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Posts Tagged ‘agriculture’

One of the highlights of the recent Indiana Livestock, Forage and Grain Forum was the lunchtime sneak peak, private screening of the soon-to-be-released Movie Farmland. The movie was directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker James Moll. Its purpose is to attempt, on a large scale, to tell viewers without a farm background more about how their food is produced and the various kinds of people who produce it. The movie was funded by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

There are six main characters in the film from a variety of segments of farming around the country: Leighton Cooley, a Georgia poultry farmer; Brad Bellah, a Texas cattle rancher; David Loberg, a Nebraska corn and soybean farmer; Sutton Morgan, a California organic produce farmer; Margaret Schlass, a Pennsylvania community supported agriculture (CSA) produce farmer; and Ryan Veldhuizen, a Minnesota grain and hog farmer. 

All are twenty-somethings, several college educated, who are now in charge of running their farm businesses. It quickly becomes apparent to anyone with farm knowledge that these are real people, not actors. Actors couldn’t come up with the kinds of things they say, or the way they say it. They’re real. They get real dirt on themselves during the course of their days. Their machinery is not showroom new and shiny, nor are their farmsteads always pristine and orderly.

They were obviously picked to be able to connect with a younger generation that wants to know how their food is grown and who’s doing the growing. And in the telling of their stories, they do a good job, and do it in a fair manner. They come across as honest, sincere, eminently believable, likable, bright, knowledgeable, and well spoken. They have the ability to look at both sides of the issue, yet articulate their personal side very well.

One of the things the film should get high marks for, in my opinion, is for doing an excellent job of making the point that, whatever their legal business structure may be, these are family farms. In a world where many people hear daily about “Big Ag,” and “factory farms,” all of these young folks except one are the latest link in a chain that have been farming the same land for generations. Indeed, some of the lighter and more poignant parts of the film have to do with the everyday interactions between family members and generations.

In short, the film’s main characters were hardworking, smart, passionate business people with strong family connections and history. They love what they do and are willing to take the risks that go with the rewards that come with their chosen lifestyle of producing a variety of good food for us and others around the world.

I’m sure that as soon as the movie is released there will be some who just can’t wait to tell you what all is wrong with it. There are some for whom nothing short of all of their food being raised organically, by Old McDonald in his bib overalls and straw hat, will do. There are others who will believe that all of the cast’s animals should be turned loose and padlocks put on the barn doors. Still others will tell you it’s all Monsanto’s doing.

But for anyone with an open mind who wants to know more about how their food is grown and by whom, it’s an accurate depiction and a golden opportunity to learn a lot. Possibly even more important, if they have questions, the film can provide the springboard to help start the discussion. And if they do want to discuss it, we in the farm community need to be ready to enter the conversation.

I gave the film 4 of 5 popcorn kernels. I thought it did a superb job of what it set out to do. Still, it’s a documentary about farm life. On the entertainment meter, it’s not going to compete with James Bond—nobody jumping out of helicopters onto speeding trains, no bikini-clad babes here. Compared to the glitz and special effects movie goers are accustomed to, to me it seemed rather, well, normal.  But when you stop to think about it, while farm life may be normal to people like us, everyday farm life is exactly what they’re trying to portray. They portray it well.

I have to confess, at times I had to do something of an attitude adjustment on myself. There were a few times when I caught myself thinking, “Geez, everybody already knows that.” Which is precisely the point. Everybody doesn’t already know that. Although all farmers know about hard work, markets, risk, weather and GPS, this film wasn’t produced for the two percent of us for whom this is everyday stuff.

Instead, it is targeted at that great majority of people who are several generations removed from grandpa’s farm, and have no clue what’s really involved. They want to know more about their food, and regularly hear messages from those who have an agenda for disparaging our food system. When I changed my attitude to one of appreciating the attempt being made to bring those folks up to speed about what many of us already take for granted, I was able to genuinely enjoy it in a much different light.

I’d seriously encourage you to go see the movie when it comes to your area. It’s a story that desperately needs to be told, and farmers typically aren’t great at telling it themselves. These young folks are doing an admirable job on farmers’ behalf.

Even better, take some of your non-farming friends along with you, or maybe recommend it to them. Then ask them what they thought of it. It might start a good discussion!         

