Gene Baur is on a mission to raise awareness about cheap food production and factory farming.
June 25, 2014
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good. We’re so excited today to have with us Gene Baur. He’s the President and co-founder of The Farm Sanctuary. Welcome to Green is Good, Gene. GENE BAUR: Hello. It’s great to be with you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, you know, Gene, you are doing amazing and wonderful and great things at The Farm Sanctuary and we’re going to get into that today and we’re going to talk about it but you know, you’ve been called by Time Magazine, ‘the conscience of the food movement’. I’m a vegan, as my listeners know. I’ve shared that story many times with my listeners and before we get talking about The Farm Sanctuary and all the wonderful work you’re doing there, please share though the Gene Baur journey and story leading up to the creation of The Farm Sanctuary. GENE BAUR: Well, you know, I grew up in Los Angeles, California, and I grew up eating meat without really thinking about it. But I also wanted to make a positive difference in the world and so in high school, I started volunteering at children’s hospitals and then in college, I started working with adolescents who were having difficulties, started working with environmental organizations and health organizations and as time went, I came to recognize that factory farming was an issue that was just not getting the kind of attention it needed to get so in the early 1980s, I started looking more into that and I went vegan in 1985 when I learned that I could live and be healthy without eating other animals and I felt that if I could live well without causing unnecessary harm and violence to other animals, why wouldn’t I do that? So, I did that in 1985 and then in 1986, I co-founded Farm Sanctuary and just started visiting farms to see firsthand what was going on and we would literally find living animals thrown in trash cans or living animals thrown on piles of dead animals so we started rescuing them and caring for them and at the time, we were in a little well house in Wilmington, Delaware so we didn’t have farms. We didn’t have a lot of space but we took care of the animals that we were able to rescue and then we found good homes for them and placed them and then as time went, it became apparent that there were lots of animals that needed help so that these animals became ambassadors and we were able to educate people about the cruelty of our food animal system by telling the animals’ stories and then we also started working on advocacy efforts to prevent the problem in the first place and to stop the systemic exploitation of animals for food so it’s been a journey and I’m still on the journey continuing to learn and to figure out how to live in a way that is aligned with compassionate values, which I think is very important, and also that is healthy and leaves a light footprint on the planet so I feel very lucky to be doing this work. It’s meaningful. I feel like I’m making a positive difference in the world and that’s really what ultimately brought me to this place. I always wanted to make a positive difference and I feel very lucky to be where I am right now at Farm Sanctuary. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What a great, great story, and for our listeners out there that want to learn more about The Farm Sanctuary and all of Gene’s great work, please go to www.farmsanctuary.org. I’m on your site right now, Gene, and it is very educational, very colorful and beautiful, and very eye opening in many ways and I’m one of your fans without even knowing you because I’ve read for years all the great exposes that you’ve led in terms of investigative journalism and investigative reporting with regards to what’s going on in America’s slaughterhouses and beyond. Can you share with our listeners some of the important and eye opening facts, what they don’t understand, what’s really going on in today’s industrial farms across the United States right now? GENE BAUR: Yeah, absolutely. In farming today, the animals are seen primarily as commodities, not as living feeling creatures, and so you have animals being raised by the thousands in these warehouses and in some cases, they’re packed into cages and crates so tightly that they can’t even turn around or stretch their limbs and they’ll live this way practically their whole lives and in the production of veal for example, calves are taken from their mothers immediately at birth and they’re chained by the neck in these small wooden crates where they can’t walk. They can’t turn around and they live that way their whole lives until they’re slaughtered and they’re not the only ones that suffer that way. The pigs are used for breeding with most of their lives in two foot wide metal gestation crates and then Eggland hens, who are exploited for egg production, are packed into these wire cages so tightly they can’t even stretch their wings. They constantly scrape against the bars of their cages. Their feathers wear off. They end up with bruises and abrasions on their bodies and they’ll live this way for over a year and then after they’re no longer considered to be profitable by the industry, they call them spent hens and then they’re killed. Sometimes they go to slaughterhouses but increasingly, slaughterhouses don’t want them because these are very stringy birds that are not in very good shape so sometimes these birds are just ground up, literally, at the egg factories when they’re no longer wanted so this is an industry that is completely disrespectful of other animals and when people see it, they don’t think it’s okay and that’s the big part of our effort is to educate people about what is happening to animals in the food production system and then to encourage consumers to eat in a way that they feel good about. Instead of saying, ‘I don’t want to hear about it because it’s upsetting,’ I think people should take responsibility and think about the way that we as consumers live and what we support by our food choices and then make choices that are aligned with our own compassionate values and support a more compassionate life for us and for all the animals on the planet. