For left-leaning voters—vegans and vegetarians chief among them—presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has become the clear choice, even though he’s not by any means a vegetarian.
Supporting and befriending meat-eaters is something vegans live with every day. Whether it’s schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, or bosses—much like religion, vegans look the other way, or look to find common ground with important community members, despite the dietary divide. Representing less than five percent of the U.S. population, it’s not likely that most candidates for any government office are going to be vegetarian, let alone vegan. (Dennis Kucinich, former Ohio Congressman and committed vegan, ran for president in 2004 and 2008. Current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is vegetarian.)
But that doesn’t mean non-vegetarian candidates can’t also be friends to animals. (This Humane Society Legislative Fund scorecard shows how Senate and House members vote on animal issues.) It’s not just legislators either. For example, millions of voters in 9 states including Arizona, California, Florida, Maine, and Michigan voted to ban gestation crates for sows—stalls so small, the intelligent animals cannot even turnaround—a sign that even bacon lovers find cruelty unappetizing.
According to FeeltheBern.org, Sanders is “an advocate for animal welfare...ensuring animals’ humane treatment.”
The Senator has cosponsored numerous animal rights bills including the Egg Products Inspection Act; the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, which would prohibit the slaughter of horses for meat; he’s voted in favor of numerous endangered species protection bills; and in favor of legislation that would make dog breeders and pet stores “provide puppies with good environments.”
Not exactly an anti-animal rights record, but perhaps it’s because Sanders has been so vocal about issues important to vegans and vegetarians that he’s recently become a target for the vegan community. Disrupting Sanders’ rallies on the campaign trail, protestors with animal rights messages say he needs to make animal issues an even bigger part of his campaign platform.
“Twenty-five, 30 years ago, if someone talked about gay marriage, they would think you’re crazy. Very few are on our side of the [animal rights] issue, and not a lot of people are looking at it,” Iowan born-and-raised Direct Action Everywhere vegan protester Matt Johnson recently told Vice. “But they’re aware the situation is pretty ugly. It makes them uncomfortable.”
The “situation” he’s referring to is the one kept behind the closed, secluded, massive factory farm walls. More than 9 billion livestock animals are raised in the U.S. each year for food (not including fish and seafood). And despite the prevalence of bucolic imagery used by many major companies selling animal products—green, grassy farms; happy bell-wearing cows; frolicking chickens and pigs; big, red barns; farmers with pitchforks and overalls—the reality couldn’t be more different.
The majority of farm animals are kept mostly in dark, dank, putrid-smelling concreted buildings. They’re fed unnatural diets, see little sunlight or grass, and are routinely harassed and often brutally beaten by farm workers before being sent off to slaughter, which is itself a stressful, painful, and an often botched undignified end to an undignified life.
To usher in change, as Gandhi--perhaps the most famous vegetarian of all time--once said, you must be the change you wish to see in the world. In today’s world, vegans and vegetarians do their best to live enthusiastically, eat deliciously, and celebrate the lifestyle long dogged by meat-eaters as a miserable militant existence punctuated by wolfing down wobbly, bland cubes of tofu and piles of mushy steamed broccoli. And that’s a stereotype being upended by the booming vegan community.
If ever there was a heyday for vegans, 2016 just might be it.
While conventional cow milk sales are on the decline, sales of almond milk--a product that barely existed a decade ago--now represent 5 percent of the total milk category, generating nearly one billion dollars in sales last year. Vegan “meat” products like Beyond Meat and Gardein are sold in tens of thousands of U.S. markets including big box stores like Target, Costco, and Walmart. Then, there's vegan cheese. Dairy cheese is often cited as the main reason why people "can't" go vegan. But with vegan cheese brands like Daiya--now available in 20,000 U.S. food service locations--vegan cheese has never been more abundant, or satisfying.
With so much progress happening for the vegan community, then, why is Sanders being attacked when he has a pro-animal rights track record and positions himself to be the most “I-support-any-left-cause” candidate?
“Questions from the vegan community have dogged Sanders since the Iowa Caucus on February 1,” reports Vice. That’s when the Washington Post noted that Google’s “top-trending inquiry during the nation’s first Democratic primary was whether the senator was vegan.”
The Postalso pointed to a Reddit thread “where vegan users argue whether Sanders should be lauded for his humane treatment of animals, or taken to task on his pro-hunting, pro-agribusiness voting record,” Vice explains.
That’s right, the same guy who wants to see puppies and chickens treated better is also pro-hunting and pro-big farming.
But even despite Sanders’ confounding record, Johnson is one of many vegans who’ve protested at Sanders rallies and says he’s still “feeling the Bern.” He's voting for Sanders.
Protesting at Sanders’ rallies is a calculated move for groups like Direct Action Everywhere. Not only does Sanders listen to constituents’ concerns, providing the vegan groups ample opportunity to get their concerns heard, but there’s also the opportunity to reach Sanders' supporters. And the massive factory farming issues matter--especially if Sanders and his supporters are the committed environmentalists they claim to be.
If Sanders does win the election, he’ll be joined in Washington by the newly formed Plant Based Foods Association, which announced its launch last month. The PBFA will lobby in D.C. on behalf of the booming plant-based foods industry, with the goal of securing funding and support for plant-based alternatives, such as nondairy milk options in schools, for example.
With so much already on Sanders’—or whomever gets elected—Presidential plate, animal rights issues aren’t likely to be on the priority list. At least, that is, until climate or environmental issues demand it. Which, according to some experts, is the likeliest scenario. A just-released report out of Colorado State University points to the “inefficient use of resources put towards raising livestock and the vastly larger land area that is required to raise livestock as problems with the system, which will only be exacerbated in coming years by the growing global population’s increasing overall wealth and demand for food,” the CSU Collegian reports.
“I think if people really understood the environmental impacts of the consumption of livestock products,” said study author Richard Conant of the CSU Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, “then they might think twice about what they consume and change their behavior.”
For vegans like Matt Johnson, though, there’s much more to the discussion, namely that no matter their impact on the environment, animals aren’t ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any way.
“We’re just in the infancy of the animal rights movement,” he told Vice. “We’ll see more progress as the circle of our moral consideration continues to widen.”
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