           

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As the dominant force in the fast food industry, McDonald’s frequently finds itself the target of any number of agenda-driven activist groups seeking to force it to conform to their latest whim. The company’s mascot, Ronald McDonald, in particular, has taken more than his share of abuse within the past year. One group invaded McDonald’s restaurants, trying to get customers to sign a petition demanding Ronald’s “retirement.” And a few months ago, a food activist group sued McDonald’s, trying to force them to stop including toys in kids’ Happy Meals. The attorney for the latter group characterized Ronald as the food version of “the dirty old man on the playground, seducing children into a lifetime of obesity, etc.” In light of this backdrop, I had an interesting experience recently.

A couple of weeks ago, I wound up babysitting my five-year-old grandson Randy for a few hours. Wanting to also make the best use of my time, I had him “help” me on some errands I needed to run. Realizing it was going to be awhile before we got home, I decided to eat in town and gave him his choice of where he’d like to go. He quickly said McDonald’s. “Not my choice,” I thought to myself, “but I did let him choose. I guess we’re going to McDonald’s.”

When it was our turn to order, he told the girl at the counter that he wanted a Happy Meal with a cheeseburger. Then, despite his considerable love for french fries, he (obviously having learned some things from his parents exercising some appropriate parental authority) opted for apple slices with caramel dip. For his drink, he chose chocolate milk. Not a perfect meal, nutritionally speaking, but not bad either.

Having done this drill with Randy before and having learned a thing or two myself, I told him that we couldn’t do the Playland thing until after he’d finished his meal. He really did pretty well, although I had to help him with his last couple of apple slices, which when dipped in caramel, were actually pretty good.

He then ran to start playing on the ladders, slides, and such in the play area. He soon discovered a buddy from pre-school and they had a blast, running, climbing, sliding, laughing, and playing. I’d told him I didn’t have that much time, so he could only play for ten  minutes. But he was having such a good time that I “got soft” and granted him an additional five.

Although Micky D’s hadn’t been my personal first choice, as I watched Randy playing I couldn’t help thinking that there was something downright good and healthy about this experience. He had just eaten a balanced, healthy, sensible, nutritious meal. We’d had a good time together. Now he was getting some pretty vigorous exercise with one of his friends. I found myself thinking, “And there’s supposed to be something wrong with this?”

As I pondered this a little further, I had some additional thoughts. Although I consider most of the activists who regularly bash McDonald’s  to be pretty wacked out and extreme, nevertheless it dawned on me that despite my disdain for them and their ludicrous accusations, the sheer volume of their stuff does gradually begin to take a toll on a person. It’s kind of like you start thinking subconsciously, “despite their nonsense, do they have a valid point or two in there somewhere?”

After the experience described above, it reinforced my belief that the activists are even more off the wall, out of touch  and out of line than I’d thought. McDonald’s is really doing some things pretty well, and despite all the flack they get, they’ve thankfully stuck to their guns on some things.

When confronted by the group demanding Ronald’s resignation, they responded that Ronald was not only a symbol of the company, but the namesake of McDonald’s charities, including the many Ronald McDonald Houses across the country that are an absolute godsend to families with very sick children in hospitals far from home. McDonald’s officials stated that they had absolutely no intentions whatsoever of “retiring” Ronald. And much to the delight of millions of children, they’re still putting toys in Happy meals. Randy was thrilled with his much-maligned Happy Meal toy, in this case a miniature skateboard, which further fertilized his already-fertile imagination.

Is McDonald’s perfect? Nope. They’re a fast food company in a fallible world, and they’ve made their share of mistakes along the way. But they’ve learned from them, and they’re doing some things pretty well.

Can kids OD on McDonald’s? Absolutely. People–kids included–can make either good or bad dietary decisions at McDonald’s. But I also happen to believe in parents, grandparents, and other guardians taking some personal responsibility for their kids’ dietary needs, and teaching those kids to do the same.

As I look back on Randy’s and my recent experience, I have a renewed appreciation for an American institution that I’ve frankly somewhat taken for granted. You’re doing some good things, Ronald. Thank you and hang in there!

