Life Lab 2

View of the outdoor kitchen at Life Lab at the UCSC Campus.

Vegan is a word, like so many others, used almost as a derogatory judgement about someone else, regarding something that does not pertain to them in the slightest. Guess what folks, my choices do not affect you, neither do anyone else’s really. Cold realization?  Then why are you so up in arms about what I choose to put on my plate?  Ill have another helping of compassion please so I can stomach your idiocy.

I recently got an article in my inbox A 12-point paper advocating the complete overhaul of the world’s feeding model —J. Morris Hicks, April 23, 2016 and guess what it calls for?  Not more rotting flesh in your gut but eating carbon sequestering plants!  The only “pragmatic solution to climate change” out there that could happen even over night.  Just wake up one day and not eat animal products.  Go Vegan.  Fancy that.

What do we teach in biology?

The sad thing for me is that I hesitated before deciding to give this to my freshman biology class to read.  But after doing a little “ctrl F” to search the article for the word vegan, I was able to breath a sigh of relief- it. is. safe. Hallelujah.

What was it that had me second guessing myself and my curriculum?  My narrative that pretty came to me this year like an epiphany.  A narrative that also just happens to be synchronistically aligned to the next generation science standards.  The standards that do away with the laundry list of unconnected concepts all children are supposed to memorize and immediately forget.  That, as I ponder it farther, lead them towards jobs in chemicals, medicine, animal research- none of these intimately connected with the land and other living beings.  Quite removed and domineering in fact.  The new standards that say we should anchor learning in things we can all relate to, things that connect and pictures that can be drawn in our minds that we can not forget having seen and been part of creating.

Wild Stawberry

A wild strawberry growing on my driveway.

So I started out my year taking more time than recent years in my class talking about the periodic table.  About the elements and how they bond together, how the electrons are constantly moving around that gives the illusion of solidity in our material reality.  I talked not about the green revolution but about George Washington Carver and his contributions to sciences and the newly emancipated people of the south who we so graciously gave fallow land to.  How Carver devised using crop rotation with legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil and replace lost fertility and then came up with hundreds of uses for the fruits of legumes.  A scientist not named in any textbook.

Now here is the part I am still having a hard time with.  Soil fertility is related to nitrogen right, compost is made with both carbon sources (brown materials) and nitrogen (green materials) and fertilizers are based on their percentages of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium).  Following me so far?  Did your teacher do a good job of explaining one of the most basic things in all of biology?  Plants are photosynthetic, they convert sun energy into food or chemical energy.  Plants just like animals make proteins to grow and survive and proteins are made up of amino acids and guess what is a huge building blocks of amino acids and proteins… if you are following along and now staring out the window or more appropriate today at an add on your device… then back comes the seventh element, drum roll please Nitrogen!  As Alex Trebek might say… the element found in DNA that is fixed in the soil by a symbiotic relationship between bacteria and the roots of legumes and no protein can be built without.  This is where you ring in.

Life Lab 1

Another view from Life Lab of the variety of raised beds you can make with whatever materials you have.

If we work the land at all, we know we need nitrogen for healthy crops and then gloss over the fact that plants use that nitrogen to build proteins and instead give that esteemed honor to all the land and sea animals.  Let’s think about it, where do they get it from?  They don’t convert energy from the sun.  They are able to make proteins, just like us, but ingesting plants!  There you have it, the myth is busted.  Animals manufacture protein from the amino acids they get by eating grass (which they should eat, especially ruminants, instead of corn) and then we get it second hand from eating their flesh.  That word to harsh, would you prefer I used the euphemism “meat?”  That makes it sound less alive, less sentient, less conscious, less like us?

Forging a New Path is Rocky

So back to my story and the month I have to tie my narrative up in a nice little bow and send my students along to the next class.  I got into a little hot water at the beginning of the year.  I assigned a choice assignment of watching the movie Cowspiracy, I asked the students to keep a food log for 5 days, I asked them to self select what types of foods they ate based on the words; carnivore, omnivore, vegetarian and vegan, and then I had them take a quiz where one of the questions asked them to think about how they felt about animals being killed and hung upside-down and bled to death so they could eat dinner.  The most common answer was “had not really thought about it before,” not a shock when slaughter houses are purposely removed from public viewing.  Lastly I had them do what I called a compassion exploration where they looked at different websites both ones that advocated for compassionate eating and those that supported meat and dairy and asked them to discern the intent and financial backing of the site.

After all of this I was given a cease and desist order from the administration to no longer have students classify themselves in a group, especially since I was not in the group, which I had only done once.  After more emails to the administration I was approached again (a polite way to put this- along with “where in the standards is this”) to stop and forwarded hot so nicely worded email from a parent.  And thankfully on the same day that I was personally emailed from a parent that their family had had yet another conversation at the dinner table about food.  I explained everything and was told I needed to communicate with the students that this was going to stop.  Here is my exact wording that I wrote out so I could say the same thing to each class, “I have had a conversation with admin about what we have been talking about and the concerns raised.  I want to restate that I by no means am up here trying to bully, harass or judge anyone.  My goal is education and awareness around our interconnections with the environment and other living beings.  I love and have great compassion for all of you.  Please know that I take my job seriously and I have never had the intention to make you feel anything bad.  I apologize if you have felt that way. With that being said we will not be doing our crap test on the article from Friday so you can pass it to the side for recycling.”

So in the last days of this school year, my sincere hope is that my students can confidently relate to others why plants have protein.  [And you too, dear reader.]  They can eat how they like, but they should not be blinded about an undeniable fact of life that just happens to be outside the medical-academic-pharmaceutical-meat-dairy-etc-complex.  To this end, we have been reading the above article and summarizing each point. And yes, I eat more than salads.  I have also created a presentation that puts visuals to our entire year in like 14 slides.  I will offer extra credit to put their own words to it and tell me what they think.  All of this in the context of knowing that in the words of Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

And fret not friends, vegans will not hurt you.  Nor will eating a vegan diet.  What vegans do is force you to confront your conditioning and your possible cognitive dissonance about what it is you put on your plate.  Vegetarians I love you, but there are plenty of great alternative to dairy these days and dairy feeds into the meat industry in more ways than one.  I sincerely hope that as we consider the lack of respect and the increase in bullying our children are facing at school and online that we see the connection between what we put in our bodies as fuel.  Do we want to fuel ourselves with fear, anger and fight hormones or do we want to nourish ourselves with greens, whole foods from the Earth, cook again, connect across the dinner table and realize that in the grand scheme of things we are all interconnected.  We are all one.

I encourage you to read the 12 point paper and tell me what you think?  Can you stomach it?

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