Disease Dangers in the Vegan Community


Maybe consider a protective suit at vegan events.

Lack of vaccine awareness and acceptance is a largely unaddressed issue that threatens the vegan community. It’s particularly iskelevant now, in light of the vaccine crisis we are experiencing. Influenza hit us hard last year in 2014. Infectious diseases that were nearly eradicated, like measles (in the Chicago area!) and whooping cough, are making a comeback. These are life-threatening diseases that a simple vaccination can help curtail. Now as a parent with a new baby, I have a revitalized concern. This is (some of) the story of our struggle in tackling anti-vaccination in our vegan community.

Vegan Chicago Advocates for Vaccination

Vegan Chicago is a vegan support and social group I organize. In 2012 we started promoting the idea of vaccinations to members. We have an interest in creating a safe space for our members. We also noticed a growing contingent of anti-vax sentiments within the vegan community. This was something we felt compelled to address and sought out an expert to speak at one of our speaker events.

We searched high and low for a credible expert to talk about vaccination. With the generous help of our science allies we found a good candidate. It wasn’t without controversy though. The event page started getting swamped by vegans peppering fear, uncertainty and doubt1 throughout. With the well poisoned, the event did end up having a reduced attendance unfortunately. The recording made a good podcast episode though2.

The doctor made an interesting point during the talk. He said herd immunity is a myth. People susceptible to infectious disease are not necessarily evenly dispersed throughout the population. They tend to cluster in communities (like those who tend to avoid vaccines). So there is a lack of any protection for an increased chance of exposure. On top of that, infectious disease is just a plane trip away. So our efforts in bringing together a vegan community may be putting individuals at a higher risk!

The Flu Vaccine

Vegan Chicago poster promoting flu vaccine.

Vegan Chicago poster promoting flu vaccine.

Fast-forward a year, 2013 and we’re tabling the Chicago VeganMania fest. We’re featuring a poster that’s reminding people to get their flu shot. Now, we know influenza vaccines use chicken eggs in their production. And eggs, as an animal product, are something vegans avoid. But we take the qualification of “as far as is possible and practicable”3 to heart. We advocate for this medical prophylactic over the modicum of egg used. Still though, many vegans balked.

But ok, since so many vegans had this hang-up, we rolled up our sleeves and sought out the rumored eggless version.  We soon discovered that a new vaccine used an insect cell line instead of chicken eggs4. “ANIMAL INGREDIENT, NOT VEGAN!” you say. Well, it’s more wonderfully complicated than that.

The fall armyworm is a common agricultural pest, which makes it a much-studied organism. From this organism there is a continuously cultured cell line for use in scientific research. It was originally procured in 1970 from the ovarian tissues of fall armyworms. Specifically this flu vaccine uses a cloned substrain of these cells (Sf9). A virus is genetically modified to infect these cloned insect cells. The result is the creation of the appropriate hemagglutinin protein required for the final vaccine.5

Fall armyworm.

Fall armyworm.

A similar biotech process is used in creating synthetic insulin. We used to rely on mashing up tons of pig and cow pancreases for insulin. Now we now can create it using genetically modified bacteria. Technology has this potential to help reduce our reliance on animal bodies.6 The same is true here with this vaccine. This can help displace millions of eggs each year. Isn’t that an amazing wonder of biotechnology? The vegan concerns that fall armyworms in 1970 died in the development of this vaccine are absurd. Consider the number of armyworms killed with insecticide every year for vegan food (Organic too btw).

In 2014 we hoped to bring this eggless flu vaccine to Chicago VeganMania as a pop-up clinic. It was a natural fit and what an opportunity for vegans! There would be a ton of people there from all over the place and the timing was at the start of the flu season. We worked throughout the year to establish a relationship with the vaccine developer and all the people involved in doing a pop-up clinic. Ultimately we were told that the Chicago VeganMania board7 wouldn’t allow us to bring in the pop-up clinic.

What they did allow was the usual hodgepodge of charlatanry. Reiki, chiropractic, organic food, and anti-GMO are examples of such allowed vendors8. It was disappointing and frustrating. Withholding access to this amazing medical innovation doesn’t seem to me supportive of the vegan community. It’s a missed opportunity, at best, to promote true evidence-based health and wellness.

In looking for alternative venues to bring this vaccine to our community we talked to many people. From the Chicago Department of Public Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, hospitals, alderpeople, and park supervisors, everybody was encouraging. There was a hint of: “You privileged vegans won’t get vaccinated when we have underserved populations clamoring for vaccines?!” Yep, I’m living an Onion article.

