Part I: Jim VanDerPol
Jim VanDerPol farms and writes in a western Minnesota world very different from the one in which he was raised in the 1950s and 1960s. The small, diversified farms and tight-knit communities of his youth have been replaced by town jobs and gigantic equipment operating on huge tracts of land. The culture of the agriculture that Jim knew is almost entirely gone, and he wants it back. Through his farming, alternative marketing, writing and work with sustainable agriculture groups in Minnesota, Jim is making an important contribution toward efforts to resurrect that culture. Where others simply pine for days of yore and lament what has happened, in Conversations with the Land Jim offers a clear and down-to-earth vision for what each of us can do to return agriculture to something that can do better by the environment, the people who live within it, and even the nation as a whole. Those who are concerned that we have moved too far from the land will find much to think about – and draw inspiration from – in the pages of this book.
Part II: Jason Das
Jason is a co-founder of SuperVegan.com. He is responsible for most of the design and front-end code on the site, and more than a little of the content. Along with Deborah Diamant, Jason is a co-founder and co-organizer of Vegan Drinks.
Jason is also a freelance web developer and an artist in various capacities. You can keep tabs on his various rackets at Jason Das.
TRANSCRIPTION PART I:
Caryn Hartglass: Hello I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. How are you doing today on this May 30, 2012? Well we get to talk about food on this show, my favorite subject and touch a lot of different subjects related to food, food and health, food and the environment, food and all life on Earth. I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on food, well I think about food all the time, but I’ve been realizing how many of us who are talking about the alternative food movement and trying to change the way our food is grown and how it’s grown, going from giant agribusiness to encouraging more organic locally grown farming, farming that is sustainable. I realized that a lot of us that are in this conversation really have a privilege to be able to make choices about our food. There are many people who can’t even make choices because either access to food or because of their financial situation, they just eat whatever they can and that’s a problem. We should all have access to affordable, healthy food and there is a wide range of that and what I’m really focusing on lately is aligning myself with other people that are in the alternative food movement. I was exposed to a great deal at the Brooklyn Food Conference recently. There were so many different panels, over 175 with people talking about all different kinds of issues when it comes to food. The thing is many of us disagree on some of the fine points and I think it’s so important that we align on the broad strokes, big issues: organic, fresh, locally grown, food that supports our communities. With that, I’m going to introduce my first guest. He’s an author, Jim Van Der Pol, he has a new book, Conversations With the Land and he farms and writes in western Minnesota, a world very different from the one in which he was raised in the 1950s and 60s. The small diversified farms in tight knit communities have been replaced by town jobs and gigantic equipment operating on huge tracts of land. The culture of the agriculture that Jim knew was almost entirely gone and he wants it back. Through his farming, alternative marketing, writing, and working with sustainable agriculture groups in Minnesota, Jim makes an important contribution towards efforts to resurrect that culture, where others simply pine for days of yore and lament what has happened in conversations with the land. Jim offers a clear and down-to-earth vision for what each of us can do to return agriculture to something that can do better by the environment, the people who live within it, and even the nation as a whole. Those who are concerned that we have moved too far from the land will find much to think about and draw inspiration from in the pages of this book. Thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food, Jim.
Jim Van Der Pol: Well I’m happy to be with you.
Caryn Hartglass: I read your book, I enjoyed it. I like especially in New York City, books that have short chapters, unique essays. So this is a collection of essays. It’s very convenient to read on a subway.
Jim Van Der Pol: Yes, good.
Caryn Hartglass: When you’re just sitting and you don’t have a lot of time, you can get a nugget each time and get back to it later. Very good. There’s a lot of passion in this book and a lot of different emotions and we might hit on some of them. The first thing I wanted to talk about was the beauty and the love of the land that you find over the seasons, the change that goes on, how dynamic it all is. How surprising it all is. There’s a number of different essays where you go over a number of situations like that. Well the seasons, farming is never ever the same.
Jim Van Der Pol: No, it’s not and it takes command of your life, basically. When you do it for as long as I’ve done it, because the day length constantly changes and because the work needs to fit the season and the seasons in effect chase the work so you get it done when it needs to be done instead of two weeks or two months too late, there’s that constant attention to basically the environment or the world that you’re living in. I think of it as a conversation and that’s part of the reason why I used the title I do. It’s a conversation, it’s a communication with the environment. I’m not exactly sure how to express it more fully than that.
