For the last few months, I've had this idea floating in my head about creating a visual representation of my interests. The idea was born from the hesitation and panic I felt whenever people asked me what my hobbies or, or what types of things interested me. I also felt it when trying to network or meet new people, especially professionally. I realized, both verbally and through email, that my interests seem so disconnected and random that I probably just come off as someone who doesn't have any deep interests at all. Of course, that couldn't be further from the truth. I just have deep interests in a lot of things.
To address these insecurities, I tried to find a medium to tell my story a little bit better, but I wanted the end result to be simple. After many post-its and index cards, I finally came up with this. It's not all-encompassing, but it is quite an accurate portrayal of my interests, and how they relate to each other in my trajectory of intellectual development.
During this process, I also realized more abstract connections between my various interests. I realized that observation was a key skill in both photography and user research. I realized that I love the challenge in identifying nuances.
This realization is really important to me, because it's a phenomena that I've consistently struggled to put into words. At it's core, this thrill in discovering nuances is what drew me to photography. There was something inexplicably magical in being able to capture the rays of light entering into my bedroom at sunset, noticing the small upturn in a stranger's lips on the subway, and pressing the shutter at the exact moment that the ocean waves were in sync. I love the feeling of my lungs expanding with cold air when stepping outside in winter and the sound of gravel crunching on a long hike. Nuances are a big part of what I enjoy in music. The sound of callused fingers sliding along a guitar neck, the subtle vibrato in a singer's voice, and the emotional strain during a live performance. Nuances are what drew me to user research. Human behavior and motivation is so complex, and finding out the various factors that resonated with people is a thrilling and rewarding challenge to me.
Nuances, ultimately, are driving my desire to learn. My current learning project is an attempt to understand the various nuances of the food industry in the United States. I've spent the last month learning about fishing, and the last week learning about beef.
I think here would be a good time lay out some facts about myself and my upbringing. I've been vegan since I was 8. It was a family decision made for health reasons, and I loved all the food I ate growing up. I never felt like I was "missing out" (my mom is great at experimenting and a wonderful baker), and my family was able to dedicate a lot of time and resources to maintaining a healthy, balanced diet even though we were vegan. I never suffered any nutritional deficiencies until I went to college and became vitamin D deficient (thank you Boston...). I don't think I held any sense of superiority about my diet as a kid, but I was definitely proud of it (all of my accounts were called 'wenthevegan'). I didn't really feel that different from other people until I went to college, became more interested in food culture, and started caring a lot more about the environment.
Initially, a lot of what I learned about was more or less pro-vegan type information. As we've seen with the current political climate and pack mentality in general, it's pretty hard to think counter to the views that we grew up with. But I strive for nuance, so I tried. I began learning about systems as a whole--I took two classes at MIT that helped a lot with this: 'People and Other Animals' and 'Food Politics'. Both of these classes challenged me a lot in thinking critically and objectively about issues with meat consumption and food production. I became much less about being pro-vegan, and more about holistic health and environmental awareness. Conscious consumerism, if you will. I've actually grown to eschew recommending any dietary labelling altogether, when possible. It doesn't necessarily make any sense to me if you're a vegetarian that eats cheese pizza every day. This was a quick realization for me--I had equated a vegan diet with the diverse, organic, locally-sourced food that I was used to at home, but that's just not true. It's entirely possible to be vegan eating solely Oreo's and processed foods. I no longer believe that any labeled diet is inherently healthier than any other.
The environmental motivation was a little harder to budge once established. There's a ton of literature out there about the environmental impact of raising animals, and moving to a plant-based diet is the most commonly recommended actionable to make a difference. I still agree with this in general, but my understanding has become much more nuanced.
I read Defending Beef by Nicollette Hahn Niman this past week. Niman is a vegetarian ex-environmental lawyer turned farmer. Her book sets out to address a lot of the misconceptions around raising cattle and eating beef. I think it's important to note that she is entirely pro grass-fed, free range beef, NOT confined factory farming, and the majority of the book is addressing how media has conflated problems with factory farmed meat with all meat. She begins by discussing environmental concerns about eating beef, where she addresses a 2006 UN FAO report that stated animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. She states that in the US, this number is more like 8%, and globally, it is around 14%. This part was interesting, if only as a study as to how false numbers get picked up and used to fulfill an agenda -- I see the 18% number on humane society and pro-vegan websites all the time, even though it's been officially corrected. In addition to the misleading GHG emissions argument, Niman talks about grassland carbon sequestration, the idea of storing carbon in the ground to prevent global climate change. She also writes about carbon losses from soil, which occurs with tilling. According to her book, 10% of all human carbon emissions since 1850 is a result of carbon loss from soil. Although a lot of soil carbon has already been released, large scale carbon sequestration is possible, especially with preserved grasslands where the soil is not disturbed for agriculture. Here, she cites Allan Savory, a [controversial] Zimbabwean ecologist and farmer, quite heavily. While Savory's claims can be quite outlandish, his general point is that properly timed grazing of animals can play a key role in preventing desertification. Niman goes on the talk about how grass prevents erosion, (it's 20-200x more effective than crops in protecting soil, depending on landscape) how hooves push seeds into the ground, how manure is a source of carbon, nutrients, and can serve to improve soil cation exchange capability which improves to soil's ability to store nutrients. Overall, I found this part of her book the most compelling--cows can actually contribute significantly to the overall health of the ecosystem, when allowed to do so in a natural manner.
