Align | In Conversation

Gene Baur

Co-Founder, Farm Sanctuary, USA

September 26th, 2017


Animal rights activist Gene Baur is the co-founder and President of Farm Sanctuary, USA, a farm animal protection organization that rescues and provides a burgeoning haven to animals. A vegan advocate, Mr Baur, through his education and advocacy, encourages us to make ethical decisions, embrace a compassionate way of living and alter our palette to sensitivity. Gene Baur has authored two books: Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day and Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food.


What does it mean to be vegan?

To me, being vegan is an aspiration to live as kindly as possible.

Nobody is perfect, but just because we are not perfect doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to do better. One of our organizational values at Farm Sanctuary [Gene Baur’s shelter for rescued farm animals] is to speak to people where they are on their journeys. We encourage people, whether they are vegan or not, to visit Farm Sanctuary and start thinking about the issues of animal cruelty and environmental damage and start taking steps.

Even a vegan can take measures to live more compassionately. For example, they can buy organic food from local farmers’ markets instead of conventionally grown chemically-laden foods. Improving our lives mindfully is a process, not an endpoint.


What was the trigger that led you to veganism? 

I grew up in the Hollywood Hills, near Griffith Park, and I saw how wildlife was harmed by human activity; I saw beautiful oak trees cut down to accommodate bigger houses. And I didn’t want to be a cog in a wheel for a system causing so much harm.

I learned how my grandmother raised veal calves, so I never ate veal. I then learned about the various violent aspects of animal agriculture through college. And as I travelled around the country and met other vegetarian’s and activists, I felt that if I could live well without causing harm, why wouldn’t I? As I learned about animal cruelty and environmental damages, I learned that it was possible to live well by eating plants and not animal food. Turning vegan was an easy decision for me to make.


How did you source plant-based food when you turned vegan?

I became vegan in 1985 (and I started Farm Sanctuary in 1986), and I’d often go to food co-ops or health food stores. Today you can get plant-based alternatives in mainstream grocery stores, so it’s a lot easier. And plant foods—fruits, vegetables, grains and beans—were always accessible. Back in the 80s, a lot of people ate vegetarian or vegan food. Traditional ethnic food tends to be primarily plant-based because eating plants is efficient; it allows us to produce food without using so many resources. Animal foods are recent creations, especially when you eat them the way you do now, in large quantities.



What challenges did you face as a vegan, and how did you stay the course?

The challenge was dealing with family and friends who knew me as a non-vegan. Somebody would make food for me, and I would say: “Thank you, but I don’t eat that [meat].” And people would feel I was emotionally rejecting them. So the social aspects were more difficult. And sometimes when I was in the middle of nowhere, trying to find vegan food was tough.


How should individuals following a plant-based diet navigate through environments that don’t support their values?

One of the biggest challenges for vegans is to follow a plant-based diet in an environment that is a non-vegan environment because people are being generous and want to show you respect but do so in a way that is misaligned with a vegan mindset. The challenge is to acknowledge their generosity while communicating your choices—that certain things concern you about our food system and that you would rather not participate.

It’s about being honest and saying: “Thank you for this intention,” and then communicate, “Do you have anything other than cows milk?” Sometimes talking in advance—in a respectful, honest and friendly way—is a good idea, so people don’t feel judged; instead, people feel you respect them and appreciate their intention in welcoming you in a customarily elevated way.

People are emotional and can react in a hostile way, rejecting your sentiments. So you have to be very careful that you are not rejecting meat-eaters—you are rejecting cruelty.  They [meat-eaters] are not bad people; they are part of this larger system that has made particular violence invisible. Just because meat-eaters are unaware and haven’t seen cruelty, does not mean that they want to cause harm. Many people are unwittingly supporting an abusive industry. And when confronted with the truth, meat-eaters feel bad about their participation because they feel they are cruel.

So if you can provide information before a visit, maybe a video on what happens on dairy farms, to allow a person time to process, it would perhaps let people see these issues with less resistance.