Caryn Hartglass: I really like the title and it’s so important to pay attention and so many of us don’t pay attention to most things that pass us by. So that’s really an accomplished skill that you’ve developed that unfortunately many of us have lost through the generations.
Jim Van Der Pol: That’s right. One of the things I try to point out in several of the essays is that it’s important for us, whatever we’re doing, to live in the place we’re living and that starts with living in our own bodies instead of on television or on the internet. You don’t have to farm to do that, but farming, at least farming the way we do it here on this farm, kind of insists on it. I guess I feel pretty lucky, I’m not sure that with another occupation I would have been led into the kind of approach to my surroundings that I am.
Caryn Hartglass: Well there’s lots of things we can always imagine, oh I could have done that or what would have happened if I made that choice, but you’re definitely, you seem very well suited for farming.
Jim Van Der Pol: Yes, I think I am. It’s a curse sometimes of course, but most of the time it’s a blessing.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, you know, a lot of things in life, a lot of things that people have difficulty in life, any challenge that comes along, we tend to resist and that makes it so much more of a struggle no matter what challenge it is, it’s resisting. The feeling that I got with farming was that you understand that you’re not in control.
Jim Van Der Pol: Yes, that’s right.
Caryn Hartglass: You just have to go with whatever comes, try and be prepared.
Jim Van Der Pol: In order to operate a farm or to live on a farm and work on a farm, you need to be pretty steady temperament and strong minded, but at the same time you have to admit that everything that you think you’ve got planned for the plan or for the week or for your life or for this project or the other that has to do with the farm can be knocked awry and taken apart in an instant just by change in the weather, the biology of the plants or animals that you’re working with and by a number of other things, markets in the financial system for example.
Caryn Hartglass: Something that we are not doing, we as a global culture. When we evaluate wealth in the world we don’t really, I don’t think the equation has got it down at all. I’m not a doom and gloom kind of person, but if we had horrible crisis that made it really difficult for people in urban areas to access food, it would really, really be serious and we do not value people who own land and grow food on that land enough. If we ever come to a situation, we’re routed. Everything falls apart. Those that are on the farms with the food are the ones who are going to survive.
Jim Van Der Pol: Yes, that’s right. If we ever come to a situation where everything falls apart, I hope and I’m sure probably yours as well is that it falls apart a little slowly so that we’ve got time to react to it. We have ourselves in a lot of ways in a situation that would be a catastrophe if we’re facing a sudden change.
Caryn Hartglass: And so we don’t value farming enough or at all in some situations. People don’t even realize that we need to eat every day. We just take food for granted, many of us do and so now we’re in this situation where we have really given away our choices. We’ve given away our freedom when it comes to food by allowing giant corporations to take over and do what they will with our food system.
Jim Van Der Pol: That’s right, we have. And that’s the situation I was talking about where we’ve put ourselves in a position where a change could be a catastrophe. When you put that kind of control in the hands of so few people, so few powerful people that have a kind of a truncated goal having to do with making lots of money generally. Just under the theory that things are going to work out. We approach food almost as a religious belief that is that, our modern food system is all automatically going to be able to adjust immediately to whatever changes might be forced upon it. and we all might be able to find what we need in the grocery store and I don’t think that’s true.
Caryn Hartglass: You write in many different essays there are some continuing themes, if you were the emperor who was in charge of the entire world, I get a feeling for how you might change things, but it’s clear that we have trouble with the economy, many people are out of work, and we’ve created this situation by taking away jobs, especially on farms, by having these big corporations grow in really unsustainable ways. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that. How important it is for kids to grow up in a farming environment and participate.