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gene, is it true that farm animals feel the same core emotions that human beings do with regards to pleasure, sadness, excitement, resentment, all those kinds of emotions? GENE BAUR: Absolutely. Farm animals are very similar to us and similar to cats and dogs and other animals. They have emotions. They have complex cognitive abilities. They develop relationships. We have animals that get very close to other individuals and when their friend dies and they’re not longer around, the animals grieve because they miss their friend and so yeah, they have all the emotions that humans have and we’re just starting to understand that the more we look, the more we recognize that farm animals are not that different from us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, wow, wow, wow, that is incredible and I’m so glad that you are sharing that with our listeners today. You know, as you and I were talking off the air before the show started, we’re both vegans and can you share a little bit about what’s going on in terms of the more recent trends in the United States with regards to meat consumption dropping 10% in the past few years and 15 million or so Americans have stopped eating meat entirely and celebrities, such as Bill Clinton and even Jay Z and others have sworn off meat or become full-on vegans. What’s going on with this trend or might we even say what is now a mega trend? GENE BAUR: As you point out, meat consumption is dropping in the U.S. and I think that’s a very positive sign and I think it shows that people are going to recognize that this system is cruel. It’s also unhealthy and it’s unnecessary. We can live without eating other animals and the way we have been raised in the U.S. to eat animal foods and processed foods is leading to significant health problems and people like Bill Clinton, for example, recognize that if he went off of meat and dairy products, his health would improve and it has improved. Experts estimate that we could save something like 70% on our health food costs by switching to a whole foods plant-based diet. Seventy percent, that’s an enormous amount of money and as our economy struggles, I think that there’s going to be more and more incentives to move away from a wasteful system and to eat food that is good for us and isn’t going to cost a lot for health care and also a food that is much more efficient. Raising animals for food requires enormous quantities of resources, water, fossil fuels, land. We could feed something like 10 times more people on a plant-based diet so it just makes all the sense in the world to stop raising animals for food, stop causing this enormous suffering, stop exploiting resources and squandering scarce resources, and improve our own health and save on health care costs. It makes all the sense in the world when you start looking at it and I think that’s starting to happen now so people like Bill Clinton, and I already mentioned Jay Z and Beyoncé have a vegan lifestyle. Recently, J-Lo announced that she was vegan. This is a trend but I think it’s more than that. It’s a growing awareness and the fact that we have the internet now and people share information on Facebook, share pictures and video tapes of factory farms, and also share recipes and information about what people can do to make a difference. All these resources are now available more than ever before and that’s making a huge difference. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How many years, Gene, have you been a vegan yourself? GENE BAUR: I went vegan in 1985, so it’ll be 30 years very soon, and I feel very good. You know, I’m in my early 50s now and going vegan was one of the best things I ever did. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well you know, the science is irrefutable when it comes to veganism and eating the vegan way but one of the fun things we talked about at the front of the show before we went on the air is that you’ve become an Ironman triathlete. Can you share a little bit about why you took up that avocation in your early fifties? GENE BAUR: Yeah, sure. A lot of times, people grow up believing that we need to have meat for protein and we need to drink cow’s milk for calcium and those are myths. We can get everything we need from plant foods and without any animal foods and so I just wanted to demonstrate that not only can we live and survive, but we can thrive on a plant-based diet so I signed up to do some triathlons a couple years ago, starting running marathons a couple years ago, and just wanted to show that as a longtime vegan, you can perform these significant endurance feats so I’ve run four marathons now and every single time I’ve run one, I’ve done it in a time that qualifies for Boston. In fact, I just did the Boston Marathon last April and then I’ve done a number of triathlons. This is where you swim and then you bike and then you run and I did Ironman last July, which involved swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and then running a 26.2-mile marathon, and I did all that in less than 12 hours as a vegan, so I just wanted to make the point that vegans get all the nutrients we need and we can do marathons, triathlons. There are professional football players that are now vegan, so this lifestyle makes a lot of sense and it can fuel high level athletic performance. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who have just joined us, we’ve got Gene Baur on with us today. He’s the President and co-founder of The Farm Sanctuary and to learn more about The Farm Sanctuary and support their great, great efforts on all of our behalfs, please go to www.farmsanctuary.org. You mentioned a little while ago, Gene, how factory farming negatively affects the environment. Can you scientifically break that down a little bit so our listeners understand, so we all understand more about the negative effects of factory farming and how that has impacted us all in a bad way environmentally speaking? GENE BAUR: Certainly. A few years ago, the United Nations put out a report called Livestock’s Long Shadow and in that report, they talk about how the livestock industry is one of the top contributors to our biggest environmental problems we’re facing on the planet today and this is things like the loss of biodiversity, the squandering of water and other scarce resources, contributions to climate change. The livestock industry contributes more to climate change than the entire transportation industry so it’s really good that people are walking and carpooling and using public transportation and doing things to lighten our footprint when it comes to transportation but we could have a greater impact by changing the way we eat and changing the way we eat plant food instead of animal food and then the other thing about this industry is that it requires enormous amounts of resources. There was an article in the New York Times a few years ago called “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler” and in that article, the author compared the amount of fossil fuels needed for a vegetarian meal versus to a meat meal and he said it took 16 times more fossil fuels for the meat meal so this is wasteful in terms of fossil fuels, wasteful in terms of land and water resources, and if you think about it, growing food, corn and soybeans for example, harvesting that and feeding it to animals takes a lot of energy. We could be growing corn and soybeans and other plant foods and just eating them directly. We get a lot more calories per acre per energy input by eating plants directly instead of animals and then the other thing is that when you confine these animals in factory farms, you end up with vast quantities of manure that then gets into the environment and pollutes it and not only are we talking about organic matter and waste in huge quantities that the environment can’t absorb. We’re also talking about chemicals, antibiotics, and other things that the animals are given to make them grow faster, arsenic even. Animals are eating arsenic in their feed, which people are surprised to learn this, so the manure includes these toxins as well as the waste toxins that come in fecal matter anyway so it’s a huge problem. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. You know, Gene, we’re down to the last four minutes or so and I want to focus on some solutions because you’ve been doing this so long and you’re inspirational with how you guide us all through this story and not only the problem, but the solutions that are out there, which partially is all of us becoming more conscious in how we eat. What are some simple ways everyone can help protect animals from cruelty in their daily lives, some of your thoughts after doing this for thirty years or so? GENE BAUR: The best thing each of us can do is to be more mindful about the food that we eat and to make choices that are compassionate and aligned with our own values and also to eat food that has good stuff instead of food that makes us sick and so that means shifting towards a plant-based diet and eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and it’s not that hard. You can even get vegan food at fast food places. You can get a bean burrito, for example, with no cheese and for a spaghetti meal, instead of putting meatballs, try putting veggies in there but you can also get vegan meat now so there’s tons of healthy alternatives now to meat products so shifting in that direction makes sense. Also, when there’s legislation introduced, it’s important to weigh in. The only way that laws are going to change is for people to get involved. You can go to The Farm Sanctuary website, FarmSanctuary.org, for updated information about current legislative efforts. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to a couple minutes, Gene. Talk about the three locations in New York and California, The Farm Sanctuary locations. If our listeners want to go to them, what are they going to see and what’s the experience going to be like when they go to your farm sanctuaries? GENE BAUR: It’s a wonderful experience. At Farm Sanctuary, the animals are our friends, not our food. It’s a peaceful place where you get to know animals in a positive setting and the animals get to be who they are. They graze and the play and pigs can play in the mud. Chickens perch and the animals are raised with people around them. You can feel that joy and that’s a huge contrast to what happens in factory farms where the animals are scratching against the bars of their cages, the stench is horrible, so it’s a peaceful place and there’s the one in Watkins Glen, New York, which is in the Finger Lakes Region right next to Ithaca, New York, and then we have two farms in California, one on Northern California in the city of Orland and one in Southern California just outside of Los Angeles and for people interested in visiting, they can go to our Farm Sanctuary website, which is just FarmSanctuary.org. Another good thing for people to do is just to educate others about these issues and when people come visit Farm Sanctuary, they often go home with stories about how a chicken came and sat on their lap or how a cow came up and wanted to be petted just like a dog and those are really special experiences that we love for people to share. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. You know, Gene, we’re down to the last minute or so, and in 2008, you wrote a book, Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food. Can you please share any of your thoughts as a follow-up to that book to where we’re going as a society. If Bill Clinton has become a vegan and we know how much he loved his burgers and other types of junk food, it was well chronicled while he was a president, where are we going to go? In the last minute or so, give us your crystal ball on our future. GENE BAUR: Well, I think that people will continue moving away from consuming animal products as they learn about the harms caused by our animal product system and we are seeing a growth in farmers markets across the country. That is a very positive sign and it’s been driven by consumer demand and interest. It means we’re healthier when these things become more sustainable farms and eating foods that are less violent so I think that this trend away from factory farming and towards wholesome plant foods will continue to grow. We’re also seeing more and more vegan restaurants and vegan food available at non vegan restaurants so that’s another positive trend. As it gets easier to eat plant foods, I think consumers are going to eat more plant foods and ideally, this whole factory farming animal industry will stop. We still have a long way to go. This is a very intense industry, sort of like the medical industry, but it’s one of why the economy is swollen. It produces a product that we don’t need and is actually bad for us and bad for the environment and bad for animals so I can see the meat industry going the way of the tobacco industry, which it isn’t gone yet but it’s largely seen as harmful, and I think that’s about it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, thank you, Gene. Thank you for joining us today and thank you for all the amazing work you’ve been doing at The Farm Sanctuary. For our listeners out there, please go to their website, FarmSanctuary.org, and support all of Gene and his colleagues’ great work. Gene Baur, thank you for being the responsible conscience of the food movement and for protecting our animals and people coast to coast. You are truly living proof that Green is Good.