Vegan Chicago did send out a poll9 to our nearly 3,000 Vegan Chicago members to gauge interest in the vaccine. Over 50 replied in the affirmative and that was a nice surprise! I didn’t expect even that response. So it could be that vegans aren’t so anti-vaccine after all (or that our Vegan Chicago members tend to be more scientifically minded). The original Vegan Society sent me this page regarding their stance on medicine10 and paper11 on their stance on medicine.

Anti-Vax is Not Vegan

The eggless flu vaccine is relatively easier to find this year. When people’s lives are at risk a bit of egg isn’t worth avoiding. But isn’t it damn cool that we can have our kale and eat it too?  Veganism is a loose guideline on avoiding the exploitation of another. Fear mongering over puritanical and dogmatic standards is not in the spirit of the movement. Nitpicking something for containing a molecule of animal can cause more harm than the originating vegan intention. It misses opportunities to displace animal products, and it puts animals (human and other) into harm’s way. As we saw with anti-GMO12 animals are now being tortured13 looking for any tenuous confirmation. Animals have suffered enough over this anti-vax nonsense. We are better than this.

It is our moral obligation to impede the spread of infectious diseases. Vaccination is an important tool in the toolbox to do that. Forgoing vaccination is a threat to the bodily integrity of others. This unethical practice has no place in the vegan community (and society at large). Be the immune response to this junk info viral invader. Let’s not offer anti-vax a refuge to fester and perpetuate. It does so when we are complicit in our idle silence. 

Further Info:
Vaccines, Vegans, & Autistic Puppies, Oh My! | Skeptical Vegan
Vaccine “Controversy” | Vegan Skeptic
Anti-vax and Veganism | Reasonable Vegan
Vegan Flu Shots: A Guide | Ed v. Food
DNA – Playing God (PBS Documentary) | YouTube

  1. FUD – Fear, uncertainty and doubt | Wikipedia
  2. Vegan Chicago Podcast: Episode #003 – Vaccines with Kenneth Alexander, MD
  3. “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” | The Vegan Society
  4.  The vegans arent going to kill us! Thanks to a GMO virus 😉 | erv
  5.  A Worm’s Ovary Cells Become A Flu Vaccine Machine | Health News : NPR
  6. Celebrating a Milestone: FDA’s Approval of First Genetically-Engineered Product | FDA
  7. Organizing committee for Chicago Vegan Mania 2014: Josh Alper, John Beske, Kevin Cooney, Mike Durshmid, Anne Marie Fosnacht, Robinlee Garber, Gill Gillono, Jim Glackin, Kristin Konrady, Jeff Olichwier, Marla Rose, Rob Sax, Robin Plotter Sax, Rachel Shippee, Minku Sharma, Sandi Swiss.
  8.  Are veggie festivals worth putting up with pseudoscientific trinkets and petty fraud? | Reasonable Vegan
  9.  Vegan Chicago email vaccine poll.
  10.  “Currently all medicine in the UK must be tested on animals before it is deemed safe for human use, but please note: The Vegan Society DOES NOT recommend you avoid medication prescribed to you by your doctor – a dead vegan is no good to anyone!”| The Vegan Society
  11.  Suitability of common drugs for patients who avoid animal products | The BMJ
  12. Vegans Exploit Tumored Rat Victims | Pythagorean Crank
  13.  Antivaccine activists fund a study to show vaccines cause autism. It backfires spectacularly. « Science-Based Medicine

Disclosing What Kevin Folta Said About FoodBabe

A Piece of FoltaThis is an open letter of sorts to Vani Hari (aka FoodBabe). I’m just some punk kid but I have some insider info on Kevin Folta that Vani may be interested in.

Dear Vani Hari,

I think a part of the story may be missing in the results of your FOIA request1 on Dr. Kevin Folta for mentions of you in his correspondence.2 There’s something I feel I must disclose about what he told me in person about you. First a bit of background so you might better understand the context for the shocking thing he said.


Smells like eepa.

This silly picture of me smelling Kevin3 was taken in 2014 after our dinner at a vegan restaurant.  I live in Chicago and Kevin Folta grew up here too. Sometimes we get together for a brew or two if he happens to be in town. Kevin ordered an IPA and said “…or as I like to call them, ‘eepa.’” That’s Kevin for you. His quirky humor doesn’t always hit the mark but it’s fun nonetheless if not eye-roll-worthy.

