Earthling Ed: Dreaming a Vegan Future
If you are near or on the fence of becoming a vegan, you will find here even more reasons as to why we should be changing the way we eat to save the planet. Vegan activist Ed Winters (aka Earthling Ed) prompts us to think critically about our archaic values and what we do to animals!
“What we do to animals involves huge amounts of tax subsidies or bailouts from the governments. We give billions in the U.K. every single year as tax payers to animal farmers to make their industry profitable! We could be spending that money on education or health care, reforesting and rewilding, or renewable energy.”
Sometimes I think that the human being might be the worst thing that happened to this world, when we think of our almost limitless capacity to exploit this world (whole bunches of species have been erased from the earth due to us). How do you still believe in the human capacity to change for good?
That’s really a good question! I think we have to understand that humans can do a great deal of damage. But this damage is caused by ignorance and how we are just simply not told the information to the full extent. Broadly speaking, we are a force for good as well. Good people can allow convenience to get in front of them while making decisions that are actually against their values. We are an incredibly intelligent species. If we pull together our intelligence, and our ability to empathize, we can really create positive meaningful change in the world.
And I think, we just haven’t quite understood our place yet. We have evolved quickly and we’ve got all this technology and intelligence, but we haven’t still utilized it in the best possible way. We still have this kind of very archaic self-preservation values. We haven’t yet looked beyond just this sense of self to realize the collectivity of how we all exist. I think the pandemic will help us realize that we’re all interconnected, as will climate change of course. I believe we are inherently good, and through challenging people’s behaviors we can create a better world. It’s not always gonna be easy and maybe it’s not gonna work. But ultimately we’ve gotta give it a go! I think that the intelligence that allows us to exploit this planet would ultimately be the same intelligence that allows us to restore, rewild, reforest, and create a harmonious world hopefully for as much life as we possibly can.
FIRST STEPS INTO VEGANISM
What were some of the seeds that planted veganism in you? (A few flashes of enlightenment that changed your path?)
The first thing that inspired me to go vegetarian, before going vegan, was that I came across this story on the BBC. It was talking about a truck carrying around 6.000 chickens, crushing on the way for a slaughterhouse in Manchester, in the north of England. I was reading the story and I was really horrified, because the journalist was saying that around 1,500 birds had died just from the crash, but hundreds more were still alive. They had broken bones, wings and they were bleeding out on the side of the road. I remember reading this article and just being horrified, thinking that these chickens must really be suffering! I remember that the truck was of KFC. In my fridge was a left-over KFC from my dinner of the previous night. I thought to myself that “Wooww, this is so hypocritical!” I’m feeling sorry for these birds, but the only reason that they are going to a slaughterhouse is that I want to eat them! So that’s why I went vegetarian.
About eight months or so after that, I saw a documentary called Earthlings, which is basically talking about all the different ways we exploit animals. Meat, dairy, eggs, clothing like leather and fur, testing, entertainment, pet industry -all the terrible things that we do to animals. After I saw that documentary, I realized that being vegetarian just wasn’t enough, if I wanted to limit animal suffering. Being vegan was that logical step for me to take. I had a pet hamster called “Rupert” at the time and I remember being with Rupert after the documentary finished. I was just thinking about how he had such a personality. He had likes and dislikes -things that made him Rupert the hamster, right? If a hamster has so much personality, all the pigs and cows and chickens, even the marine animals in the ocean, they also have these traits and emotions. If I wouldn’t want anyone to hurt Rupert, then why or how could I justify causing suffering to other animals, who are just like Rupert in every single way that mattered. That’s why I went vegan.
WHAT WOULD OUR PLANET LOOK LIKE 50 YEARS FROM NOW?
Initially everyone thought that veganism was just a matter of personal taste or choice. What makes it a political stance at the same time?
I think, when it comes to the political stance, what we do to animals involves huge amounts of tax subsidies or bailouts from the governments. As taxpayers, what we don’t often realise is how our money is being spent on weapons, fossil fuel and ultimately animal farming. We give billions in the U.K. every single year to animal farmers to make their industry profitable! We could be spending that money on education or health care, reforesting and rewilding, or renewable energy. It’s being given away to these industries that have huge amounts of lobbying power. Animal agriculture is one of the richest, most powerful and politically connected groups in the world, besides the pharmaceutical industry of course. I know politicians are lobbied and paid by these industries to promote legislation or bailouts and subsidy incentives, to protect those industries.
Of course, what we do to animals has an environmental cost that affects everyone around the world and of course pandemics as well… What we do to animals increases the likelihood of infectious zoonotic diseases. It is not just about wet markets in Asia. Chicken and pig farms are breeding grounds for swine flu and avian flu, which can cause huge amounts of deaths to animals, as well as human and non-human pandemics, which we have seen in the past. It will happen in the future, if we don’t make changes.
People often think that being vegan is just like “Oh, I don’t wanna see animals being hurt, so I’m gonna eat plants.” It is, of course, an ethical decision, but the choices that we make are even bigger than just an ethical decision, because it affects how our money is spent, how our resources are utilized, how our land is used, and ultimately what the planet is gonna look like 50 years down the line. That is ultimately decided by the choices that we make as consumers, as well as what our governments are doing. It’s such a huge issue, isn’t it?