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If you read the animal rights web sites, the essential message is that today’s livestock producers are a bunch of sadistic, money-grubbing jerks who get rich by exploiting and routinely mistreating their animals (a.k.a. “food-production units”). As one who grew up on a livestock farm, has friends and relatives who raise livestock, and knows many various types of producers, this is so absurd it might be laughable if it weren’t so blatantly false, misleading and downright slanderous. Truth is, the great majority of producers not only treat their animals well out of their own self interest, but also because they have a real affinity for the animals they raise. And that fondness comes early and stays late. Just a few examples:

• The memories of baby chicks, pigs, and calves will stay with me forever. I used to love hanging out in the barn with my dad while he milked the cows, largely because I just liked cows. Several decades later I still background (pasture) some beef calves. My goal is always to try to make a little money, but truthfully, even more than that I just enjoy having them around.
• A story that’s been in my family for about fifty years now is about my cousin, who at three years old liked his family’s pigs so much that one day they found him sitting buck-naked and armpit-deep in a mud hole (the way pigs used to keep cool in the old days) with a couple of his porcine buddies. What does he do now? He and his son raise hogs.
• I belong to a Quaker church where an important part of the service is “open worship,” where people have the opportunity to stand and share a reflection on the sermon, a thought, a problem or whatever’s on their hearts. I’ll never forget the time in the early ‘80’s when a fifty-something dairy farmer stood and shared that he had decided to participate in a USDA dairy herd buyout, which was designed to reduce the national milk surplus by buying the herds of participating producers. He wept uncontrollably as he shared the grief of giving up his lifelong work with his beloved cows. A month later he died unexpectedly.
• I know a couple of transplanted Dutchmen who own some of those supposedly big, bad CAFO’s. Both had been dairymen in the Netherlands on a much smaller scale, but when asked why they work so hard and manage so much risk, both answered (independently, in their best English) without hesitation—“I’ve got the cows in me blood.”

My experience is that livestock producers tend to gravitate toward whatever species they raise, not just because of the profit potential, but because they happen to genuinely like that animal—they like to be around them, enjoy working with them, and get a kick (figurative, mostly) out of them—rather than getting their kicks by treating them badly.

Are there farmers who mistreat their animals? There probably are, and if you go to the right web site, the animal rights people will be more than happy to show you some examples. But those are the exceptions. By far.

Bottom line? If the animal rights crowd wants to foist that farmers-mistreat-their-animals crap on people who are unfamiliar with agriculture with the help of some twisted facts and clever photography designed to play on emotions, they can apparently fool some of the people quite a bit of the time. But not this one. I’ve been there and it ain’t so.

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In the early part of the twentieth century, one segment of American society succeeded in gathering the political muscle to impose its will on the rest of society in the form prohibition of the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. National Prohibition (1919-1933) came about because its proponents strongly believed that the evils of beverage alcohol, demonized by its opponents as “Demon Rum,” and “John Barleycorn,” far outweighed any benefits to society.

In their attempts to cleanse America of the problems caused by alcoholic beverages, Prohibition’s backers created a whole new set of problems—unintended consequences— that turned out to be worse than the original ones. Things like bootlegging, speakeasies, organized crime, Al Capone, loss of tax opportunities, an overall increase in lawlessness. And by some estimates, the consumption of alcohol actually increased! The “Noble Experiment” turned out to not be so noble after all. Prohibition’s effects were so detrimental that it was repealed in 1933.

As something of a student of history, it appears to me that the controversy being stirred up today by the animal rights people about the evils of “modern farming,” “factory farms,” “animal cruelty,” and so on, have some striking similarities, but also some striking differences with Prohibition. It’s similar in the respect that one segment of society is grossly overstating their case in their efforts to legislate away our ability to choose to eat meat from animals. Because they believe that animals essentially have equal rights with people and choose to be vegetarians or vegans, they believe all other Americans should eat like them, whether they want to or not. And they’re fanatical in their determination to generate enough propaganda, raise enough money, and build enough political capital to make it happen.

The differences are that while there were (and are) some down sides to society’s consumption of alcohol, there is no real (as opposed to the agenda-driven, misinformation regularly found in the mainstream media) down side to the appropriate consumption of meat. People don’t typically commit DUI’s, abuse their spouses, neglect their children, or need to go into rehab because they consume burgers, pork chops or fried chicken. Consumed in reasonable amounts, foods derived from animal protein are delicious, healthy and nutritious products, produced primarily by American family farmers. The stuff about animal cruelty, misuse of antibiotics, and just about all the rest of it is a slickly-packaged, emotionally-based, agenda-driven 99 percent pack of lies and distortions, being force fed to a public no longer connected enough to the family farm to know the difference.

