take responsibility for the lifecycle of their goods -- using nontoxic materials that can be endlessly reused without causing further ecological damage or health problems. while we can all contribute to reducing demand for plastics as retail consumers, we can probably be most effective as political constituents putting pressure on businesses and legislators to make more far-reaching changes.

but ultimately, i keep asking myself -- if plastics don't biodegrade, why do we still conceive of plastic products as disposable?

dodging the issue: is it worthwhile to challenge factory-farming practices behind fast-food?

an interesting news tidbit from earlier this week -- apparently the Animal Legal Defense Fund is suing Farmer John®, the brand of hotdogs sold at LA's Dodger Stadium. the ALDF also published their letter encouraging the stadium to stop using the brand for their famous "Dodger Dogs."

the lawsuit alleges that Corcporc, Farmer John®'s pork supplier in Tulare County, is in violation of California state code which requires that livestock kept in confinement have access to some kind of exercise space, and furthermore that Farmer John® misrepresents the conditions under which the meat for its products is produced.

while i'm always glad to see attention drawn to the appalling living conditions of animals on factory farms, i think this approach raises some interesting questions. to a large degree, i think it's probably an effective strategy to promote awareness of how popular foods and meat products are really produced, and to try to reform or improve existing farms and regulations, rather than mass convert Americans to give up on meat entirely (an outcome that might be healthier for both Americans and our environment, but is unlikely to take hold anytime soon).

on the other hand, even if the sows at Corcporc had a little more breathing space, would that really begin to address the problems inherent in mass meat production? as long as fast-food is such a bloated, oversized and profitable industry, it seems unlikely that small-scale, pasture-based models of raising animals will prevail. so is it worthwhile to try to promote more humane models for industrial animal husbandry?