We want to empower people to live with kindness and to live in alignment with their values

and their interests and to eat in a way that doesn’t make them sick and cause animals

to suffer while destroying the planet.


Do you process the world around you differently, more kindly, as a result of following a plant-based diet?

I went vegan when I was 23-years-old, and now I am 55-years-old; most of my life experience has been as a plant-eater. I think when you are eating violence, it tends to affect you, physically but also emotionally. There is a dissonance between compassion and our actions. When people have that dissonance, they have some stress around it.

The alignment with compassion and eating a plant-based diet has helped bring me peace. But as a human being, I also have challenges regularly, and as I have gotten older, I have been able to see things more objectively.

What you eat is critically important, but your attitude is also crucial. If you are eating healthy food and are being grateful and practicing healthy mental nourishment, it makes a big difference.

What is the role of a vegan advocate?

Vegan advocates can play a role in enabling people to healthier, more compassionate lives. It’s important to be welcoming yet firm about being vegan, and understanding that change often happens over time. Some people are going to have more deep-seated attachments to their current practices. And for others there might be additional layers of attachment—they may be in the business of producing animal products while others may be in the business of producing pharmaceuticals that profit heavily from our animal abuse industries.

Some vegans are angry at the world, understandably. Delving into ugly things and dwelling in them affects us. We need to deal with the bad; we can’t ignore them. But I believe it’s healthy to focus on the good things. We need to nourish ourselves physically as well as mentally.


Can other industries benefit from this change [veganism]?

It’s essential for entrepreneurs to recognize that the demand for plant-based food is an opportunity to create new plant-based businesses. Other services like coaching for plant-based eating, landscape gardening and green construction are increasing in demand. Even dairy farms are transitioning to plant-based milk.


In one of your tweets, you talk about dairy milk sales going down and plant-based milk going up.

Yes. There are some very positive signs now where cow’s milk consumption has been going down, and the consumption of plant-based milk has been increasing significantly. Major dairy companies are investing in plant-based milk. And major meat businesses are starting to invest in plant-based meat alternatives. So businesses recognize that the future is more in a plant-based direction.

But you still have some companies that are locked into the old way of doing things. With an infrastructure in place they have profited handsomely over the years from the existing business, so for them change may seem frightening, and they would rather hold on to what they have without recognizing that there is enormous potential in a different approach to the future.

They say: “Monkey see, monkey do.” I think it’s accurate to say: “People see, people do.”

The more positive things people do, the more others will recognize that and follow in their footsteps.


Does the distance between the production (where cruelty resides alongside suffering) and consumption (where smartly packaged food sits on sterile shelves) contribute to consumers making mindless choices? Or is consumption a combination of denial, habit and fear of moving away from the familiar?

I think the distance we have from brutal food production practices has played a role in our food production, heading in a negative direction. Often when people see these conditions, they are appalled by them and would rather not support them. But we are very adept at rationalizing behavior about which we don’t feel good. Throughout human history, we have done many terrible things, and we have come up with reasons or beliefs that enable us to live in violent and cruel ways.

Institutions like slavery were allowed because of certain rationalizations and beliefs formed around the institution of slavery. The same rationalizations exist in terms of animal agriculture—

we have certain beliefs that have evolved around that institution.

Human beings are also creatures of habit and are afraid of change. We are bombarded with messages to eat animal products for protein or for nutrition, which are myths. We do not need to eat any animal products; we can do very well with eating plant-based food. But the idea of not eating animals makes people worry about getting the nutrition they need.

And one of the biggest obstacles is the fear of being different because if everybody is doing something you assume, it’s normal. Human beings are social animals; when we eat differently, it separates us. It’s hard for individuals, in many cases, to do something different.

Moreover, food comes with many attachments and emotional underpinnings. When somebody is raised eating animal foods—often the parents and the people feeding animals foods to their children or friends or members of the community or visitors—the message is: I care about you, so I am giving you the best. Meat historically has required a lot of resources to produce, so by giving somebody meat, you are sending the message that they are important to you. Meat has come to be recognized as something highly regarded.