While the particular set of unintended consequences may be different this time around, they’re just as real, if not more damaging. If the animal rights movement gets its way, you could see things like: an increase in world hunger; not only American livestock producers going out of business, but also a large share of the crop farmers who supply feed grains to them; our national security being compromised by sending a key component of our food industry out of the country, similar to our current national dependency on foreign oil; animals in those countries not being treated nearly as well as they are here by American producers; the elimination of one of the few areas in which we actually have a trade surplus; loss of millions of jobs in food processing, manufacturing and other industries that support agriculture; the serious underutilization of one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world; just to name a few.

Perhaps the saddest consequence of all, however, will be the disappearance of a time-honored and noble way of life—that of the American family livestock producer. Since time immemorial, fathers and mothers, grandpas and grandmas, have passed down to their children and grandchildren, the family farm and their love of caring for animals and earning their living by producing food in a responsible manner. If the animal rights people have their way, however, those days can’t end soon enough.

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It was my third year in 4-H. After two years of fooling around raising green beans and carrots in a garden project, I yearned for a “real” project, which for me meant livestock. Although I really wanted a beef steer, the best I could talk my parents into was a couple of pigs.

An April visit to a neighbor’s hog lot procured my first two 4-H pigs—both Hampshire-Duroc crossbred barrows—which I named Curly and Moe after two of “The Three Stooges,” (sorry, Larry). Like their TV namesakes, Moe was the more dominant, less congenial of the two, and Curly quickly became my favorite.

Curly was an attractive pig, with the trademark black and white markings of his Hampshire lineage, and the floppy ears of his Duroc forbears. Those who “knew hogs” said that he had good length and a good rear end (hams) and my hopes for him accomplishing big things at the county 4-H fair in late July were sky-high. And if TLC could produce results in the show ring, he would have been a champion for sure.

For a summer Curly became my best friend. I brushed him, petted him, and he especially liked it when I scratched his belly while he was lying on his side. I spent many pleasure-filled hours preparing him and me for show ring to come.
The biggest problem I had with Curly was his stubborn refusal to stay out of the blasted mud hole in the shade of the roof behind the chicken house, which formed the southern boundary of his lot. I’d spend time brushing and grooming him, getting him to look pretty good, only to return later and find him sticking his nose out of a heretofore unimaginable pool of foul-looking- and-smelling liquid slime. Although I was frustrated by his utter disregard for the hours I’d spent grooming him, I soon learned not to take it personally—that was just part of being a pig in those days. It was how he kept cool on scorching summer days, given that he had no sweat glands. (Lesson #1: A pig’s wants, needs, and interests are totally different than anything I could’ve previously imagined.)

Finally July came and Curly and I headed to the fair. It was exciting stuff! The sights, sounds, and smells of the fair’s swine barn, coupled with all the other kids, some of whom quickly became new friends, turned it into one of the most fun experiences of my 12-year-old life.

Wednesday was the day of the hog show. My dad helped me groom Curly, and when he was bathed, clipped, oiled and powdered (as they did it back then) he looked SHARP! When it came time for his class, he didn’t blow away the competition as I’d hoped, but did place sixth out of a class of about 25. I couldn’t have been prouder. To reward him, I went down to the carnival and bought a bag of caramel corn, which I shared with him, feeding him out of my hand while we both rested up from the show.

Friday night soon came, with the 4-H auction, which capped the fair week. Although I’d hoped prospective buyers would recognize what a wonderful animal Curly was and bid accordingly, he sold for a pretty average price. My dad was a fairly small farmer, and the high bids went to the kids whose dads had larger operations, and had their prices bid up by competing agribusiness suppliers. (Lesson #2: Life’s not always fair). Curly was bought by a local funeral home, which resold him to a stockyard.

Only after the auction, when I was cleaning up my pen and equipment, did it totally hit me. I was going home and Curly wasn’t. I’d never see him again. I cried. Hard. And the tears would reoccur readily for several days.

