The Vegetarian Gazette

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Q&A With Gene Baur

Farm Sanctuary Founder shares what he''s learned, what he sees, and what you can do


Here is an interview with Gene Baur, premier animal rights activist who authored a recently released book, —Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate  Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day. It's a subject that Baur, co‑founder and president of Farm Sanctuary, knows something about. For an excerpt from the book, click here. Booklist included his previous book—̶Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food  —  on its top 10 science/technology books of the year.

This interview was provided to Vegetarian Gazette by Baur's publisher Rodale Books.

Q: What is the Farm Sanctuary life?

GB: The Farm Sanctuary Life is an aspiration to live well and with compassion for others, especially farm animals, who have been made to suffer extreme cruelty at human hands. It means living in alignment with our values and interests, and recognizing that kindness to animals is also good for people.


Q: What was your goal in writing Living the Farm Sanctuary Life?

GB: One of Farm Sanctuary’s most important organizational values is to engage people where they are on their own journeys, and to support incremental steps toward more compassionate, mindful living, and that is exactly what this book does.

After all, we all started somewhere. Everyday people are awakening to the truths of our inhumane and unhealthy factory-farming system. Without guidance, these people would lose hope and fall into a state of apathy. In Living the Farm Sanctuary Life, I sought to provide practical advice and easy to follow suggestions for people looking for easy-to-adopt and meaningful solutions.

I love seeing people take responsibility for their actions and being empowered to live better, which contributes to a better world, and I believe this book can benefit anyone -- no matter where they are on their journey.


Q: Speaking of journeys, where did your journey toward more mindful eating and living start? Was it gradual?  

GB: It happened incrementally for me. My first step was to avoid veal, after my grandmother told me how veal calves are mistreated. In college, I learned about other problems linked to animal agriculture, including how wasteful and inefficient it is. I saw enormous harms caused by people -- to each other, to animals, and to the earth, and I didn’t want to be part of it, so I began exploring ways to make a difference. I didn’t want to be a cog in a wheel of a destructive system. The more I became aware, the easier it was to see often-overlooked animal-friendlier alternatives. And that’s what ultimately led to me going vegan in 1985.


Q: How much of a role does habit and custom play in apathy toward our food system?

GB: People are complicated, and often develop habits without thinking very much about them. I grew up eating meat, like everybody around me, without recognizing the harm I was contributing to. I also believed the widely marketed idea that consuming animal foods was healthy and necessary for human health. We are social animals, very much influenced by the beliefs, including myths, of those around us. We also tend to do what others around us do, and adopt normative behaviors, without critically evaluating them. If we have never met someone living a plant based life, we are unlikely to know that being vegan is an option. We learn from those around us, and our beliefs and behaviors rub off on each other.


Q: Based on your tenet 1: Live and Eat in Alignment with your Values, in your book, you say that 97% of Americans believe that animals should be protected from abuse. Why, then, do you think it’s so hard for these Americans to choose plant-based dieting, especially when there are so many options?

GB: Our lives are filled with complexities and contradictions. We are imperfect and will make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to do better. In the U.S., we grow up eating meat, milk and eggs from factory farms, where animals are treated in horrible ways that are an affront to our humanity. We have bad habits, and unfortunately, it can take some time for habits to change, especially when the social and economic infrastructure is built to support those habits as has been the case.

It is easy and convenient to adhere to the status quo. However, in recent years, with increased awareness and concern about our broken food system, plant based companies and products are developing. These are expanding along with social and economic systems and infrastructures that support compassionate living. Societal awareness and consumer’s habits are shifting, and this will continue especially as vegan options become more convenient and cruelty-free living more familiar and normalized.


Q: Cruelty-free is not only about your diet, but also about what you wear. What is the best way someone can become aware of their fashion and knowing that an animal wasn’t harmed in the making of it?

GB: Living the farm sanctuary life is not about sacrificing taste, comfort, fashion, style, or anything else. It’s about making informed, conscientious choices for stocking your closet or your fridge. When you’re more mindful about what wearing, you can feel good about expressing yourself and intentionally opting out of violence and exploitation.

In our daily lives we model who we are and what it means to be humans. When we chose compassion in fashion, we are quite literally wearing our hearts on our sleeves, and it’s never been easier to find apparel free of animal exploitation. For example, athletic running shoes are commonly made of manmade materials. They are lighter and more durable than leather. You also see mindful compassion on the fashion runways with John Bartlett, Vaute Couture, Stella McCartney and Brave Gentleman, among others.  

 Q: You wrote about farmer Bob Comis, who made the transition from raising pigs for slaughter to running In Line vegetable farm. What do you tell farmers who say, “Sure, living a Farm Sanctuary life is good for my body and the planet, but I raise my animals well. There’s a demand for their meat and I’d rather be the one to meet that.”?

GB: I recognize people need to eat, and that we depend on farmers to feed us. The key question is how and what farmers produce, and I believe plant based farming is better for animals, the earth, and consumers. And is also good for farmers. We are not anti-farmer, we are anti-cruelty.

