Arizona Agriculture's Conversation with a Vegetarian

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication Director: Now, hold your horses … or, rather your USDA Prime cuts of beef you selected for dinner tonight. You won’t have to share with vegetarian Paula Rivadeneira, Ph.D., assistant professor, extension specialist in Food Safety and Wildlife at the Yuma Agricultural Center for the University of Arizona. With her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Auburn University in Alabama and her earlier undergraduate degree in Psychology and Spanish from New York University, Rivadeneira has taken a winding if not unique journey to our desert agriculture state.

A visit to a local farm at the tender age of six is actually what influenced Paula Rivadeneira’s dietary choices. Is this a case of the farm tour gone wrong?

You will want to share your agriculture story with her, though. Since she is listening. And, we in agriculture are called upon to listen to her and the millions of other Americans who advocate an exclusively plant-based diet instead of a meat-based one. Why? Well, we’ve heard it before, so we have to practice it: To have an open dialogue among differing positions and opinions so we can tell our story in a way that people will listen. Ultimately, the experts tell us, we’ll even have mutual agreement, respect modeled and appreciation given if we understand where the other side is coming from.

This conversation with Rivadeneira was revealing. It even gave me personal insight as a public relations and marketing professional of what exclusive plant-based dieters don’t want to hear from the agriculture community. I also discovered that those outside of agriculture that control much of the animal agriculture narrative are still very successfully continuing to present false facts.

Venture a read on this conversation; this will spark some insights we might have never considered to reframe our understanding. Regarding dinner, if you are having steaks, I’ll come over.

Arizona Agriculture: As a transplant from New York, how did you end up all the way in Yuma, Arizona?

Rivadeneira: In 2001, I moved from New York City to Auburn, Alabama to get my Ph.D in Biology in the area of Conservation Physiology. I was working with an incredible animal, the gopher tortoise. After I graduated, I moved to Las Vegas, Nevada to work with desert tortoises, and to teach at Nevada State College. I was laid off from tortoise work in 2009, and knew that I never wanted to teach full time so I accepted a position as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of California, Davis in the field of food safety with a focus on wildlife. My research field sites were located in Yuma, Arizona so I had the opportunity to meet a lot of growers and other local folks during my monthly visits. While working in Yuma, I learned that for several years, the University of Arizona had a vacancy for a Food Safety Specialist in Cooperative Extension. One of the growers strongly encouraged me to apply for the position so I did, and a few months later in 2014, I moved from Davis, California to Yuma to start my new position here.

Arizona Agriculture: You’re a professed vegetarian and at times a guilty cheese indulger. What made you decide to be a vegetarian?

Rivadeneira: I grew up in Boston, and like many city people, I had never thought about where my food came from. In first grade, I went on a field trip to a farm where I learned that the chicken on my plate was the same as the cute chickens walking around the farm. I was horrified! I loved animals so much that I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of eating them. From that day on, I never wanted to eat an animal again.

Arizona Agriculture: What’s your thinking on those that eat meat protein?

Rivadeneira: I have no issues at all with people who eat meat. However, I strongly believe that people should know where their food comes from, how it was produced, and how it got to their table. I can’t understand how you could put something in your mouth to feed yourself and your family, something so critically important for life, and consciously choose not to know anything about the source of that food. For example, people will tell me how cute they think my pig is, and when I ask them if they eat pork, they say of course, but they would never eat a pig that they know. So as long as they don’t have to actually see or know the animal when it was alive, then they feel okay about eating it. That just makes no sense to me.

Arizona Agriculture: For us in animal agriculture, vegetarianism is the antithesis of everything we stand for. But, my sense is that you have uncovered some common ground. What is it and what is more to be discovered?

Rivadeneira: I think at the core of who we are as people, both vegetarians and animal agriculture folks care about animals. It’s just that we care about them differently. I care about animals as sentient beings on our planet who feel happiness, pain, loss, and comfort, just like humans do. But I think that people in animal agriculture care about animals as food and profit. They want animals to be well cared for, but ultimately so they will end up being sold and they will become something delicious on a plate. My care for animals is more about their feelings, so if an animal can live a good life, a happy life, a comfortable life, and the only fear they have is for the split second before they are killed, and they do not experience pain or suffering that would make me feel more comfortable with animal agriculture.