Meat is also linked to power. When a person is posed with a question about eating meat or not, they feel by not eating meat, they are losing power.

Plus, in the US, we have a massive infrastructure to promote and enable this system. We have subsidies to allow the production of soy and feed crops so that when people purchase animal food at the restaurant or the grocery store, they are paying far lower than fair market value.


How does animal agriculture affect health negatively?

In some cases, people get sick from the toxins in the environment. The animal agriculture industry uses vast quantities of chemicals and antibiotics to keep the animals alive and grow them in these horrible, filthy, stressful conditions as a result of which antibiotic-resistant bacteria is present not only in service water but also in groundwater.

The animal agriculture industry does so much harm, and people unwittingly support it—by eating meat, milk and eggs—without recognizing that those food choices have a profound impact on their health as well as on the well being of animals and the planet. And when people become ill after eating animal products, the industry externalizes that cost. Or when the environment is destroyed and needs fixing, it’s once again an externalized cost. So we have an infrastructure in place that makes it easy to eat animal foods even though they make us sick.


What does it take to break the cycle of cruelty?

We must reclaim and live in alignment with our humanity, with our values, regardless of how we grew up. And to ultimately make food choices aligned with our interest to eat food that is nourishing and doesn’t make us sick, which is what we are currently doing.

We should also support a food system that doesn’t destroy the planet, which is what animal agriculture does. If we stepped back and acted according to a few principles to live in alignment with our values and our interests, we would see a massive shift. But how do we get there from here?

Human beings want to belong to our community, and when our community behaves in a way that is not aligned with our values and our interests, it’s hard to step out of it. Change can happen incrementally. For example, doing a meatless Monday, where one day a week they don’t eat meat. And once they have started down that path, they recognize that it’s not that difficult. The small steps lead to bigger steps over time. And as more people eat plant foods, instead of animal foods, the mindset will rub off on those around them.

As social animals, we influence those around us without even recognizing we are doing it. And that’s how most of us grew up eating meat—because everybody around us was doing it. The more we see people follow plant-based living, the more awareness there will be that these foods are accessible, tasty, and nutritious.

When individuals who have had health problems go on a plant-based diet, get off their medications and live healthier lives, they inspire their friends and community to do the same. Often change happens when there is a disaster, like a heart attack.

Having positive vegan role models is important. Vegan advocates who reach out to people and speak to them on where they are on their journeys play an important role—because people don’t want to be judged, they don’t want to feel like they are bad people.


You have spoken about an incident where, during a health check-up, the doctor on learning your father had suffered a heart attack wanted to put you on heart medication. What does mindset say about the medical system? And how has a plant-based diet enhanced your health?

To normalize sickness is an example of how terrible the medical system has become.

Doctors are quick to prescribe heart medications assuming that most people go on heart medication at a certain age, when eating plants instead of animals could prevent the need for medicines.

Fortunately, I have always had good health and eating plant foods has only contributed to my health. In the last few years, I have started taking part in endurance events to demonstrate that plant foods can not only help you survive, but they can also help you thrive. I have now done six marathons, a dozen triathlons, including an Ironman triathlon.


When do you train?

For the Ironman I put in long training days on the weekends. Sometimes when I was on the road, I would wake up at three or four in the morning to go for a long run; that was difficult.


What does running mean to you?

The fact that I can run makes me feel very fortunate. I sometimes think about those who can’t run, including animals in cages who cannot move their whole lives. I am also grateful to have the ability to be physically out in beautiful places, run as I do, and process issues emotionally.


What is the nature of the issues you process while you are running?

Sometimes I am mulling over challenges, trying to figure them out. Sometimes I don’t think about anything. Sometimes I am listening to my body, the aches and pains. It’s this internal process of trying to run and focus on the positive.



Learn more about Gene Baur.