Is My Veganism Sustainable?

Back in October I wrote that I had recently enrolled in a new degree program, and right now I’m deep into my second full semester. One of my courses is Issues in Biodiversity. In addition to doing a lot of reading and writing, we have all been tasked with designing a personal Biodiversity or Sustainability Action Plan for the semester. Some of my cohorts are elementary school teachers, and they’re devising wonderful projects that involve their students, such as planting a pollinator garden or creating compost for a community garden.

The assignment directions note, “Making a behavior change that positively impacts sustainability can be done simply through your choice in which products you buy, or how much you use your car.” As someone who doesn’t own a car, is an all-weather bicycle commuter, shops at farmers markets for a lot of my produce, carries all my groceries in my backpack, keeps my thermostat set at 65-67 degrees in the winter, and refuses to install central air conditioning, I jokingly said to some classmates, “What? I have to give up more?” But the idea of making a personal change struck me as a terrific challenge.

Some of My Vegan Cooking

Lately I’ve been coming across articles claiming that veganism was less sustainable—less eco-friendly—than several omnivore diets. In some cases, the conclusions were based on false comparisons, like imagining that vegans lived solely on exotic foodstuffs with high carbon footprints (avocados, for example) and pitting them against omnis subsisting on locally grown organic meats and vegetables. Still, I found these articles to be somewhat troubling. Cowspiracy (2014) contributed to my decision to go vegan. Since its release, critics have debunked several facts presented in the documentary, especially the percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions produced by industrial farming. Nevertheless, it still seemed—at least to me—to make implicit sense that eating a plant based diet was more environmentally sustainable than one including animal products.

For my Action Plan, I’ve decided to investigate the sustainability and carbon footprint of my diet and see how many positive changes I can make. I’ll be blogging about my discoveries, the changes I make, and posting recipes here. This blog will also be linked to my Instagram account, so that people who like my food photos will have the opportunity to learn more about the ecology of their diet. Wish me luck!

Photo of desert landscape en route to Baja, Mexico

Gaining Perspective

This past January I made an impulse decision to apply to a graduate program I’d recently discovered. Although I regularly juggle multiple interests through work, volunteering, hobbies, and travel, I’ve often wished I could do more to make a difference in the world. One day, while cycling through Chanthaburi, Thailand as part of Bike for Elephants 2018, I learned about a program that suddenly made my aspirations seem possible.

Group photo
Earth Expedition Baja I – photo by Jessica Seevers

Fast forward to June, and I’m hiking through 107-degree heat with eighteen other eager minds studying ecological field methods in Baja, Mexico. We were all first-semester students in Miami University’s Global Field Program, an innovative graduate program that combines summer field coursework with online learning during the school year. 

One reason the GFP appealed to me is that I’ve always loved travel. My experiences abroad have introduced me to extraordinary people and practices, shown me new ways of appreciating the world. But because we would be studying desert ecology—sleeping outdoors, abandoning the comforts of home, and being the only people wherever we went—I didn’t expect those sorts of revelations. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

Photo of Rancho San Gregorio
Rancho San Gregorio

One of our first assignments required us to map our location, Rancho San Gregorio. My map resembles a pre-Renaissance doodle: there is no world beyond a few structures, everything is two dimensional, and each building is front-facing, albeit from multiple points of view.

In addition to lacking perspective, my map is also bizarrely scaled: the gardens and open spaces have been minimized, the central building (seen in the photo above) is oddly compressed, and the cacti are wildly misproportioned. I’m not really sure what drove me to make such odd choices, but I believe my college art professors would not be impressed.

photo of hand-drawn map
My map

The significance of scale is a theme to which we returned time and again. In one learning activity, we read about the relationships between the area of a habitat and the number of species inhabiting it (Gotelli, 2008). We then used this concept of species-area relationship (SAR) to estimate the minimal sample area needed to characterize the local ecosystem, a sort of scale model for biodiversity.

The process we used is called the relevé method. Four teams measured out initial 5×5 meter square areas (quadrat) and then expanded them to 10×10, 15×15, and so forth. Each team identified and counted species within their quadrats: cardon, boojum, ocotillo, creosote … the total number of species increased with the size of the quadrat … until it didn’t. Once each team expanded their squares past 25×25 we rarely found any new species. We had found our minimal sample size.

Photo of me with a giant cactus
Me, pointing to scarring on a cardon (Pachycereus pringlei) – photo by Samantha Lee Arner

Why is this important? Imagine looking at a small corner of a meadow. You might see a cluster of flowering clover. While this could make for a beautiful photo, it doesn’t capture the meadow as a vibrant community of plant life. In fact, that clover might be an island surrounded by a sea of wild grasses. Examining random plots of the right sample size would give you a much better sense of the meadow’s species richness.

Although I am back in Philadelphia, I’m still thinking about scale—especially in terms of time. This semester I’m studying our city’s green spaces and interviewing people involved in greening the city. One person enthusiastically listed many things street trees bring to a neighborhood: shade, beauty, habitat. But another person claimed, “Trees are easy.” He explained how street trees provide a form of immediate gratification. And while that isn’t a bad thing per se, street trees can give residents a false sense of how green our city really is, which might make us less willing to support efforts whose effects we might not see for decades.

