If you watched the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night, you probably saw Bill Clinton’s stirring speech. But while the former president still has the same unfettered charisma, quick wit and charm he possessed while in the Oval Office, you might have spotted that there was something was different about him. There was noticeably less of him.
Bill Clinton may be the only former president who is also currently vegan. Ever.
Bill used to be the guy you could count on to stop off at a McDonald’s mid-run. But ever since he was taken down by not one, but two heart surgeries, Clinton has nixed the fries.
“I essentially concluded that I had played Russian roulette,” Clinton admitted. “Because even though I had changed my diet some and cut down on the caloric total of my ingestion and cut back on much of the cholesterol in the food I was eating, I still — without any scientific basis to support what I did — was taking in a lot of extra cholesterol without knowing if my body would produce enough of the enzyme to support it, and clearly it didn’t or I wouldn’t have had that blockage. So that’s when I made a decision to really change.”
Clinton’s decision to go vegan was more of a necessity than a choice. He knew that if he didn’t change something he’d probably die. But there are multitude of other reasons to go vegan or vegetarian. For some, it’s discontent with the large scale factory farms, that often pump animals with hormones, additives and fillers. It’s the inhumane conditions at these farms — in which animals live in small, cramped pens for the entirety of their lives and then die. For others, it’s a question of morals or spirituality. For me, it’s all of the above.
I believe in doing what you can to make the world a good place. I was raised in an omnivorous household, but after reading about factory farming at 13, I decided that I no longer wanted to participate in a system that was both cruel to animals and cruel to the humans who worked in it. If you’ve read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle then you’d know that slaughterhouses are historically nasty, unsafe and unhealthy environments. The U.S. Labor Bureau considers slaughterhouses the most dangerous places to work; according to a 1999 survey, nearly a quarter of all slaughterhouse workers suffered an injury on the job, but the actual number of injuries is likely higher. That’s because slaughterhouses often discourage reporting injuries, and use undocumented workers who are too scared of deportation to do anything about their wounds.
Some of the countless injuries, according to a 2001 Mother Jones expose:
Employee’s Finger Amputated in Sausage Extruder. Employee’s Finger Amputated in Chitlin Machine. Employee’s Eye Injured When Struck by Hanging Hook. Employee’s Arm Amputated in Meat Auger. Employee’s Arm Amputated When Caught in Meat Tenderizer. Employee Burned in Tallow Fire. Employee Burned by Hot Solution in Tank. One Employee Killed, Eight Injured by Ammonia Spill. Employee Killed When Arm Caught in Meat Grinder. Employee Decapitated by Chain of Hide Puller Machine. Employee Killed When Head Crushed by Conveyor. Employee Killed When Head Crushed in Hide Fleshing Machine. Employee Killed by Stun Gun. Caught and Killed by Gut-Cooker Machine.
So if that’s what happens to the humans working in these plants, you can imagine what happens to the animals. Most of us by now realize that a lot more than shrink wrap and cold storage goes into getting meat from the farm to the table, but it’s still shocking to hear the particular abuses that animals suffer in order to eventually be killed for food. There are the conditions at the factory ranches and farms, the treatment of animals at the slaughterhouses as they’re being systematically killed, and then there’s the things that you never think of. Like extended periods of crammed and uncomfortable travel for animals who are being transported only to be killed. A 2008 Independent article noted that “Canadian pigs … are condemned to a 4,500-mile journey by land and sea to Hawaii, so that, when slaughtered, their carcasses can be sold as ‘Island Produced Pork.’For nine days, hundreds of pigs are crammed together in the dark, standing in their own excrement. Exhausted and hungry, they become ill, vomiting from motion sickness and waiting for long periods without food.”
But let’s say you’re okay with both the human and animal suffering involved in your meal. Maybe you believe that animals don’t live on the high plane of consciousness that humans do — that humans are simply enacting their position as superior beings on the top of the food chain. Then let’s talk about the health risks associated with eating meat and dairy. Around 20 percent of the dairy produced in the U.S. is genetically engineered and includes Bovine Growth Hormone and also IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor one). Higher levels of IGF-1 have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Plus, dairy is high in fat, cholesterol and sodium. As for meat, there’s a litany of problems associated with eating red meat — everything from increased risk for colon cancer, high risk of bacterial infections and the fact that it’s difficult for the body to digest.
Additionally, cattle are given natural and synthetic sex hormones while they’re being raised for slaughter, in order to increase their “meat yield.” Explains Samuel S. Epstein, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, “Not surprisingly, our meat is contaminated with high levels of sex hormones. Based on these concerns, and as warned by the Cancer Prevention Coalition and five leading national experts, our meat poses increased risks of hormonal cancers, which have escalated since 1975: breast by 23 percent, prostate by 60 percent, and testis by 60 percent. Not surprisingly, US meat is banned worldwide.”
There’s also sustainability to consider: Factory farms are a humongous strain on the Earth. And even so-called humane farms, where animals are grass-fed or free range are not necessarily the answer. “Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows, ” explains New York Times writer James McWilliams. “Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.”
And as environmental feminist Vandana Shiva notes in her book Stolen Harvest,
“[T]he right of corporations to force-feed citizens of the world with culturally inappropriate and hazardous foods has been made absolute. The right to food, the right to safety, the right to culture, are all being treated as trade barriers that need to be dismantled…we have to reclaim our right to nutrition and food safety. Food democracy…is the new agenda for ecological sustainability and social justice.”
But what about the moral cost of eating meat? For me — and I stress, this is just me and I can’t speak for Clinton or anyone else — my decision to stop eating meat, and more recently dairy, has a moral/conscience component. I decided that I wouldn’t ever want to be a part of a system that contributed to the death of another living thing if I could help it. In my moral landscape, animals have every bit of right to be alive as we do. To me, humans don’t get to claim superiority over other species — and that extends to virtually every living thing. I refuse to kill cockroaches or bugs, hurt flies or stomp on snakes (which I hate), because they have every right to exist as I do. I absolutely do not want the karmic responsibility of a death on my hands if and when I can help it. (Except for mosquitos, I fucking hate mosquitos and they can die a zillion fiery deaths.)
The decision to go vegan or vegetarian is as simple and complex as the decisions you make about what food to eat every single day. I’m not telling you all of these things to make you feel bad about the choices you make, only to hopefully point out that everything we choose to eat or not eat has consequences. This is also to say that just because you’ve been doing something a certain way — like eating milk or beef or eggs — doesn’t mean you necessarily have to keep doing it. I know that, and Bill Clinton does, too.