Professor Takes Million Dollar Vegan Challenge to Protest Factory Farms
Associate Professor Sacoby Wilson never aspired to be vegan. But on January 1, 2020 he spent $200 at the grocery store on vegan food such as the Gardein brand “meatless ground” that he added to his spaghetti for his New Year’s Day dinner.
He aims to forgo all animal products throughout the month as part of a “Go Vegan for January” pledge he made through the national Million Dollar Vegan campaign. This non-profit, non-partisan organization, endorsed by leading doctors, health educators and celebrities, encourages people to adopt a plant-based diet for the month for the sake of animal welfare, sustainability and personal health.
“The challenge inspired me to think about a different approach to living my ideals in a more holistic and robust way,” Dr. Wilson explained. “There is more I can do to reduce my impact and to model what I talk about it.”
Already a passionate advocate and leader for environmental justice and health, Dr. Wilson recently contributed his voice to the documentary film Right to Harm, which exposes the devastating impact that factory farming is having on the health of many rural communities through the stories of people in five states, including Maryland and Delaware.
“If you look at the chicken houses in Maryland and Delaware and and the industrial hog farming operations in North Carolina, there are a disproportionate number of these facilities in communities that are low income and primarily communities of color,” said Dr. Wilson, whose Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health lab works with community-based organizations, environmental advocacy groups, health practitioners, and policymakers to improve environmental health and sustainability.
Wilson has partnered with communities impacted by the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, aka “factory farms”) which house the majority of animals raised for consumption in the US and can confine thousands of animals in close quarters. He’s worked with people in North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware to collect data on the toxic emissions from hog and chicken waste and the negative health impacts that result (including stress, anxiety, fatigue, asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions). They have fought for stronger regulations on the animal agriculture industry, and are having some success.
In Maryland, advocates have been pushing for the passage of the Community Healthy Air Act, which was highlighted in the Right to Harm documentary. The law would enable the Maryland Department of the Environment to monitor air emissions from industrial factory farms and to assess their impacts on public health.
“For us to make any progress in Maryland in the fight against CAFOs, we have to have data,” Dr. Wilson said about the importance of this law. “They should be required to have monitoring to understand the impact from ammonia, VOCs, hydrogen sulfide and other contaminants including microbial contaminants into the air and streams and rivers so that we can do something about it.”
If reintroduced this 2020 legislative session, it will be the fourth time it has been brought to vote by the Maryland General Assembly.
Dr. Wilson’s efforts to hold factory farms accountable for their impact on communities and to insure that they are held to the environmental regulations of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act that govern other industries like power plants, landfills, sewage treatment plants, refineries, and paper mills are ongoing and key to his work for environmental justice. “CAFOs emit tons of toxic compounds, so why are they exempt from these laws, when these other industries are not?” he asked.
Yet, as he begins a sabbatical from his teaching responsibilities this semester, Dr. Wilson is taking stock of his health and considering how his own choices may make a difference in the movement for healthier communities.
“Veganism could be part of the solution to these issues related to the negative impacts of CAFOs,” he acknowledged.
Some of Dr. Wilson’s students and other young people who are vegan have had an influence on his thinking, he admits, as has one of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.
“Cory Booker was asked a question about being a vegan at a forum on environmental justice in South Carolina,” Dr. Wilson recounted. “He wasn’t trying to project his beliefs onto others, but he wanted to live up to his beliefs. He connected it to the fight against CAFOs. He mentioned the communities I worked with in North Carolina. It was provocative and deep and challenged me to speak up more as an advocate and an activist to make sure that I am living up to these ideals every day.”
Part of “living up to his ideals” for Dr. Wilson is growing his own food, which he proudly does at his home in Bowie, MD, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. “Last year I grew kale, blackberries, blueberries, various tomatoes, mustard greens, eggplant, different varieties of hot peppers, collard greens, cucumbers, and even corn,” he shared. “Having access to land and a connection to land is a very important part of my culture. We need to reconnect people with nature and land. That is a part of the larger solution. You have a different relationship to food when you grow your own food. I want to empower people to be their own food stewards, consume less animal products and protect the sanctity of life.”
As part of the movement to fix our broken food system, there are proposals to ban the creation of new CAFOs. In December 2019, Senator Cory Booker introduced legislation that would impose an immediate moratorium on the biggest factory farms in the US and phase them out entirely by 2040.
This backs up the ongoing efforts by states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, to halt CAFO construction and builds upon a policy statement by the American Public Health Association in November 2019 advising federal, state, and local governments and public health agencies to impose a moratorium on all new and expanding CAFOs.
While Dr. Wilson may never be a typical vegan or keep this diet beyond this month, his commitment to incentivizing sustainable, regenerative and family farming is clear. He wants to make sure people understand that he does not see farmers as the enemy.
“We’re not really using science to inform decision-making about this industry, about how it is managed and how to mitigate its impacts,” he stressed. “I am not anti-farming. I am pro- community, I am pro-science. We need it to have a healthy community.”