Jim Van Der Pol: I’ve written in a few places, in a few essays in the book about that subject because when you life in a rural area, you’re always almost automatically needing to be concerned about the kids because we’re in a situation where we have steadily shrinking populations, our towns are smaller and smaller each decade. Our schools are needing to consolidate and the school buses travel more and more miles to get enough kids together to actually operate a school and we have all too many cases with both parents working some miles away from home. Often the kids are not seen to as well as they should be because the income from the jobs that the parents have just really isn’t enough because that’s not paid well enough. As a matter of fact we should as a nation in an area like this, we short our kids because we do not honor what the entire working people do. Including farming and a lot of other things as well that make our economy and our society run. I have one essay in the book entitled “Boys” and it simply is my reflection on what it seems to be to grow up male in this day and age compared to what it was when I grew up some 60 years ago on this farm that I’m operating today and the difference as I wrote that essay, the difference became really startling to me. I grew up wanting to demonstrate my value to my elders and that was economic value as well as a social value and that I would fit in and so on. It was a great joy to me when the day came that I could keep up in terms of physical work with my own father and with my uncles and hired hands and neighbors that got together to do the work. When I really arrived at that stage of young male adulthood where I could do that, I could sense acceptance all the way around the circle of men that were working, that I was working with. I don’t think very many boys have that chance today. I think the closest that we get with it is high school athletics and of course that’s only a minority of the kids that participate in that. I end that essay by saying something I believe, if I’m remembering it right, something of girls to the effect that I wasn’t speaking of girls because they didn’t grow up wanting to be a man and I wouldn’t be able to speak intelligently about it. I think as a general rule, we can only do a good job with our kids by needing them in a lot of ways. One of them is economics, that’s important. Needing them socially in terms of their view of what the world looks like and what they can tell us older ones who have got more experience than they do, but different perceptions because we didn’t grow up with the same surrounding social furniture that they have. I think we need to need our kids and I think when we can figure out ways and means of doing that in a real way, that is, I think our kids will have fewer problems growing up.
Caryn Hartglass: I agree with you 100 percent. We seem to be doing less and less in this country. So we’ve shift so much manufacturing oversees and even some of the farming that’s done with giant agribusiness I know that we have a lot of illegal aliens and very low paid foreigners that do a lot of the work mostly because people don’t want to do that work and the pay isn’t good for that kind of work.
Jim Van Der Pol: That’s it of course. In one of my essays, or two, I write about where I think this started. It started in the 70s when corporations caught on to the fact that they could benefit financially by disrespecting laborers and it’s been getting steadily worse ever since. I’m sitting on a phone talking now just six miles south of a dairy that milks 6,000 cows every day and they have built several bunkhouses to house the young men they get from Ecuador and Colombia in order to do that work. It’s not that that’s the most pleasant livestock kind of work that there is because it isn’t. Being in confinement, it’s not real attractive work really for anybody but the fact of it is that the young folks that are here from South America because the farm that gets them in can pay lower wages that way. That’s really the entire fact and there would be people in our society, people that have been here for some generations, that would take those jobs if they paid 50 percent more than they do.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. Everything is so crazy in terms of where the subsidies go to pay for who benefits and who doesn’t and we pay for so much in our tax dollars that are invisible to us. If we could take some of that and put it towards paying better salaries for people would make such a difference.
Jim Van Der Pol: You make a wonderful point and that pops up here and there in my writing, which by the way is ongoing, this is a collection of columns and I read one every month but you make a wonderful point about that, that the money that we are spending helping all the victims would be better spent organizing an economy that didn’t produce so many victims. We don’t seem to get that, there doesn’t seem to be any political voice for that in our government, in our senators in power and so it just keeps getting worse and worse. Another thing I think that shouldn’t be ignored, that can’t be ignored from my point of view that I feel very strongly about this is that kind of situation where young men who are not paid enough money and are always away from home are caring for livestock is kind of in and of itself not a good situation for the livestock either.
Caryn Hartglass: I’ve heard so many horrific stories about workers that are brought in from other countries and some of them are treated almost like slaves. This is in our country America, but there are things that we can do, aren’t there.
Jim Van Der Pol: There are.
Caryn Hartglass: What can we do Jim? What can we do?
Jim Van Der Pol: Well, are you asking me for suggestions?
Caryn Hartglass: Help!
Jim Van Der Pol: I think you know what my answer’s going to be, if you don’t you will by the time I’m done giving it. That is that there’s this whole idea of a small change that I write about in the last essay of the book, which is 5 or 6 columns put together. We best change things by changing how we think and changing how we live and that requires going a little out of our pathway. It maybe requires buying food at a farmer market. Maybe it requires making a link with a farmer for some of the things that you want to buy. Or maybe it requires simply putting pressure on our grocery store or choosing a grocery store that is willing to be pressured to establish better communication between you the buyer and the people that are supplying the store. In parts of the world and I’m talking more about Europe here, there are postings on the supermarket or on the market walls leading you to an understanding who it is that brought the food and what some of the ins and out of producing it were. There’s a place for electronic communication in that. So I think that that’s the best place to start and you can do more that start. You can make up your mind to live your life that way. You can also, if you have access to some space, you can garden. Gardening teaches a lot about life and about what farming really is. Again, depending on your neighborhood, you might get in a few backyard chickens which are a wonderful kind of project because it teaches you about what really tastes good in an egg and that may teach you about some of the silly attitudes of your neighbors too, depending on your situation. Whatever I think, what it amounts to is paying more attention to what we eat and if we have the wherewithal to do it and if everybody does it as you pointed out in your lead in, but if we have the wherewithal to do it and be willing to pay a bit more for that kind of food.
