Xchange Profile – Uma Graham
A Bozeman native and student at Montana State University, Uma Graham is a lifelong proponent of the Golden Rule and all of the unexpected awareness and responsibilities its adherence entails. Her passion for the environment, devotion to animal welfare and finely holstered activism seem born of a homeschooled education defined by inquisition, respect and exploration that allowed for the construction of a unique world view based on observation, rather than acceptance. Now in her third year at MSU, Graham is working toward an Honors College Interdisciplinary Program degree combining conservation biology, sustainable foods and marketing coursework, while launching Wild Life Arts, LLC – an organization merging creativity and zoology through wildlife-based community art classes – and managing Thrive On Plants, a student organization she founded to promote and support plant-based diets at MSU and throughout the Gallatin Valley. Recently, Graham discussed her position on a range of concerns related to consumption, population growth, conservation, the future of the planet and an overarching accountability to be the example she seeks.
JB: When did you embrace a vegan lifestyle and why? Have you found it challenging or like finding truth?
UG: First, I think it’s important to clarify the distinction between plant-based consumption and veganism. Plant-based eating is simply adherence to a diet that satisfies human nutritional needs without the inclusion of animal products. People adopt plant-based diets for many reasons: to reduce their risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes; to improve overall health; or to shrink their environmental footprint. Contrarily, veganism is an ethical choice to abstain from exploiting animals, and part of this lifestyle involves eating a plant-based diet.
I embraced veganism when I was 12 years old, after watching undercover footage of factory farms. I didn’t believe I could call myself an animal-lover while paying for farm animals to suffer and die for my food. But it hasn’t always been easy. I had a couple of years of deliberate ignorance as a teenager before deciding, again, to live in congruence with my morals and embark on my journey of eating compassionately. It took me a year to transition back to a fully plant-based diet and the lifestyle choice became concrete after I learned that animal agriculture is the leading contributor of species extinction, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, deforestation and natural resource consumption, as well as the main cause of poor human health. At this point, the decision to stop eating animal products was no longer a personal choice; I now understood the effects my choices were having on others, and on a global level.
JB: How supportive do you find Bozeman, the Gallatin Valley, and Montana in general of alternative food choices and veganism, in particular?
Overall, people are quite supportive of alternative food choices. Take the organic movement, for example. At first, it seemed crazy to grow foods without using chemicals, but eventually the idea caught on and turned into a profitable industry. The organic movement would likely be larger still if not for the enormous market power of the agrochemical companies. The plant-based movement is on a similar trajectory; the logic behind choosing plant-based foods is catching on. But, similarly, the meat, dairy, and egg production giants are part of a multi-billion dollar animal-consumption industry. This industry influences public opinion by funding ag-gag laws to decrease transparency, supporting ‘scientific studies’ that slander plant-foods and are favorable towards animal products, and buying into government check-off programs for ad campaigns like “Got milk?”
I’ve found that, while people are receptive to the idea of eating more sustainable foods and many people eat plant-based meals without realizing it, they still might struggle with a cultural bias against vegans that causes an automatic dislike of a food once they find out it is plant-based. This is why I find it so important to focus on growing the plant-based movement: you don’t have to be an animal activist to experience the many benefits of changing to a diet rich in plants.
JB: Why did you start Thrive On Plants? Tell me about the organization and its intended impact on MSU, the Gallatin Valley and beyond.
UG: I founded the student organization Thrive On Plants (TOP Club) with the vision to inspire Montana communities to conserve resources, protect wildlife, improve personal health, and build a resilient future through the promotion of plant-based diets. TOP curates a diverse series of educational events for the community, including plant-based cooking classes, food sampling events and documentary screenings, as well as hosting guest speakers and panel discussions, participating in animal-welfare campaigns, and working with restaurants and grocery stores to carry more plant-based options. I was honored to receive Forward Montana’s 25 Under 25 Award this year for my dedication to educating our community and providing accessibility to healthier lifestyles.
JB: Why is veganism an effort toward stewardship of the earth and a minimal footprint?
UG: Currently, a third of earth’s ice-free land is being utilized by animal agriculture. Despite nearly half of California still experiencing chronic drought, the grain and alfalfa grown as food for cows, sheep, horses, pigs and goats consumes at least 10 million acre-feet of water each year, three times what the almond industry uses.
Animal agriculture dumps more pollution into our lakes, streams, and estuaries than all other human activities combined. Animals raised for food in the U.S. produce 130 times the amount of waste that people do. Except animal waste doesn’t go to a waste treatment center like human waste. Instead, the waste, containing pathogens and hormones, runs off into streams and eventually the ocean, causing massive algae blooms and oceanic dead zones.
Commercial fishing is wiping out biodiversity. Nearly 1,000 marine mammals, dolphins, whales, and porpoises die each day after they are caught in fishing nets. By some estimates, shrimp trawlers discard as much as 85 percent of their catch, arguably making shrimp the most environmentally destructive fish flesh a person can consume. Commercial fishing has devastated the ocean’s ecosystem to the extent that large fish populations are only 10 percent of what they were in the 1950s.
In the U.S., 70% of antibiotics are given to farm animals to prevent them from falling ill in the crowded and filthy conditions in which they are raised. Already, documented methicillin-resistant MRSA has been traced back to pig farms. An outbreak of this would be devastating. Is it morally justifiable to risk public health for taste preference?
JB: Describe the impact of the cattle industry – meat and dairy – on the environment. What is your take on the agriculture industry? What is the relationship, if any, between a vegan lifestyle and overpopulation concerns, stewardship of the earth and the health of all populations residing upon it?
UG: Animal agriculture is an inefficient system for feeding people, requiring a glut of resources, and cattle are the most resource intensive farm animals of all. To produce one pound of beef, it takes 25 pounds of grain and 2,500 gallons of water. By comparison, a recent life cycle analysis study of the plant-based burger made by Beyond Meat was found to require 99% less water and 93% less land, while creating 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and utilizing 46% less energy. Our current agriculture system was developed a century ago and, while it may have worked then, our population and planet have since changed and our food systems must evolve as well in order to sustain healthy populations of people and wildlife in thriving ecosystems.
In America, we have been raised to believe that eating animals is necessary for maintaining our health and economy; so, eating plant-based may sound ridiculous at first. However, the planet cannot support our global population if we are to continue to use an animal-based agricultural system. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report last month that concluded that we have 12 years to prevent catastrophic changes to our global environment. Global warming means more than just hotter days, it also brings more frequent natural disasters, water scarcity, collapsing pollinator populations and declining agricultural systems. Millions of people, especially in poor countries, will experience food scarcity and climate-related poverty.
This information is grave, but I encourage everyone to take it as a personal challenge to do their part to mitigate their contributions to climate change and humanity’s consumption of natural resources. Our species does not have time to wait for policy change and infrastructure renovation to reduce environmental pollution. As individuals, we have the power to abstain from supporting the industry that is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and ecosystem destruction. We can take back the land and water employed toward otherwise inevitable devastation. We have 12 years to reduce our impact on the environment before the rising global temperature transforms Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland; eating a plant-based diet is the most immediate and inexpensive solution for this global crisis.