VEGANISM CREATE MORE PLANT LIFE
Is having livestock in a small farm morally justifiable to you, if the systemic cruelty of the food industry is not involved?
I think, as vegans we can fall into the trap of complaining about factory farms, their behaviors and practices, but it’s not only about the things we do to animals, like chopping off their tails, or taking away their babies. It’s that we deny them autonomy and we exploit them. Even if you have a small farm, where the animals are outside and are actually living a wonderful life, you still take that life from them. For the chickens and the pigs, as well as the dairy calves, life is mainly suffering. For them, death comes almost as a mercy after weeks and months –it relieves them of their suffering. But if we let animals have happy lives, it’s even worse to take that from them. Even if it’s just one animal, it is still being killed needlessly. If you think about dogs, for instance, we would never justify killing dogs. It’s the same with the pigs and cows and chickens. Ultimately the issue is that we view them as beings subjugated by us, whose lives are only deemed worthwhile by what their dead bodies offer to us. It’s about changing that mindset. Animals are not there to serve us. They are beings that exist on this planet alongside us and their right to life is higher than the reasons that we can find to kill them.
There is something I have to ask, although I know that many vegans would frown upon me: Are we completely, scientifically, sure that plants are not conscious?
We know the plants can do amazing things. We know they react to light and what’s in the ground, we know that they have forms of communication. So, what we do know is that plants are incredibly intelligent. But intelligence doesn’t mean sentience or consciousness. Let’s look at it in a few different ways. From a biological perspective, they don’t possess any of the attributes required for consciousness. There’s no brain, or central nervous system. That creates pain and ultimately sentience in the animal kingdom.
Also, I think it is important to look at how plants do respond. Let’s take a venus flytrap. It doesn’t close on the fly because it’s consciously responding, but because the pressure stimuli have been triggered. You can put anything on it. You can finger on it, put a rock on it, and it causes that same reaction. Because that’s what it is: a reaction, not a conscious response. So we say that plants react, but do not respond. I think that’s the fundamental difference.
From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness and sentience would not be beneficial for plants at all. The ability to feel pain would be terrible for plants, because they are not able to properly defend themselves and they can’t run away. The main reason why animals feel pain is to avoid danger or to defend, but plants don’t have that ability.
But let’s say that plants are conscious, sentient and do feel pain. By being vegan, we are still reducing the amount of plants that are being harmed, even though we’re eating plants. Many more plants are used in the production of animal products than they are in vegan products. Think about a cow. The USDA (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) states that it can take up to 16 kgs of plants to produce 1 kg of beef. What if we just consumed those plants? By being vegan, we actually reduce the amount of plants (as well as animals) that are being used and killed. And it allows us to re-purpose the land animal farming has been using to rewild and reforest, which creates more plants and more biodiversity. So by being vegan, we can actually create more plant life.
VEGANISM IS MORE ACCESSIBLE NOW
Since you have decided to spread the word for veganism, you have given countless speeches at schools, and broadcasted striking videos where you have had face-to-face discussions with non-vegans as well. Are you really able to turn people into vegans in 2 minutes after all this experience?
I wish! Wouldn’t that be a great magical power? What I hope to do with my work is just planting some seeds in people, prompting some questions and encouraging them to think in the ways they haven’t thought before. I can never make someone go vegan, but what I can hopefully do is to get people to start challenging themselves, reflecting on themselves, and make the decision for themselves. We live the way we do, because we are raised in societies that encourage us to do those things. Eating meat isn’t something we decided when we were born. It’s what society has shown us to do. There’s obviously a lot of historical context as to why that’s the case. But what’s empowering about veganism is looking at both sides of the argument and then formulating your own personal decision on that.
Do you think more people are resonating with veganism today than before?
There’s no denying that in the past decade it has really exploded and kicked off big time. I think a huge amount of information is now publicly available. Social media has really played a big part in that. We hear and see advertising on the TV or we listen to what our government says, and these industries are very powerful. They can lobby into our governments and influence curriculums and what is taught in schools. They can influence people so easily. But that’s changing with social media and people have access to footage about what happens to animals, which they wouldn’t see before. Because there is now a big conversation, it is encouraging researchers to actually look more into the harmful consequences and environmental impact of eating animals. There is a proliferation of information, more and more are coming each day.
The sales of plant-based products have increased during the pandemic, I guess because people are more concerned about what meat involves. People become sickened by what happens to animals and to slaughterhouse workers as well. Twenty years ago, being vegan was probably a little bit strange to most people, it is no longer that kind of a weird thing. Most of us know a vegan, right? You go to a supermarket and see plant-based options being advertised. You can find adverts of plant-based foods on YouTube and even on the TV. So it’s just become more normalised and accessible.
SOME TIPS FOR GOING VEGAN
What tips could you give to people who decided to go vegan (in the end!) so that they could go through a smoother transition?