Caryn Hartglass: Well it’s all about a long term perspective and that’s just something that’s unheard of in this country. Everything is short term. Pay the least amount you can without thinking of the long term impact of your purchase and where it comes from.
Jim Van Der Pol: Yes, that’s right. We talk in our circles here a lot about three part goals and double bottom lines and things like that, the double bottom line being not always catch profit but also that we produce quality. The idea that a profitable farm is not enough by itself, there has to be a high quality of life enacted with it and that there has to be a community connection connected with it. I guess what I’m saying is that we need to try whatever we can think of to do the best we can to encourage that kind of thinking and planning in the people that we buy from, instead of just the cash profit margin.
Caryn Hartglass: There are a number of really critical things that absolutely have to change. This is my vision. I would love to see all the giant corporations out of food production. I would like to see the return of small farms. I would like to see genetically modified food and seeds disappear and I think foods should be grown organically and for people to most of their food within a region that’s near where they live.
Jim Van Der Pol: I can’t argue with a single item.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t know if you’re aware of this Jim, but I’m a vegan and I encourage people to eat plant foods and I know that you’re a livestock farmer. We might not agree on some things but we definitely can agree on some very, very big concepts and those are the ones that I just outlined and they’re so important.
Jim Van Der Pol: I think we can, I agree.
Caryn Hartglass: One of my favorite essays was in the beginning where you talk about the weatherman and weathermen on television.
Jim Van Der Pol: Weather reports sound different to a farmer than they do to most people I think.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s funny because I related to it and I never really thought about it the way you put it. Where for most of us the weather matters on the weekends.
Jim Van Der Pol: That’s true and I can see where that comes from.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m here in New York and I think it’s CBS where we get the weather with Lonnie something or other but we see him around New York City sometimes, riding his bike and he’s on television with his gorgeous suits telling us about the weather and it’s a joke. Ok, let’s see we just have a few more minutes. Have you ever experienced or been pressured by some of the giant agribusiness companies when it came to your own business? I’ve heard about so many stories about small farmers not being able to compete and sometimes actually being run off the land.
Jim Van Der Pol: The latest version of that is generally or often has to do with Monsanto and their efforts to protect their patented seeds and they’re pretty aggressive in court and don’t have too much trouble getting their way as far as cooperation with law enforcement. If they think some farmer has saved a seed of theirs they regard that as patent infringement so they pursue that person in court. That’s kind of the latest version of that.
Caryn Hartglass: You know people that have experienced this.
Jim Van Der Pol: I know of people. I don’t have any close friends and nobody in this community that I know of. What we do have in kind of a more general way is anybody that farms organically and our farmland is certified organic, you worry about general drift. Corn is very promiscuous and the pollen goes for miles on wind and if the pollen drifts from a neighbors GMO corn to my organic corn what I’m going to harvest at the end of the year is going to be something less than organic whether I wanted it that way or not. So you live in a little anxiety thinking that at some point the organic buyers are going to apply another test and they’re going to see that GMO amount in there and I’m going to not be able to sell my crop that year. Or maybe it might be possible that I might even be pursued by the company that thinks that I planted seed without buying it from them because I’ve heard those stories and I have every reason to believe they’re true. It’s not a personal experience as much of a generalized anxiety about that. Before the GMO controversy grew up over the past few decades, farmers my size have been encountered agribusiness largely through price discrimination and that has taken place not so much when we sold our products as when we bought our input, when we bought our seeds and so on. We can’t get the volume deals on seeds so we’re paying sometimes a good deal more money for the same seed. Sometimes on livestock particularly, it’ll happen that if you don’t sell enough animals at a time, you’re going to take a cut on the price on those. I’ve had that happen to me so that I’ve taken ten percent less price because I’m bringing in ten hogs instead of 100. So it’s those kinds of things that the agriculture business are always there, they kind of make the playing field in terms of our finances and our economy and it’s always a worry. Sometimes it really reaches out and hits you but most of the time you’re just living with that generalized worry.
Caryn Hartglass: Well thank you so much for talking to me on It’s All About Food, and I hope you don’t worry too much. Have some peace in your life.
Jim Van Der Pol: So do I.