Next, Niman talks about the horrible effects factory farming has had on the environment, including some very fun facts. In 2011, more than 80% of antibiotics produced went to livestock and poultry, and 90% of that 80% were given to animals that were not sick. When measured, 75% of all of that is passed through the animals unchanged, straight into the environment, with no testing done beforehand on how these pharmaceutical residues would affect the local environment. The bottomline here, I think, was to highlight the differences between grass-fed systems and factory farming, which is really important.
The second half of Defending Beef serves to address beef's bad reputation for health. After having a change in perspective about the environmental impact of beef (outside of a factory farming system), I tried to go into this section with as much of an open mind as possible. Much of this was her attributing America's health problems to other factors such as sugar, carbohydrates, avoidance of healthy fats, and sedentary lifestyles. They're all good points, particularly for people who are not aware of the current state of American health, but they were a bit of a red herring. When she finally got back to beef, her main point was that most of the studies that "prove" red meat is unhealthy doesn't distinguish between processed and unprocessed red meat. She also speaks a lot about "healthy user bias" in research studies, saying that due to media coverage of red meat, the people studied who don't eat red meat have healthier diets and lifestyles than those who ate a lot of red meat, who were likely the same people to avoid health advice in general (which was something I wasn't aware of, and is a good point.) She uses these points to address various claims against red meat -- that it causes heart disease, cancer, and other chronic health issues. One of her arguments was that native hunter gatherer populations ate red meat as a significant portion of their diet, and these populations suffered from fewer diseases than Americans do now. I think this is a very interesting point, but kind of ignores the fact that meat today is produced in questionable environments, not hunted in the wild.
I still found Niman's argument compelling - I do think the negative effects of beef have been sensationalized in popular media, and the majority of the negative effects are not inherent to beef. When raised on grass pastures, cattle can have a significant positive impact on the environment, and also are not resource intensive to raise. Most of these pasture lands would not be productive croplands, and since they're just eating grass, no food has to be grown for them. Whatever water they're given will be peed out, and then benefit the soil. When raised in this environment, it's also potentially possible that they have no damaging effects on human health, and various positive effects (lots of iron, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, zinc, selenium etc).
I did try to look into this after reading the book, and it seems like there have been more studies about the link between red meat and colorectal cancer. Additionally, the American Institute for Cancer Research suggests limiting red meat intake and doesn't recommend eating processed meat at all, so the distinction between the two seems to have become more clear since Niman's book was published in 2014.
However, it must be emphasized that both environmental and health positive impacts only apply to free-range, responsibly raised, grass-fed beef, which only accounts for 3-6% of the market demand for beef. Factory farmed beef and processed red meat has been proven to be extremely detrimental to both human and environmental health, and this book didn't change my understanding of that. However, it did give me a more nuanced understanding of the inherent value of grazing animals, the nutritional qualities of beef, and how they can be a important part of a healthy diet.
Niman is still a vegetarian despite writing a whole book on the pros of beef, and I empathize. I've been vegan for so long that I no longer view meat as food, and the smell of cooking beef can be overwhelmingly nauseating. Also, due to the continued studies between red cancer and cancer, that's still not a risk I am willing to take. However, I no longer view red meat as inherently bad. The factory farming system, excessive antibiotic and hormone use, and resource intensive feed-growing process are still incredibly frustrating, but cattle itself can be greatly beneficial to pasture ecosystems and soil health. So my TL;DR advice seems to be - if you eat a lot of beef and don't want to change that, please support local, grass-fed operations. It's significantly better for the environment (from horribly net negative to net positive, depending on the farm). If you don't eat a lot of beef but want to enjoy it from time to time...same advice. And if you are adamantly against beef (admittedly, like I was before this book), recognize that much of that has to do with the method of production currently used. I'm still a bit concerned about the results of studies that link cancer and red meat, but that is still something I have to monitor more closely as new studies emerge.
Basically, I found the reading of this book to incredibly rewarding for my desire of nuanced understanding. I will definitely be looking for more books like this in my food reading project, particularly for subjects that I thought I knew a lot about.
P.S. My summary for Niman's arguments are pretty simplified. She gives a lot more detail but I don't really know how to write about a nonfiction book without recounting. Would love to discuss any part of her book (or my post) :)