I first discovered Kevin on a podcast where he talked about GMO.4 Being a vegan activist I was inherently anti-GMO cuz, um, it’s unnatural and icky! I chaired for our local EarthSave International chapter and handed out anti-GMO literature at a dozen events. But the way he talked about this issue blew my mind wide open. I immediately sent him an email asking for his advice on bringing that info to my Vegan Chicago group and he replied within hours! He even offered to do a talk for us when he might next be in town. We eventually did indeed do just that and the talk was recorded and posted on our Vegan Chicago Podcast.5 He treated the audience with such respect and consideration,6 addressing our specific concerns regarding the use of animals. We discovered uncharted intersections of biotech and veganism and it changed the course of my activism.

Vegan Chicago with Kevin Folta

Vegan Chicago with Kevin Folta 2010

I’ve since learned Kevin is a true local and has a deep history with Chicago knowing all its nooks and crannies. He played in a local band or two, one being called the “Insane War Tomatoes.” Being a half generation behind him I never caught the blip his band might have made on the scene. But he reminisces fondly on those times and I swear everywhere we go somebody eventually says “Hey don’t I know you?” and he’ll respond “Yeah I’m Kevin and we…” and acquaintances find each other after what is probably a few decades. Amazing. He has a buddy who owns this venue or works at that bar, the dude is connected (still!) and people like him. He’s a surprisingly multifaceted guy.7

Kevin’s made up of the raw Heartland material forged in the city of broad shoulders that’s so familiar to me. Down to earth, unpretentious and good-hearted. It seems that Chicagoans who tear themselves away from the Midwest often do well elsewhere. My geekier friends explain this as the photonucleic effect and maybe that explains Kevin’s move to the sunshine state. He’s in his element though exuding passion for his work and advocacy efforts. I used to assume it was his smarts and scientific training that made him a magnetic science communicator, but seeing the more personal side of him, I’ve come to realize it’s the other way around. It’s his genuine personality and warm heart that makes up the engine that drives him.

What Kevin Folta Confided to Me About You

That last time I saw him in person in December of 2014, like I said, Kevin spoke of you. I was driving him back to his hotel when he said something to the effect of ‘If she only understood the truth she would be a great ally for science advocacy’. I thought he was joking at first, but no, he was actually enthusiastic about you! Your passion and communication skills had him inspired. It’s something you both have in common after all. He believed in your sincerity and thought his outreach might find you like it’s done for so many others like myself. I was incredulous, it surprised me to see him speak so positively of you. I wished him luck but harbored little hope that his plan would work. 8

KevinFoltaEmoSince then, things obviously didn’t work out that way. I’ve seen him lose a little heart. He probably still clings, though, to some hope that the two of you have a chance to partner up to solve the world’s problems. But maybe you’ll be able to cherry pick something nasty from his emails. If there is, I wouldn’t begrudge him any frustration. He’s just a person, like every other scientist. Your attack on Kevin Folta doesn’t worry me as I’m sure it doesn’t so much worry him. What does worry me is the compounding pile of devotees inspired by you and others who take things too 9 far10 with threats of personal violence11 and the chilling effect that will have on current and future science communicators.

I hope this doesn’t cause Kevin further stress or embarrassment (sorry Kevin). I feel like much of what usually concerns you, Vani, does so because you only see a small piece of the puzzle. Context is so important, and when you step back to see the big picture the world is a particularly marvelous and awe-inspiring place. Let’s put the rest of the pieces in, together.

Pythagorean Crank

  1. The Shocking Email From Monsanto: Why I am submitting a FOIA request | FoodBabe
  2. The FOIA Babe, and the New Abuse of Vanity Harassment | Science 2.0
  3. Yes, that’s me smelling Kevin’s hair: Status of the Strategic Shampoo Reserve
  4. #71 – Genetically Modified Foods: Science for the People
  5. Episode #001 – GMOs with Kevin Folta, PhD | Vegan Chicago Podcast
  6. Vegan Chicago Discussion board – PRE-TALK: Genetically-Modified Food Talk, POST-TALK: Genetically-Modified Food Talk
  7. He invented the “Buzz(ed) Aldrin” drink that’s famous at skeptic and science events.
  8. Though I also recommended he consider not doing the Joe Rogan podcast but he was undeterred and blew Joe Rogan away in an epic 3 hour-long interview.
  9. Bringing My Dead Mother to their Disgusting Cause | Illumination
  10.  Now Posting in Craiglist | Illumination
  11.  Cyber Threats and Why I Remain Anonymous | It’s MomSense

A March Becomes A Movement

MAMyths MovementI last wrote a rallying cry on how the anti-GMO issue wasn’t just a mere matter of being right. It’s also a social justice issue that deserves a counter-protest. I wanted to instill a sense of urgency and moral outrage in activists but with the principles of satyagraha1 and agape.2 These two combined are a powerful force for change. Countering the myths, and supporting the people those myths victimize undermines the injustice. Our MAMyths chapters seemed to naturally exemplify this approach. We saw its effects even before the day of the march came upon us.