Caryn Hartglass: Enjoy your farm and your family and thanks for writing Conversations With the Land. I really enjoyed reading it.
Jim Van Der Pol: Thanks for having me on.
Transcribed by Meichin, 4/18/2013
TRANSCRIPTION PART II
Caryn Hartglass: Hello I’m Caryn Harglass, we’re back! You’re listening to It’s All About Food. Ah yes, I can relax now! We’re going to be talking about fun vegan things with Jason Das who is the co-founder of Super Vegan. He is responsible for most of the design and front end code of the site supervegan.com and more than a little more of the content. Along with Deborah Deomont, Jason is a co-founder and co-organizer of Vegan Drinks. He’s a freelance web developer and artist in various capacities and you can keep tabs on his various rackets at jasondas.com. Welcome to It’s All About Food Jason.
Jason Das: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Thanks for joining me here today. So when I think about the world of vegans, superheroes do come to mind.
Jason Das: Really, which ones?
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I make them up! New ones!
Jason Das: There you go!
Caryn Hartglass: New vegan superheroes that have come to save the world!
Jason Das: Yeah! Well, I’d rather turn that on its head and have it be all the little people and not the superheroes who are doing it. If we wait for just heroes to do it, that’s not going to save the animals, what we need for everybody, the man on the street as they say that’s looking up at Superman, he’s got to be vegan.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. That reminds me of a musical that I was just participating in a reading for, a new musical called the Masked Zinfindel and the moral of the story was that this masked superhero was really just some guy.
Jason Das: There you go! Be your own hero; don’t wait for someone else to save the world.
Caryn Hartglass: Be your own hero! Right on, that’s the ongoing message. Okay, so you started this super vegan thing about six years ago?
Jason Das: That’s right, almost exactly. We launched sometime in May, I forget the exact birthday. It’s been an interesting road, we’ve gone through a lot of permutations and we’re going through more now, which I won’t talk about too much because enough of these things haven’t happened yet and I have a bad habit of making them not happen exactly as we announce. Super Vegan has been a leading online resource for vegan information and especially for New York City with our big restaurant guide and a lot of posts about local events. It’s been great and it’s been really interesting to just watch the vegan web and internet presence change over that time.
Caryn Hartglass: Well these last six years have been amazing in terms of change, which obviously you’ve kind of been keeping track of.
Jason Das: Yeah, exactly! Participants to some degree but also, you become a very concerned fly on the wall when you have your own property in the space, of course. Just seeing who else does things well, seeing other sites pop up and then disappear again. One thing I’ll say for Super Vegan is that we’re like ancient survivors at this point, which is a strange thing to say about a six year old, but that’s web for you!
Caryn Hartglass: Well in the web blog world, that’s pretty old. I’m sure it keeps you busy because here in NYC, the greatest city in the world, we have so many vegan restaurants and events.
Jason Das: We do! And also a lot of, and this has changed a lot over the last six years, is the number of non-vegan places that are catering to vegans or are using the word vegan. The word is just out there in a way that it wasn’t six years ago and definitely wasn’t ten years ago or longer ago. At some random place somewhere will be something marked “vegan.” That to me is a tremendous victory and I think that’s really wonderful. The word is out there, the concept is out there and while going to vegan restaurants and supporting vegan businesses is a wonderful thing to do, it’s also wonderful to be able to have vegan options at as many places as possible. As far as the vegan events, we’re celebrating another birthday. Actually, tomorrow, May 31st it’ll be the fourth anniversary of Vegan Drinks which is a monthly, after-work bar night that we’ve been doing in New York now for four years. We open sourced the concept and said, “Take this, run with it and do it in your city,” and now over thirty cities around the world have their own Vegan Drinks events, which is just wonderful.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. So, Vegan Drinks, what does that consist of?
Jason Das: Showing up and drinking. We’re pretty loose. It is held in a bar and you do have to be over 21. That can be the only weakness of the concept is that if you’re under 21 then you can’t participate. I don’t feel great about that, but everything else I feel great about. We really started out as coffee and there were these other events, Green Drink and Drinking Liberally were two events we were aware of where people who were concerned about certain kinds of issues could mix and mingle without there being specific programmatic content, without there being a specific activist show up, without paying any money, and in our case, without even RSVP’ing, you just show up. You can stay for fifteen minutes, you can stay for three hours, you can stay at the bar after the event is over and people sure do. We would provide an unstructured space. I think that was really important for something vegan that it wouldn’t be about food first. It’s so common for vegan social events to center around food, for plenty of good and obvious reasons, and it’s really important for us at Vegan Drinks, but it wouldn’t be about that. It would be about meeting people. You know, you go to a meet up dinner, and you all sit down around the table and you talk to the three people next to you. Nothing wrong with that but when you come to Vegan Drinks, you get a drink and you could talk to the three people next to you, but it’s just free movement so you could meet 80 people or 100 people in a night. I often have and forget their names, but that’s a different problem. Just to have this open ended event where anything can happen and everyone here is either vegan or interested in or supportive of veganism.