We envision a plant based, regenerative food system where animals are not exploited. It is exciting to see a thriving spirit of entrepreneurism in a burgeoning food movement, and we support farmers who strive to create a mindful, regenerative and healthy food system. But, too often, animal products are labeled in ways that make conditions sound better than they are. Products labeled as “free-range” or “cage-free”, for example, typically come from factory farms.

There are a small handful of farmers, like Bob Comis, who operate farms where animals actually experience a better life, but these farmers still struggle with the fundamental conflict between treating animals with compassion respect, and then slaughtering them for food. The words “humane” and “slaughter” don’t fit well together.

I am very enthusiastic about Bob’s shift to plant farming and hope he becomes a model for many others.   He rejects the factory farming system and the notion that animals should be exploited and slaughtered for human consumption. He had taken a step away from the industrial farming status quo and raised animals in a way that many people thought was admirable. But he came to realize the fundamental contradiction between compassion and killing. Bob expressed that killing animals was bad for animals, and it was also bad for him, and he didn’t want to be a part of it any longer.


Q: You talk about how Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, became a vegan after visiting Farm Sanctuary. How can business executives benefit from Living the Farm Sanctuary Life?

GB: Factory farms behave in ways that are an affront to our humanity, and outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in our society. Agribusiness is actually pushing for “ag gag” laws to prevent consumers from finding out about their untenable practices. That says a lot. When consumers learn about the cruelty, waste and other negative consequences of industrialized animal farming, they are appalled. And, popular opposition to factory farming can influence the marketplace.

When consumers learned about the inhumane treatment of calves raised for veal, for example, veal consumption dropped precipitously. Consumers don’t want to support irresponsible business nor do they want to ingest unhealthy foods. Businesses are increasingly being scrutinized by consumers who want to support those who adhere to humane principles and act in an admirable way. It all boils down to the triple bottomline or the three Ps: People, planet and profit, which are the pillars of business sustainability.


Q: You also highlight the experiences of couples who’ve come to share the Farm Sanctuary life after a visit to one of the sanctuaries. What is the best way to encourage a loved one to take steps toward this lifestyle?  

GB: The best way to influence and inspire loved ones, or anyone, is to model compassion and attract and support others to be their best self. We are social animals and living with someone and having an intimate relationship can be even more beautiful when there are aligned values and a shared aspiration. It’s about living a purposeful life, and supporting each other, which enriches one’s life and relationship.


Q: Do you have any advice for readers like me who read the book and thought, “I need to get to a farm sanctuary immediately?”  

GB: The beauty of Farm Sanctuary is that this is about more than any single place. This is a lifestyle of compassion and no matter where you are, you can live it. One of Farm Sanctuary’s goals is to make everyone aware of the wonderful relationships that are possible between humans and other animals, and the benefits associated with these relationships.

There are dozens of ways you can share the life-changing experience of visiting one of our sanctuaries. For example, you can join our Adopt a Farm Animal Program, which allows you to provide care for a rescued farm animal even if you live in a small studio apartment in a city. To adopt a farm animal, choose the type of animal who’s right for you and complete the sponsorship registration form on the Farm Sanctuary website. By doing this, you will be making a yearlong commitment to a shelter animal. You will receive a certificate with a color photograph of your adopted friend, along with other benefits depending on the animal. You will also have visitation privileges and can even arrange to have a private tour to see your sponsored animal.


Q:  Being that living the Farm Sanctuary life is not only about helping animals, but also about helping oneself, what are some self-growth benefits to living the Farm Sanctuary life?

GB: It’s really about paying attention and being aware of the consequences of our actions and ultimately acting in a way we can feel good about. Most people want to be humane, and knowing we’re not causing unnecessary harm feels good. 

If we aspire to be compassionate, but behave in ways that are cruel, such as by supporting the factory farming industry through our food choices, there’s an emotional toll, a dissonance between who we want to be and who we are. Nobody is perfect. Just by living we cause harm, but we also create kindness and beauty, and we can each strive to do better. Living the farm sanctuary life is all about aspiring to live as well and compassionately as possible. It’s a process more than an end destination. To paraphrase Gandhi, it’s about being the change we wish to see in the world.   


Q: Benjamin Hope, author of “The Tao of Pooh”, is one of several people you quote in Living the Farm Sanctuary Life. Hope says, “If people were superior to animals, they’d take better care of the world.” What do you think is the first step someone can take right now to making a difference in their world or community?

GB: This involves the first tenet in Living the Farm Sanctuary Life, which is about aligning our values with our actions.

This typically means being more reflective and mindful, and assessing the consequences of our behaviors. It involves taking responsibility for our actions. If we are causing harm, which sadly so many human activities do, we need to reflect and consider changing.

 In our society, most of us grow up with habits (like eating large quantities of meat, milk and eggs) that need to be reevaluated. As we make small changes and become more mindful, we can accept other challenges more easily and take important steps toward a Farm Sanctuary life.