Great question! I would just say: do your research, make sure that you know exactly why you are doing it (looking at all the reasons to do it), and build that conviction. All the food we normally eat, we can easily veganise. If you like spaghetti Bolognese, just replace the cow meat with soy meat or lentils, or whatever might be. You can get a vegan cheese if you like, prepared with nutritional yeast that gives a cheesy flavor. If you like wraps, you can substitute the meat with beans, other legumes, tofu or tempeh.
I think it’s also good trying to find vegan groups and meet-ups online or in your local area. There is a couple of great sites. One of them is veganuary.com, where you can sign up and get help for going vegan. And there’s another one called challenge22.com. You sign up and get assigned a mentor, who answers any questions you may have. You can get nutritionists on there if you want to make sure on the best sources of protein or iron for a plant-based diet. There is another website called cronometer.com. Basically you log all the food you eat and it gives you the nutritional profiling of that food. It’s gonna make sure that you get all the nutrients you need. Whether you are vegan or non-vegan, take vitamin D and B12 supplements or make sure that you are eating fortified foods, and then, you should be good to go!
You have been running Unity Diner, a non-profit vegan restaurant in London where all of the profits go back to helping animals. How could people make a plant-based diet more delicious? Could you name a few popular items from your menu (stating their ingredients as well?)
I think the wonderful thing about plants is that we use them to make animal products more delicious! If you think about how we marinate fish and meat, it’s all with herbs and spices. One thing that’s becoming more delicious now is those plant-based alternatives. We recognize that the whole foods are full of flavor. We can also get like plant-based burgers or bacon that might not taste so great. But that’s changing now. Beyond Meat, for example, is doing a great job now of making the meat alternatives delicious. In Unity Diner, we work with a company called Moving Mountains, which is a plant-based company in the UK that does sausages and burgers. Their burgers are primarily made of mushrooms and they do a hot-dog made from sunflower seeds, which is kind of amazing! We also have “tofish and chips”. It is supposed to replicate fish and chips, which is a popular dish in the UK. It’s made from tofu instead, and a sheet of nori, which is a seaweed that gives kind of a fishy flavor. It’s battered in a beer batter and it’s one of my favorite dishes!
So, with plant-based food, you could be creative with the ingredients. Using mushrooms to create meat alternatives is a really big thing now in the vegan scene. There’s a group called Wicked Healthy, which has a plant-based meat product range in the UK made of a meaty kind of mushroom! That’s what I think is really exciting: using ingenuity to create these excellent alternatives, which are beneficial in every way possible.
EARTHLING ED’S UTOPIA
I see almost everything can be imitated and replaced by vegan alternatives! What do you think we should be aware of when choosing products from the niche (and expensive) vegan food market? Do you think these products will cease to be a “luxury” in the near future?
I think they are niche and expensive now as they are operating on tighter profit margins and they have a less significant supply chain. These companies will expand and will be able to drive down production costs. We’ve seen that with Beyond Meat. Now that they have opened a facility in Germany, their prices in Europe will come down, because they can expand their supply to meet the demand. I think, we will ultimately get to a point where we can eat them every day if we want to, as they will be cheap. As soon as we can start creating lab-grown meat, for example, the price for that will be significantly cheaper. But I also wanna encourage people to eat more whole foods. These vegan burgers and sausages are healthier, but they are still not as healthy as whole foods.
Could you name a few people who inspire you with their ideas?
I think anyone who advocates change is worth mentioning. But ultimately, Dr. Melanie Joy is really good at encouraging people to think more critically about why they feel the way they do. What is it about the society that encourages us to do what we do to animals and should we be thinking more critically about the psychological reasons behind? Dr. Michael Grager wrote a book called How Not to Die, which talks about how a plant-based diet can help prevent our leading diseases and killers in the West. He encourages people to take control of their health, which I think is really a wonderful thing. On top of that, there are documentary filmmakers like Kip (Andersen) and Keagan (Kuhn) who made Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret and What the Health; or Chris Delforce who made a documentary called Dominion, which is similar to Earthlings but more up to date and looks at Australian farming. Of course, you have celebrities like Lewis Hamilton, Billie Eilish and Joaquin Phonix promoting the vegan cause. I think that’s really admirable.
I know “utopia” has been an ill-reputed, dream-like concept at times, but I will ask anyway: How would your utopia look like?
It’s always a difficult one, isn’t it? The notion of utopia is so abstract to the world we live in… But ultimately, I think it’s just a world that you would become more responsible for actions. So it’s a vegan world of course, where we are no longer exploiting animals. It’s a world where we learn to treat each other better and we are no longer viewing other humans as being subservient. So it’s basically a world of justice and tolerance towards all life, regardless of the species that our life was born into. It’s a world where we would take care of our environment. You know, we spoke earlier about humans and why we think that they can have the power to change. I think it’s about reshaping how we view our relationship with the world. Until this point, we’ve kind of viewed the world as being a resource for us to use to our advantage. This utopia that I would like to live in is a world where we no longer view the earth as a resource but as a home. You know, something we don’t just take in and destroy for our short-term advantage.
To follow Ed Winters: earthlinged.org