Veganism’s next goal: animal-free farming

When veganism is central to your life, you don’t just avoid meat, fish and dairy.

You also: Fill your Instagram feed with vegan mottos. Get involved in a pig rescue. Feed your pooch “plant-powered” dog chews. Launch a cruelty-free skin care line. Go to law school to defend animals. Tell guys who ask you out to first watch the eco-doc “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” and then call back to discuss it.

“There is being vegan, and there’s being plant-based,” said Rocio Sambrano, 35, of Stockton, who does all those things. “Being vegan, you’re not defined by what you eat, but how you live your life.”

Sambrano’s generation and younger vegans are embracing activism that goes beyond sharing recipes for dairy-free cupcakes. When it comes to animal rights, Sambrano and her peers are not just content to improve welfare on the farm. They want to move animals out of farms altogether, a daring proposition considering the economic power of U.S. animal farms, with the beef industry alone worth $76 billion and dairy clocking in at $35 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This radical stance puts them at odds with mainstream movements that work toward improving animal welfare, such as the local, organic food community. To many vegans, the sustainable food movement and its family-owned meat and dairy farms shield the cruelty of farming by making meat fashionable and righteous.

Vegans make up only an estimated 0.5 percent of the U.S. population. And while only about 3 percent of the general population is vegetarian, it’s a growing population, with the number rising to 5.3 percent among people aged 18 to 34, according to a Harris Poll conducted for the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2016. Their numbers are poised to increase as veganism makes its move into mainstream culture.

“The food movement defaults to this vision of agriculture that looks like the Old MacDonald’s farm,” said Nassim Nobari of San Francisco, executive director of Seed the Commons, an organization that holds workshops on “veganic” farming, an organic form of agriculture minus the manure.

People “think if they’re buying the right kind of meat, the local meat, that they’re helping to build the sustainable food movement,” said Nobari, a vegan for 24 of her 38 years. “I remember when people who were environmentalists used to be vegetarian.”

Last month, Sambrano and Nobari attended the Farmed Animal Conference at Animal Place sanctuary in Grass Valley (Nevada County), joining a crowd of 200, mostly from the Bay Area, for a weekend of talks on animal rights activism, youth education and political campaigning. There were workshops on health care for rescue hens and how your dog can thrive on a vegan diet. Fun fact: Dogs are omnivores.

The Grass Valley sanctuary houses about 260 rescued “nonhuman animals,” as the guests would term the cows, pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys and chickens that live on its 600 acres of pasture and pristine farm buildings. The organization also has a farm animal shelter in Vacaville.

The vibe of the conference was a cross between a meditation retreat and a church revival meeting, with speakers standing beneath a large white tent in a field where attendees had set up camp.

Animal Place

Media: Tara Duggan /

“We’re not trying to change people’s moral values. Because most people care about animals,” said Steven Erlsten, 37, of Berkeley, who works for the international nonprofit Vegan Outreach and spends most of his time leafletting at Northern California college campuses. “We are trying to help them live within their values.”

Sitting on hay bales set up in careful rows, members of the crowd murmured affirmative “uh-huh”s as Erlsten spoke.

The conference goers were almost universally vegan and in agreement in their belief that the public has been misled about animal farming, even from producers who make animal welfare claims.

Take cage-free eggs. Today, 10 percent of the eggs produced in the U.S. are cage free, up from 1 percent in 2005, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Yet as Animal Place summer intern Georgia Calimeres, 19, said, those eggs may still come from farms that debeak chickens without painkillers and buy chicks from hatcheries that kill off an estimated 200 million unneeded male chicks annually.

To Calimeres, cage free is a “falsely humane” label. “In terms of the animal rights perspective, it’s still wrong.”

The animal protection movement had its beginnings in 19th century England with the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which opened one of its first U.S. branches in San Francisco in 1868.Nassim Nobari of the group Seed the Commons sniffs a piece of chamomile at the Victoria Manalo Draves Community Garden in San Francisco. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

“The earlier public impression is one of eccentricity. It was sort of grouped together with other oddities,” said David Walls, professor emeritus in sociology at Sonoma State University. In 1937, George Orwell dismissed vegetarians in a sweep with socialists, feminists, nudists and, worst of all, fruit juice drinkers.

Things got more serious with influence from the environmental and civil rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s, when animal rights activism became associated with the Animal Liberation Front’s extremist actions and, later, publicity stunts similar to those used by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Activists today can count many recent successes. Fur has gone out of fashion, and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus went out of business in May after ticket sales dropped — which many say was a result of live elephant acts being eliminated because of protests. In California, lawmakers stopped the sale of foie gras, or fattened duck or goose liver, from 2012 to 2015, until a federal judge halted the ban, a decision that is on appeal.

The focus has now shifted to the everyday farm animals that make up 98 percent of animals in confinement worldwide, according to the Animal Welfare Institute — 10 billion in the U.S. alone. Unlike pets or animals in medical labs and zoos, farm animals are not protected under the 1966 Animal Welfare Act.