Caryn Hartglass: What about the drinks themselves? Because there are some drinks out there that aren’t vegan.
Jason Das: That’s for sure, yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, that’s a detail though.
Jason Das: I’m just going to throw a quick side shout-out to the Pine Box Rock Shop which is the only vegan bar in NYC. They’re great, they actually hosted last month’s vegan drinks even there, and they’re out in Bushwick. They’ve got a lot of amazing cocktails and everything, but there you can go and just order anything because they’ve checked it out for you, even the really obvious stuff, like they make an imitation of Bailey’s Irish Cream, stuff like that. Yes, the Bloody Mary’s have Worcestershire sauce is vegan, we know, stuff that in a normal bar you would never assume. They also will check out that the wine and beer is vegan and that is something that we try to do for the bars where we have Vegan Drinks is provide a list of the kind of beer they have on tap and here are the ones that are vegan or not. Most American beers are vegan and even a lot of foreign beers available here are. Actually more of a problem are the organic ones unfortunately. Wine is a hairier thing, most bars don’t have that great a wine selection anyway. If you do drink alcohol and you care about your drinks being vegan, Barnivore.com is the ultimate resource. Barnivore is really a wonderful thing, that’s where we check it out. So we do some good deals, but it’s mostly about the people and we don’t care what you drink. People could come to vegan drinks and drink something non-vegan and we’re not policing that. Also many people come that don’t drink alcohol although it is held in an alcohol environment, there a plenty of straight-edged people, people who can show up and have a great time.
Caryn Hartglass: Is there anything special about this four year anniversary event?
Jason Das: We’re going to have some cake. I just did the biggest mistake when organizing a vegan event by saying that there will be food. We will have some birthday cake that Vérité Catering are hooking us up with. There will be a celebratory atmosphere but that’s kind of true of every vegan drink. We’re just really proud that we’ve pulled this off for this long, that it’s still going strong, that it’s not boring and people still want to come out. It’s grown as an event. We used to worry, “Oh, will we have enough people?” and now we always have plenty of people which is wonderful.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so you said that there were some things you can’t talk about but can you tell me where you’d like Super Vegan to go? Is it just going to continue to be an event spot and reviews of restaurants?
Jason Das: That’s certainly not going away. Actually, a technical problem that we’ve had, but basically we’ve had problems with user accounts and people actually hadn’t been able to leave restaurant reviews for rather too long now. So just some obvious fixing that goes along with building a secure website to go on a shaky technological foundation. It’s a legacy problem; if you were starting fresh today, you’d be starting with better tools and that’s just a problem of a lot of online applications and community tabs. The most obvious things are just fixing things like that that are broken, just bigger, better, stronger, more modern, more useful, and more information. I don’t think there’s anything that’s totally going to shock anyone. Use your imagination. It’s going to be what it should be.
Caryn Hartglass: So what’s your story? When did you start doing this vegan thing?
Jason Das: Sure, that’s a good question. I was almost vegan for many years before I became actually set on being vegan and stopped using animal products.
Caryn Hartglass: You know, almost vegan is a pretty good thing.
Jason Das: It is. I think that the only problem with almost vegans is that if you go around saying that you’re vegan and then doing things that aren’t vegan, I really do think that does mess it up for other people. Before I was 100 percent, I never claimed I was and I would encourage others to do the same. For me, someone brought brownies to work, well I’m going to eat a free brownie and that’s not a vegan thing to do. You’re lost in the airport somewhere and the only food you can get isn’t vegan and you’re willing to eat it, then great, but please don’t go around claiming you’re vegan. I didn’t and this went on for a long time and at some point I realized I know veganism is a good idea and I know I believe in it but I’m apparently not ready to commit to it. I honestly waited till the path of least resistance arrived: I was working at a vegan office and I was living with a vegan girlfriend. It was really only if I ended up in an odd situation that I wasn’t vegan in the first place. The same had happened with going vegetarian maybe eight years before that. I had been almost vegetarian for so long that it came to a point where I was just like, “Go with it, it’s not that big of a deal.” I would encourage the gradual approach for everyone. I think that if you do any major lifestyle change overnight or go cold turkey, you’re going to have a lot more trouble with it. You probably won’t feel it as equally so you’ll have an easier time turning around on it.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. I like to say that in the real world, none of us are truly vegan because there are so many animal products in so many different things that it’s just impossible to avoid being exposed to them in one way or another. You fly Jet Blue and you’re sitting on leather seats and you use plastic containers and they may have some animal derivative in them so it’s really impossible to know.
