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  • Writer's pictureMichael Simms

A Few Thoughts from a Cowboy Vegan

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

I grew up in Texas beef country down the street from a world-famous barbecue stand. I didn’t become a vegan until I was 56 years old. I probably have been responsible, at least in part, for the death of 10,000 animals. It’s never too late to change your life.

In the United States, cattle, like other commodity animals, are raised in factory farms — huge warehouses where the animals are packed in crowded conditions. In Brazil, the rain forests are burned and converted into pastureland for cattle. An important part of my commitment to a plant- based diet is that I don’t want to support the cruelty of factory farms or contribute to the destruction of the earth for pastureland.

When I was growing up, cattle were spread over large stretches of grazing land in central Texas. Now, the land is overgrown with prickly pear cactus and scrub cedar while the cattle are in large windowless sheds that dot the landscape. Factory farming is supposedly more “cost-effective” than pasturing animals, but actually the rest of society bears the high cost of factory farming. One of those huge sheds may hold a hundred or more cattle, and the huge amount of feces and urine that they produce is dumped into gigantic pits which leak the waste into the soil, and eventually, the ground water. Streams and rivers fill with this rank poisonous waste, killing fish, birds, plant life, and polluting drinking water for humans. If the corporations who control the factory farms had to bear the expense of the damage they are doing, then they wouldn’t use these methods because the cost would be too high.

A lot of nutrition experts don’t like the term “vegan.” They prefer “whole foods plant-based diet.” If you live on beans, greens, fresh fruit and whole grains, you’ll be healthy, but if you live on potato chips and beer, which is technically a vegan diet, you’ll die of malnutrition. But people who are committed not just to healthy eating, but to a philosophy of kindness to animals and good stewardship of the earth, prefer the term “vegan.”

The only nutritional requirement that you can’t get from a vegan diet is B12. The human brain needs B12; in fact, we’ll die if we don’t consume it. However, animals do not make B12; bacteria do. It exists in the flesh of animals because they consume soil and bits of feces that contain the vitamin. You can get all the B12 you need from a supplement or from foods, such as soy milk, that have been fortified. It’s also available in a few specialty foods, such as duckweed and nutritional yeast. Since B12 is easily obtained from other sources, why kill or abuse animals to get it?

In central Texas, where my family has lived for generations, there’s a strong tradition of raising cattle and hunting deer, and the local economy depends on these industries. It’s difficult to argue with people who feel their livelihoods are threatened by your life-style and environmental commitment. When I went back to Llano, Texas shortly after I became a vegan, my father told me that veganism was against the law in that county. I don’t think he was joking.

There’s no need for anyone to believe me about the necessary pleasures of eating a plant-based diet. The science is well established on the health benefits. Click here for a short annotated list of very readable books by well-established medical doctors and scientists on the subject, as well as expert tips on cooking and shopping.

Vegans are often portrayed negatively in the press and mainstream media. Some of these portrayals are wry and humorous, such as Lisa Simpson claiming that she is a “level five vegan” who refuses to eat anything that casts a shadow, but some of the characterizations border on the outright vicious. In 2015, a study conducted by Cara C MacInnis and Gordon Hodson and published in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations observed that vegetarians and vegans in western society – and vegans in particular – experience discrimination and bias on a par with other minorities.

As a writer who regularly posts on topics concerning nutrition and animal rights, I have been repeatedly harassed online for expressing my views. Just a few days ago, for example, a professional chef chided me for miseducating people. “People could die from following your advice,” he claimed and proceeded to list nutrients that plants lack, such as D3 (which actually comes from sunlight) and B12 (which comes from bacteria and is easily obtained from a supplement). Nothing in his defense of an animal -based diet is supported by science. When I went to his website, the dishes he displayed were heavy with meat and dairy, and I’m sure they taste good to many people, but the food he is pushing will lead to coronary disease, cancer, and diabetes. People have a right to eat as they wish, but it is irresponsible to tell lies about the health benefits of your products in order to make money from your customers’ ignorance.

Whatever people choose to eat, they need to know that the science of nutrition is clearly on the side of vegans. In the 1990s, Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s Cornell University team partnered with Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine to study the diets, lifestyles, and diseases of inhabitants of rural China. What they discovered shocked them: Eating plant foods vs animal foods may be one of the leading determiners of health in rural China, and, Campbell argues, eating animal protein may be one of the leading causes of disease in the Western world. Campbell’s book, The China Study, co-authored with his son Thomas, a medical doctor, rocked the whole field of nutrition by establishing that virtually everything we thought we knew about nutrition is false. Since then, the benefits of plant nutrition have been further studied by medical labs at Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and the Cleveland Clinic, leading experts to understand that, to over-simplify, meat kills, plants heal.

Of course, what we choose to eat is not just a health issue; it is also a political issue. As the number of vegans in the US rises (about 2% of adults identify themselves as vegan, and another 7% as vegetarian), whole industries, such as ranchers, restauranteurs, meat-packers, and nutritionists, are affected, and there have been aggressive ad campaigns from the Cattlemen’s Association and the Dairy Council to counter-act this trend. But veganism is not just a passing fad. In 1971, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé introduced an environmental justification for going vegetarian or vegan to a global audience; the book eventually sold more than three million copies.

Veganism has become an important part of the growing movement in which the intersection of gender, ethnic, racial and global social inequalities sees environmental issues as central to the struggle for a better society. Carol J Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat has become a seminal feminist text that positioned veganism as the only logical solution to a social system that reduces both women and animals to desirable, but disposable, flesh. In this way, the rise of veganism is a question less of personal taste than of generational upheaval; less about meat, fish and dairy than about the systems that put them on our tables in such excessive quantities. Ultimately, the vegan wars are not really about diet at all, but about how individual freedom is coming into conflict with a personal and environmental health crisis.


Michael Simms has been on a plant-based whole foods diet since 2010, having earned a certificate in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University. His newest book is a collection of poems, American Ash published by Ragged Sky Press (2020)

Copyright 2020 Michael Simms.

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