But that summer I learned what every 4-H member who has ever raised livestock has learned—that however much we may love an animal, Curly’s real purpose in life was not to be my friend, but rather to be an excellent source of protein-rich nutrition for many people. He was a meat animal. To have “taken him back home,”—and have had him grow into a 600-pound “pet” who would eat our family into a homeless shelter—wasn’t realistic. If I wanted a pet, a dog would make a better one. (And looking back from decades later, the emotion and affection was one directional. Curly—other than belly scratching and caramel corn—was indifferent).

While I never went on to raise pigs vocationally, I still enjoy them as a species—I just plain like them. But what many people who have not had my or similar experiences don’t realize these days is that whether or not they are “cute,” or “likable,” farm animals aren’t pets. Their purpose in life is not to befriend us, but to feed us (Lesson #3).

Curly, bless his heart, was also an excellent teacher.

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I have a beef with the animal rights people. They’re telling lies about my relatives. But before I get too far into that, just a little bit of personal historical perspective.

My great-great-great grandfather, John Borden was an original settler and farmer in Miami County, Indiana in 1848. John’s son was Oliver, Oliver’s son was Joseph, Joseph’s son was Everett, and one of Everett’s daughters, Maryellen, married my dad, George Boone. They all raised livestock—pigs, cows, chickens. My grandmother’s father, Charles Edwards (other side of the family), was an outstanding and well-known dairyman in his day.

They were all good, honorable people. They worked hard, were good citizens, served as township trustees, county commissioners, school board members and leaders in their churches and communities. By raising livestock, they were practitioners of an ancient and honorable profession, and were respected for it. Although some of their methods are considered antiquated by today’s standards, in their time they treated their animals well to the best of their ability.

Time passed. In my generation there were six grandsons. Instead of everyone going into farming as they had for generations, four (yours truly included) went off to college in search of a “better life.” Only two are farmers today—one raises crops only, the other raises livestock (pigs) with his son.

Despite the fact that my present-day, pig-raising cousin uses methods that are scientific, tested, and far advanced to anything that his and my forebears could have imagined, he, and tens of thousands of excellent livestock producers like him, are receiving more undeserved bashing than the previous five generations combined. Things like “They exploit animals.” Or “They practice inhumane methods just to make money.” Or “They abuse the animals.” Or “…those factory farms.” And the list goes on.

Why this reversal in a matter of just a few years, in spite of the fact that my cousin’s pigs today are raised in conditions their (the pigs’) ancestors never dreamed of? Because it’s a well-orchestrated, extremely well-funded, public relations effort designed for one single purpose—to discredit people like my cousin and drive them out of business, in order to further their vegan agenda. They want to snatch the burger or ham out of your bun, or the milk out of your glass, and replace it with some veggie concoction—all because of their fanatical opinion that people shouldn’t eat meat.

They’re masters of deception and distortion. Are there abuses in the livestock system? Sure, and I believe the genuine abusers should be run out of business. But those are the exceptions, by far.

But these masters of deception and distortion would have you believe that standards that have been proven humane and healthy by scientific research are cruel and sick by twisting the facts and appealing to people’s uninformed emotions. And that the rare abuses that do occur are the rule, rather than the exception. Applied to other situations, it’s the equivalent of suggesting that OJ Simpson is stereotypical of retired footballers; that Bernie Madoff is a typical investment counselor; or that all cruises are the Titanic.

It’s a lie. It’s wrong. And it makes me want to throw up. But they’re getting a lot of people to believe it because: 1) they’re slick, excellent manipulators of the facts; 2) most people today are several generations removed from being able to visit Grandpa’s farm, and consequently don’t recognize garbage when they hear it; and 3) farmers are an easy target—they just want to do their jobs and take care of their animals—not be PR people.

I said earlier that I was one of those who chose to go another direction other than raising livestock for a living. I’ve lived in both camps (farm kid and non-farming adult) and feel I have some perspective on this subject. To this day, there is a part of me that wishes I had raised livestock for a living because I genuinely enjoy working with and around animals. And there’s another part of me that says that with all the complexities— risk, stress, volatility and now bashing— involved in modern livestock production, I don’t know why anyone would want to do it.

But one thing I do know—today’s livestock producers are getting a very, very bad rap. It’s one of the most calculated, undeserved hatchet jobs I’ve ever witnessed, and in my own small way, I want to say “enough!”