Jason Das: It is, it’s impossible. You can do whatever diligence you can. It’s when you know you’re getting something vegan or something that’s a consumer thing, beginning and end, that’s all veganism is. And if you’re knowingly purchasing something that contains animal products, especially for a non-essential need, by that I mean not an essential medication or something, then just don’t use the word, find another word. What I think is really important is not that people are considered vegan, to say “I’m vegan,” and I’m working through this myself because old habits die hard, but a product is vegan, an item can be vegan, a restaurant can say that they’re vegan because they don’t use animal products in their kitchen or business. That to me makes a lot more sense than a person claiming to be vegan and then we can go and poke these holds. To say, “I only eat a vegan diet, I only buy vegan food, I only buy vegan clothes,” and that’s pretty different from saying, “I’m not going to ask that policeman for help because he’s wearing leather shoes,” or “I’m going to stop paying taxes because the government spends money on non-vegan things.” We’re all going to have degrees of what matters to us. For instance, I have trouble going to a movie, even if I’ve heard good things, but if I know that an animal is killed on-screen, which unfortunately happens in good movies. On the flip side, I’ve seen plenty of movies where everyone is eating meat and there’s a catering truck. It’s just about my comfort level with things, it’s not about saving lives.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t like watching a lot of movies where there’s just a lot of reckless violence just for gratuitous violence.
Jason Das: Oh, I mean genuine, the animal is killed on screen, I don’t mean simulated. Unfortunately, there are definitely movies out there where that is the case, like the movie Old Boys out there, I really want to see it but they eat a live octopus, what am I going to do? I haven’t seen it, even though I think I’d love everything else about the movie. Whereas I’m pretty sure I’ve watched plenty of movies where people eat an octopus, but it’s already dead. What do we do with this? Does it matter? Well, it’s kind of a distraction. What really matters is effecting larger change to especially, of course, industrial animal agriculture.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, I want to know something. You mentioned vegan clothes; where does a hip guy get good clothing that’s vegan?
Jason Das: Well, the hard part is shoes. In this day and age, you can get a non-wool suit, no problem. Well, I’d say belts and shoes, in fact. I think that if you go with all fabric, that’s not an appropriate look and the fake leathers just are not up there in terms of quality in most cases. I also have really problem feet. Basically, I have two pairs of nice shoes, shiny black ones and some suede-ish ones, both Novacas brand. Neither of them are comfortable, but when I’ve got the wedding or the funeral or the right kind of work event where you just need to do it, I’m happy to wear them and because I wear them infrequently, they’ll last a long time. I think that it’s tough. It’s like the mock meats argument; are you going to feel left out if you can’t have something that looks like a hotdog at the barbeque? A lot of us would, we enjoy everything about that except for the animal products involved. You want shoes modeled on leather shoes, but especially for men’s wear, there’s just such a tiny selection. If you’ve got problem feet like I do, then that knocks out about 80 percent of what’s left because they won’t work with my feet problem. That’s something where I welcome more and more vegan options. It’ll come.
Caryn Hartglass: It’ll come. It’s just going to take time. There’s certainly a lot for women but the men thing just hasn’t come up to speed.
Jason Das: Exactly, and the other thing I want to say about clothes in general, and this has just been limited to the leather analog, is that the environmental and labor costs is where so much of our clothing comes from, it’s just atrocious. This is not a vegan issue in that there are animal products directly, but really buying new clothing at the rate that most people do in New York, in the US, in most of the first world, it’s terrible. We don’t use these things till they’re used up; it’s like food waste, but even worse. So really buying used clothing if you can, wearing what you have, not buying something unless you think you’ll get a lot of use out of it, and buying well made things and can be made from sustainably grown plants. On the opposite exchange, PVC is vegan but it’s the worst thing you can do for the planet otherwise. So this is suede clothing, it’s an area where you look at the sweatshop labor, including a lot of fancy clothes, certainly all the cheap ones, but a lot of fancy ones too are coming from a horrible place and that often ties into the same reasons we’re vegan so clothes are tough.