Animal advocates cite a litany of farming practices they regard as problematic. Male calves and piglets are routinely castrated without painkillers to reduce aggression. Dairy cows are separated from their young soon after birth, which dairy farmers chalk up to health and safety concerns as well as increased milk production. When animals stop producing milk or eggs or piglets, they are killed.

For farm animal activists, it can be frustrating when so few people seem to care enough about the lives of animals to go beyond paying extra for humane-certified bacon and instead give up bacon altogether.

That’s one of the reasons that protests, underground videos and what’s called “open rescue” have continued to be popular tactics. In May, Wayne Hsiung, co-founder of the 4-year-old Oakland animal liberation group Direct Action Everywhere, was arrested when his group charged into a Chinatown poultry store and tried to remove live chickens.A sign on the chicken coop at Animal Place Rescue and Adoption Center in Vacaville. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle
A sign on the chicken coop at Animal Place Rescue and Adoption Center in Vacaville.

Direct Action Everywhere targets companies that make animal welfare claims, often illegally breaking into farms at night and then posting videos showing conditions that appear less humane than advertised.

Local farmers who have been the subject of these actions say the videos are misleading and that protesters should focus on farms where large-scale abuses take place.

“I agree there’s horrible conditions for a lot of the creatures in agriculture,” said Dede Boies of Root Down Farm, who raises chickens, turkeys, ducks and pigs in Pescadero. “Directing energy toward that would make more sense than toward people who really love their animals.”

David Evans of Marin Sun Farms, a grass-fed meat company, said that he didn’t have a problem with protestors who came to the opening of his Petaluma slaughterhouse, because he thinks people should have their opinions heard. But when animal liberationists slashed the tires on the company’s delivery trucks in 2013, he considered it a form of terrorism.

“It was just an act of violence,” Evans said. “It didn’t bring forward a higher message or higher form of argumentation.”

The vision of a future where domesticated animals play no part in farming raises many questions.

Some say that such a scenario is pure fantasy.

“It’s a religious zeal that removes reason from their equation,” said Ken Frank, the chef of La Toque in Napa, which has been the subject of animal rights protests. “I don’t find their thoughts to be any more righteous than mine.”

Others see a realistic path to a food system independent of animals.

“Farm animals don’t just exist. They’re actively bred to be put on farms,” said Nobari of Seed the Commons, which tries to build a food system independent of animals. Because most farm animals live short lives — broiler chickens can reach slaughter weight at five weeks; pigs at six months — they constantly need to be reproduced. “Within a generation, the numbers would totally dwindle.”

Veganic farming, as practiced by Lazy Millennial Farms in Salinas, is an increasing practice. Rather than manure and other animal products that organic farms depend on for fertilizer, it uses vegetable compost and “green manure” or cover crops for fertilization.

Plants also require less land than animals. Greg Litus, a horticulturist at Colorado State University, used U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics for land use to determine how much land would be required to grow enough plant-based food to meet the caloric needs of every American.

Based on a vegan diet that included a range of vegetables, fruit, legumes and grains and using veganic farming methods, he found it would require 100 million to 200 million acres a year. U.S. farms currently take up 1.1 billion acres, with 700 million devoted to animal grazing. That doesn’t include all the land used to grow grain to feed animals.

The relative inefficiency of animal agriculture is a main driver for the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in companies developing modern meat and dairy replacements, such as Redwood City’s Impossible Foods and San Francisco’s Hampton Creek, which both have made significant inroads into the mainstream.

It is a shift that is already becoming evident in the milk industry. As plant-based milk sales have gone up and dairy milk sales have gone down, the dairy industry has had to shift gears.

“People want to know not only where their food came from, but that it was handled ethically, safely and humanely,” said Anja Raudabaugh, CEO of Western United Dairymen in Modesto. Already, California dairies have pledged to receive certification from Farmers Assuring Responsible Management, which has standards for animal care, antibiotic use and environmental stewardship, by next year, she said.

A common criticism of the vegan movement is that it puts resources toward alleviating animal suffering when so many humans need help. At the conference, Animal Place co-founder Kim Sturla announced to cheers that an angel donor had recently covered the rental of a cargo plane to transport 1,300 rescued chickens to shelters on the east coast. She didn’t disclose the cost.

There has also been friction when advocates disagree over whether to ally with movements like Black Lives Matter, said Liz Ross, director of Vegan Advocacy Initiative, a Los Angeles-area coalition of vegans of color. Other activists have been much criticized for comparing factory farms to U.S. slavery. At the conference, Ross encouraged the largely white audience to be more open to addressing race and class divides in the community to continue to grow.

“Young people, children even, seem to have picked up some of the ideas behind the serious arguments for animals and for vegetarianism. They have made a thing out of it that’s very different than, for example, from when I was growing up,” said Walls, the Sonoma State University professor.

For activists such as Sambrano, the work might never be done. Her ultimate goal is to work for organizations like the Animal Legal Defense Fund or PETA, or to give farm animal sanctuaries legal counsel.

“There’s a lot we can do,” she said.

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