Arizona Agriculture: How do you explain the developing world’s dramatic interest in adding meat protein to their diet as income levels increase?

Rivadeneira: I have not seen data indicating that higher incomes equal more interest in eating animals. People often tell me that they can’t become vegetarian because produce is too expensive. Who would want to buy lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and rice for $5.00 when you could buy a huge fast food double decker hamburger with fries and a shake for half that?

Arizona Agriculture: What can a city girl learn from the country girl and vice versa?

Rivadeneira: I feel very fortunate having grown up in a city because I was exposed to a life that people who grew up in the country can’t imagine – skyscrapers, subways, 24-hour conveniences, and abundant ethnic diversity. But what I didn’t know about were all the things I was missing out on in the country – horseback riding, collecting my own eggs, 4-H, long drives with no traffic lights, and clean country air. I still love the city, but I could never live there again now that I have experienced this new life. But I think it’s a great idea for everyone to leave home and experience the opposite of what they grew up with so they can find out who they really are. I never would have guessed that I would prefer country life to living in the city!

Arizona Agriculture: From your perspective, why has the agriculture class struggled to share our message and story?

Rivadeneira: The true messages about agriculture are not being shared with those who really need to hear them. I’m not sure why that is, but the only things I heard about animal agriculture when I lived in the city were horror stories about slaughterhouses, dairies, and poultry farms. Positive messages were rarely presented to me, and those that were offered were so impersonal and contrived, like Happy Cows in California, that I didn’t have any reason to believe those ads over the more numerous negative messages I received. If you want vegetarians to be more open to animal agriculture, your messages need to be louder and stronger and more genuine than the messages we receive from the other side.

Arizona Agriculture: You went on a tour of the Kerr Dairy in Buckeye. What is the biggest misconception you had that after the tour was dispelled?

Rivadeneira: Wes Kerr and his family were very warm and welcoming, and were very patient in answering my numerous questions. There were two things that I learned during my visit that made a significant impact on me. The first was that I had seen a video in my early 20s that showed the raw painful udders of a cow that had been milked so much that she was actually bleeding. They said that dairy products are full of blood and pus. I almost never had another liquid milk product again (like a milkshake or ice cream), and when I did, all I could think about was the fact that I was eating blood and pus. Wes was kind enough to let me watch the cows be milked. It was such an orderly process. The girls all wandered into the barn (which was very clean), they got into position, and a man gently sprayed and wiped down their udders. He then attached suction cups to each teat, and when the milking was over, the suction cups released on their own and were pulled upwards so nothing touched the ground. There didn’t appear to be any discomfort, and more importantly, there was no blood and pus!

The second thing that I learned about dairies corrected what is probably the biggest misconception that my vegetarian AND omnivore friends and I have. If I absolutely had to buy dairy, for example if I had guests visiting, I would always, without exception, buy organic dairy products. I thought that because organic dairies advertise that they do not use hormones and antibiotics that means that conventional dairies do. I thought all conventional dairies pump their cows full of hormones and antibiotics to keep them healthy (which heavy antibiotic use does not), and to make the cows produce significantly more milk than they naturally would. Wes told me that none of the conventional dairies use hormones and antibiotics in their cows, and if they did, their milk would not pass the food safety tests that they must undergo before being packaged. He said that conventional farms use antibiotics for sick cows that they put in a hospital pen away from the rest of the herd. The cows stay there until their antibiotics course is over and the antibiotics are cleared from their system. However, since organic dairies cannot use antibiotics on a cow and have it remain organic, cows that become sick there can only be treated homeopathically, which often times will not resolve the illness. In my mind, withholding antibiotics from a sick animal is no different than withholding antibiotics from a sick person that you are responsible for. It seems unnecessarily cruel to me that a sick cow would not receive the best treatment possible, and as a result, will likely suffer until its death. So now I am horrified that I have been supporting organic dairies! Wes said that there are times when an organic dairy might treat a sick cow with antibiotics, and then transfer it to their own conventional herd if they have one, or they could try to sell it to a conventional dairy, but oftentimes they cannot find a buyer. I am hoping to get an invitation to tour an organic dairy so I can ask them more specific questions about organic practices. But for right now, you will not catch me buying any organic dairy, and this is something that I share with pretty much every person I meet!