Caryn Hartglass: Make your own!
Jason Das: Yeah, but even then, where’s your thread coming from? Where’s your fabric coming from? This is where the only true vegans are if you’re living in a hermetically field cage somewhere.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we have to believe that it has to get better.
Jason Das: We do, and I think what it really comes down to is that there are these big obvious things we can work on and chasing the minutia and marginalia is a losing game for everyone.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to talk about your artwork for a moment.
Jason Das: Sure.
Caryn Hartglass: So, you can go to jasondas.com and see a lot of the things you are working on and you are very talented.
Jason Das: Thank you, but you know, it’s all practice, practice, practice like anything.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, practice, practice, practice, yes. One of the things I wanted to ask you is when you’re working in, and I’m not really sure what all the medias are that you’re working in here, but I know that some of the art materials aren’t vegan so what do you do there?
Jason Das: Yeah, I’m glad you asked about that. This is another area where there’s just not a lot of material. Something I would love to do is to have an equivalent of Barnivore, but for vegan art supplies instead of alcoholic drinks. There’s not an easy or obvious resource, it’s not something that the art supply community as a whole cares very much about.
Caryn Hartglass: Nope
Jason Das: And it’s also that you maybe don’t know what’s really in something. We have ingredient labels for food, and for paint actually they kind of do, but we don’t know how paper is made. A lot of watercolor paper is scythed with gelatin, but I discovered recently that in fact it’s often synthetic gelatin and stuff like that and you don’t know what it even it means. The most obvious little hang is okay, yes, stay away from buying feathers for your art and stay away from buying leather. People do these things and okay, those are easy. Brushes are a tough one where generally what are considered the best paintbrushes, or any kind of brushes are made of animal hair and that goes from the coarse ones with the hog bristles to the very fine ones with sable. If you wouldn’t wear a fur coat, why would you use a fur brush? I don’t know the answer to that, I don’t use either. The good part is that I don’t know what I’m missing out on. It’s not like I used sable brushes for used and then tried to switch to synthetic. By the time I was invested enough in my art and had enough money to have my pick of brushes, there was only one synthetic one. The good thing is I think that synthetic brushes are getting better, I don’t know if it’s driven by the ethical dimensions.
Caryn Hartglass: No, it’s just probably cheap.
Jason Das: Yeah, exactly, cost and it’s reliability too. That’s the thing with natural products, you can’t necessarily guarantee the consistency; it’s the same with industrially produced food, vegan or otherwise, it’s if they can get that consistency and there are manufacturers like that. Most glue, well not most glue, but many types of glue are not vegan and this is something with stringed instruments. I play guitar and cello and I can avoid the ones with mother-of-pearl inlays I guess.
Caryn Hartglass: The drums have skin on them.
Jason Das: Yeah, drum skins are a big one. Strings are almost always synthetic at this point.
Caryn Hartglass: The violin bow.
Jason Das: Violin, yes, hair! Exactly! Oh, I wish I could remember their name; I might try to google it right now. That was a big one. Sorry, I’m literally googling it now because I want to give them a shout-out now. Basically there’s a company, down in Kentucky or something, who make these very non-traditional, but to me excellent bows. I can’t find it but I know that PETA gave them an award a few years ago. They didn’t come at it from a vegan perspective. I think they had a plastic factory or something. They realized they could make these quality bows and people would like them. Of course they’re happy about the vegan market, but that’s not why they went into it.
Caryn Hartglass: It just makes you think about how we’re surrounded by so many different products and we really are privileged to have access to so many different things, but then we need to pay attention and know where these things come from and think about what they’re made of and just everything
Jason Das: Yeah, I think that’s it. Even if you’re not, for whatever reason, interested in being vegan or ready to be vegan, pay attention to where your consumables come from and that’s not something that comes natural to a lot of people. And that’s the with labor conditions, with the environmental footprint of what you’re buying, and thinking about the wider picture. Some people will say, “Oh, this is a handmade shirt and I got it on Etsy,” and I’m like, “Where did the fabric come from? Where did the thread come from?” and they’re not ready to think about that.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we’ve come to the end of our show Jason! Thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food and thank you for all you’re doing with Super Vegan, have a great Vegan Drinks event, and have a great day!
Transcribed by Flannery Cash, 3/14/2013