Photo of neighborhood tree planting
Street tree planting in Philadelphia – click for source

Many early cultures used a technique called hieratic scale in their visual arts. With hieratic scale, the most important figures appear the largest. Looking back—my map of the ranch, a close up of a flower, and greening a sidewalk—all these employ a form of hieratic scale. My map, for instance, reveals both my awe of cacti and my inability to distinguish much beyond man-made structures. The sudden popularity of trees suggests that we urban dwellers have difficulty investing in things we cannot see or touch.

My GFP cohorts and I are hoping to join a network of individuals engaged in conservation efforts around the world. My wish, of course, is to help the elephants. But I suspect that I’ve been looking at elephants as if they were clover, and I were strolling past the edge of that meadow. While the clover might seem sparse and precious to me, the meadow is not my home. If it were, the clover might appear abundant, maybe even a nuisance. If I want to make a real difference someday, then I will have to learn to accept multiple truths, embrace multiple perspectives.

References

Gotelli, N. J. (2008) Island Biogeography. In A Primer of ecology (pp. 154-177). Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.

Handbook for collecting of vegetation plot data in Minnesota: The relevé method. (2013). Retrieved from https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/mcbs/releve/releve_singlepage.pdf.

 

PAN Vegan Pledge – Cooking and Community


Photo of Cooking Demo

One of my favorite aspects of the PAN Vegan Pledge is the weekly meetings. Every Saturday, we meet for about 2 hours. The Peace Advocacy Network (PAN) provides us with plenty of tasty vegan food as well as helpful information. During the meetings, pledges can ask questions, share shopping tips, and generally just get to know one another. In addition to casual socializing, we also enjoy a weekly speaker or two. In all honesty, I was a little afraid that the lectures would be filled with horrifying photos of slaughtered animals. It turned out that the fellow who sat next to me last week had exactly the same fear. We bonded over this and laughed as we realized how counter-productive it would have been to make potential vegan-converts lose their appetites over lunch.

At the first meeting, Christopher McJetters shared why he sees veganism as more than a simple food or even lifestyle choice; for him it’s an issue of social justice. At the second meeting Dara Lovitz explained many of the environmental effects of animal agriculture. I plan to devote a separate post to “what I’ve learned,” so please hold on to your questions for a few weeks.

But not all of our speakers are lecturers. This past week we were treated to a cooking demonstration by Rachel Klein (pictured above), owner of Miss Rachel’s Pantry in Philadelphia. I had heard wonderful reports of Miss Rachel’s weekly Farmhouse Table Dinners, so I had been anticipating this meeting all week. Needless to say, she did not disappoint!

photo of food prep

Rachel made two dishes: a simple carrot ginger soup and a baked tempeh sandwich. As you can see, carrots and ginger were two of the primary ingredients in the soup. To this she also added potatoes (she recommended yukon golds or red-skinned potatoes over russets for a creamier texture). To make the soup even richer, she added coconut milk. Much of this was prepped in advance, because we couldn’t really devote the entire two-hour meeting to food prep. Instead Rachel focused on showing us how to make baked tempeh. First off, she recommended slicing the tempeh into thin strips for maximum flavor and a pleasing texture.

photo, marinating tempeh

She then poured soy sauce and liquid smoke over the sliced tempeh, all the while chatting with us and answering questions. “Where can I buy tempeh?” “Can I substitute Braggs Liquid Aminos?” It turns out that Rachel buys her tempeh from Hardena Resto Waroeng Surabaya, a little Indonesian restaurant that also makes their own tempeh, and yes! you can make substitutions (although one pledge pointed out that Braggs actually has a higher sodium content than soy sauce or tamari). As we were shuttled out of the kitchen for Dara’s lecture, Rachel baked the strips on well oiled baking sheets and then constructed the sandwiches. Everything was so fresh and so delicious! Whole grain baguettes were spread with homemade sun-dried tomato cashew “cheese,” layered with the savory tempeh, and topped with thickly sliced, ripe tomatoes and fresh basil.

One thing Rachel noted was that while vegan cooking doesn’t need to be expensive, prepared vegan food can be pricey due to the amount of prep work involved. As an example, she pointed to the lunch she made for us. Carrots, potatoes, coconut milk, tempeh … none of these are high-priced luxury items. But making a cultured cashew cheese requires significant time, labor, and knowledge. Buying what’s organic and in season and producing quality food in small batches also adds to the cost. For me this was a real “lightbulb moment.” Factory farming is heavily subsidized; small family-owned farms that sell at farmers’ markets or direct to restaurants and caterers are not. Now that I know this, and especially because I’ve sampled Miss Rachel’s cooking, you can bet she’ll be seeing me at one of her dinners in the very near future!

photo of produce from farmers market

Duly inspired by the fresh flavors in Rachel’s cooking, I went straight from the meeting to the Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market. Peaches, cherry tomatoes, and “fairy tale” eggplant are only some of the wonderful items that I purchased. As I biked home with both my belly and my backpack full, I started planning a Sunday dinner that would highlight fresh summer produce but also leave us with some leftovers for a busy Monday.

photo of tofu and asparagus

Sunday was a real scorcher, but luckily my boyfriend loves to grill. We marinated the eggplant in a mixture of balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. Squares of pressed firm tofu were slathered with a simple mix of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and basil. And the asparagus was drizzled with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and sea salt. As the my boyfriend set the coals to fire, I started on a pot of quinoa.

photo of dinner

Once everything was ready, I drizzled a bit of vegan pesto onto the tofu to accentuate its flavor.

photo of leftovers as a salad

On Monday I turned the leftovers into a gorgeous salad for a super easy but equally delicious dinner.