Arizona Agriculture: Since you’ve come out here and in your role as an extension specialist, what has surprised you the most about the agriculture industry and the people in the industry?

Rivadeneira: I did my Ph.D in the southeast U.S. in a male-dominated field (wildlife biology on military lands). I had to work very hard to convince the “Good Ole Boys Clubs” to let me do my job. I thought I would encounter a similar experience here in Yuma, so I was ready to have to prove myself all over again to a whole new group of people. Happily, I was wrong! The growers, from management down to field laborers, have been very welcoming to me. They have been generously shared information with me about their farming and wildlife control practices, and once I gain their trust, they feel secure that I will maintain the utmost in confidentiality. It has been a wonderful experience.

Arizona Agriculture: What is the one thing that you think is “the coolest” or most amazing story about Arizona agriculture?

Rivadeneira: Before moving to Yuma, I had no idea how extensively scientific agriculture is. As a science nerd, I have been amazed with farming techniques, like laser leveling the fields, GPS planting seeds, and a gravity-driven canal system. Between that and the amazingly hard working folks that work our fields day after day, I still can’t wrap my head around why it doesn’t cost $10 for a head of lettuce!

But I think the thing I love most about Arizona agriculture is that it’s still a family business in many cases. It’s really important to me to know where my food comes from, and when there’s a family story behind my salad, I love that!

Arizona Agriculture: Just joking, but will we ever get you to enjoy a juicy Arizona-grown steak?

Rivadeneira: There is exactly a 0% chance that I will ever eat a cow! Or a sheep. Or a chicken. Or a pig. Or any other animal. I love animals too much as sentient beings to be able to eat them. To me, there is no difference between eating a dog or a cow or a pig or a cat – an animal is an animal. So I can’t wrap my head around why people are willing to eat cows but not dogs. But like I said, I think everyone has the right to make their own food choices, and mine does not include animals.

Arizona Agriculture: As a vegetarian, what is your one animal product you purchase each year? A byproduct? Or, explain how you are able to avoid purchasing any animal byproducts since they are so pervasive in our consumer economy.

Rivadeneira: I’m not vegan so I actually do eat some animal products, just not meat. Before going to Kerr Dairy, I would eat cheese from time to time, but never at home. I love cheese, but I couldn’t help but think of the blood and pus issue I talked about earlier. And I thought that if you purchase poorer quality or non-organic cheese, your risk of eating blood and pus increases. Wes explained to me how and why it’s impossible that I would ever eat blood and pus in dairy products, even in those that came from a dairy besides his. So my cheese consumption has increased exponentially since then. I still haven’t had milk or a milkshake or ice cream, but I admit I have been thinking about milkshakes!

Arizona Agriculture: While I can’t imagine Arizona agriculture can ask you to advocate for animal agriculture, can we ask you for an open mind? And if so, share your thoughts along this line.

Rivadeneira: I don’t know that I could fully advocate for all animal agriculture in Arizona because I would need to visit with folks at each farm and ranch personally to advocate for them, but I have certainly been spreading the word about Kerr Dairy and how I learned that my ideas about dairies were all wrong. That said, I am completely open to visiting all types of farms and learning everything I can to help dispel the myths about animal agriculture that are so pervasive in my vegetarian world. But I need to visit A LOT more farms to do that properly because my vegetarian friends now believe that Kerr Dairy is the only one that’s nice to its cows. They want me to be their eyes and ears to confirm that what I learned from Wes is actually the norm for all dairies.

I recently started a new Facebook page called City Gal In An Ag World (my husband kindly reminded me that I am no longer a Girl, which is how I ended up with Gal). I like to take pictures, meet farmers and ranchers, and talk about all the things I’m learning about Arizona agriculture from a city person’s perspective. After each farm or ranch that I visit, I will post what I learned and share my thoughts.

I would be happy to be the token vegetarian for Arizona animal agriculture so that I can give you insight into how people like me think, and to help you figure out how to reach us in a positive way (For example, please stop putting talking cows on dairy commercials – we hate that!). There are so many ways that you can reach us that will really make a difference, but you have to put in an effort that is equal to or better yet, that surpasses those that are spreading false truths about you. I can definitely share with you how to make that happen!

Thank you for giving me the chance to reach out to the animal agriculture community. I hope that this will be the start of a productive relationship!

Editor's Note: This conversation article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Arizona Agriculture

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