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I did it. As much as I hated the thought, I actually watched a segment of Oprah that aired on Wednesday, January 28 on the subject of food. I’d seen a TV ad for the show earlier and strongly suspected modern agriculture was about to get bashed again. I wasn’t disappointed.

One of her guests was Michael Pollan, best-selling food author. This was the first time I’d actually seen him on TV. Compared to serpentine HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, with whom Winfrey did a total ambush/hatchet job on an Illinois hog farmer and California egg producers prior to the latter state’s Proposition 2 referendum in 2008, Pollan was more credible. He appeared more thoughtful, genuine, and well-meaning, although in my opinion, misguided and misinformed. Even so, he actually did have some good points about people mindlessly gorging themselves with fast food.

During the show, Winfrey showed clips of the documentary Food Inc., and repeatedly urged her audience to “Watch Food Inc. and then decide for yourselves about what you’re putting into your bodies.” Struck me a whole lot like telling someone, “Watch a Toyota commercial, and then decide for yourself which is the best car.”

Pollan was persuasive in his assertions—if one doesn’t know much about modern agriculture and the farmer-producers who actually grow our food. While I don’t have Mr. Pollan’s twenty years of experience of focusing on food, I do know farmers—lots of them—who raise livestock, and a number of fallacious arguments and flaws in the program were quite obvious to me. Just a few of the highlights:

  • The total unfairness of the show: Later that night, President Obama gave his State of the Union message, followed by the Republican response. Yet Winfrey repeatedly urged her audience to “decide for yourselves”—after listening only to what she and her one-sided guests told them—with no dissenting opinion whatsoever.
  • Extremely biased in portrayal of modern agriculture: A clip, (I presume from Food Inc.) showed what appeared to be an illiterate, redneck chicken farmer talking about essentially doing whatever it took to make money, with no concern for the consequences for the chickens or other people. I know scores of livestock producers, and have never met one remotely like this, don’t know where they dug this sorry individual up.
  • Facts wrong: Talked about the “exorbitant” amount of antibiotics pushed on modern livestock, and how it was producing disease-resistant strains of illness in humans. Apparently Mr. Pollan chose to ignore the facts that the use of antibiotics in livestock is highly regulated by the FDA and includes withdrawal times for any antibiotic that could affect humans.
  • Implied cause and effect: Pollan cited figures that in 1960, Americans spent 18 percent of their income on food, and 5 percent on health care, while today it flip-flopped to 9 percent on food and 17 percent on healthcare. He told the audience that today’s food was the lone culprit. Seems to me that during that time, a few other things have also taken place—like not only farmers getting much more efficient, but also revolutionary new surgical techniques and procedures, better diagnosis, new medical technologies, new medicines, explosion of medical malpractice lawsuits, people living longer, an older and more medically-needy population, higher doctor salaries, just to name a few.
  • Today’s food identified as the whole problem: During one part of the show, Pollan stated that “When you make one type of food (e.g. fats or carbs) as the villain, you automatically give all the other types a free pass.” In calling today’s food the villain, hasn’t he done the same thing? Like maybe people could get off their fat, lazy butts, turn off the TV or the computer games, and get a little exercise? Or making food the responsible party, rather than the people who make choices?
  • Faulty view of animal care: Pollan talked about using pork only from pigs that had been raised outdoors.  A recent University of Missouri study gave clear evidence that animals are much better off—comfort and health— inside.
  • And finally, an actress acting like a nutritional expert: Show also spotlighted actress Alicia Silverstone, who had starred in the film Clueless, as the latest in a long line of thespians to venture into areas where they really don’t know much, but act like they do. Said she’d become a vegan because “I looked at my little dog, and decided I couldn’t imagine eating another animal.”

I’ll be honest, I don’t like Winfrey. Heck, I’ll be real honest—I can’t stand her—largely because of these duplicitous kinds of stunts. But one thing toward the end of the show struck me as truly amazing. Oprah and Silverstone got into this rather extended, bizarre dialog in which they practically squealed with delight about the enhanced quality of their poop (really, I’m not kidding) since becoming a healthier eater/vegan, respectively. I personally found their descriptions of what they deposit in their toilets to be off-the-chart disgusting—almost, but not quite as much as the misinformation that this show presented.  

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