Founder of March Against Monsanto spitefully squashes event in Nanaimo, Canada
In Nanaimo, Canada, the MAMyths organizer was invited by the March Against Monsanto (MAM) organizer to share their platform for a brief address! Now this is the action of an individual with integrity. An individual who is anti-GMO but truly believes in it and is willing to reach out to opponents in the name of truth. But the lack of integrity in their cause made it’s ugliness known. Tami Canal, the founder of March Against Monsanto herself, stepped in. She chastised the Nanaimo MAM organizer eventually driving them away.

A new MAM organizer stepped up and withdrew the invitation, but their event was in disarray. Throughout this ordeal, the MAMyths organizer maintained composure. An open channel of communication was always available with politeness and respect. So all we had to do is simply exist in opposition and accordance to our principles to disrupt the opposition. This gave me great confidence that we were indeed on the right path.

A simple compassionate exchange on Facebook
Another inspiring example was simply that of a person on Facebook who had the MAMyth event on her timeline. I was so touched by this story that I included it in my address at the event in Chicago.

But even with those initial stories I somehow didn’t understand the groundswell for which we were standing upon. As we walked into the bar after our event to celebrate, my phone started blowing up with notifications coming in from Facebook and Twitter. The battery died before I could get home. That night I spent 6 hours corralling the amazing glut of messages of support and media streaming in3. We struck pay dirt.

The bravery and passion of these people who, for many, never did a protest before was inspirational. Here are some of their stories:

MAMyths in Action

Tom, Amsterdam
Tom was one of the first chapter organizers to hop on board. Overcoming obstacles of geography and language he had to localize and craft his own materials. With few supporters expected he still took a brave stand amongst the masses and held his signs proudly high in a sea of detractors.

Tom of MAMyths Amsterdam

Tom of MAMyths Amsterdam

Jake, Nanaimo
The Nanaimo MAMyths event wasn’t only notable for the run-in with Tami Canal but ten-year-old Jake was rocking the march. Not only does he want to be a scientist when he grows up but it looks like he’s already on the track to be an advocate as well 4!

Jake of MAMyths, Nanaimo

Jake of MAMyths, Nanaimo

Chauncey, New York City
New York City didn’t really gather enough momentum for a full march but it didn’t stop Chauncey. He bravely marched right in the middle of March Against Monsanto holding his makeshift “Ask me why I love GMO” signs. He even bumped into Bill Nye the Science Guy and was interviewed on video.

Chauncy of MAMyths, New York City

Chauncy of MAMyths, New York City

Katherine, Washington DC
I wept when I first read Katherine’s account. She was so compelled to take “a stand for science and my Autistic neurotribe” that she threw her body into the mire “like a sacrificial lamb to slaughter.” Her bravery and selflessness is a true inspiration. Read more of her experience on her blog: Into the Depths of Anti-Science Hell | My Life as a Feral Autistic

Katherine of MAMyths, Washington DC

Katherine of MAMyths, Washington DC

Rhonda, Washington DC
Rhonda found herself in DC while on vacation and gave up a whole day to stand by fellow activists against anti-GMO bullies. She maintained calm composure even in the face of a masked protestor hurling vulgarities in the presence of her own children. No regrets for her (or her children) because “I’d much rather be on the side with 10 people of integrity than feel the safety of numbers with 200 individuals yelling obscenities.”

Rhonda of MAMyths, Washington DC

Rhonda of MAMyths, Washington DC

Max, Olympia
Max may not have had a dozen activists by his side but he did cobble together a fun self-deprecating prop. He hung out smack dab in the middle of the MAM crowd in Olympia. So many of us on both sides share the same values and this was a creative way to illuminate that.

Max of MAMyths, Olympia

Max of MAMyths, Olympia

Julie, Seattle
Julie was #veganSpotted by Reddit/Imgur. She was one of a handful but let everybody know that even vegans are pro-GMO!

Julie of MAMyths, Seattle

Julie of MAMyths, Seattle

Stephan, Washington DC
Ok can I stop talking about DC already?! Stephan was a lead on the DC action and worked closely with all chapter leaders injecting much energy and enthusiasm. He does run the We Love GMOs And Vaccines website so that’s a part of it. For his particular event he cleverly chose to stand right out from on one of the March Against Monsanto’s waypoints. The result was some amusing incredulity on the MAM protestors part which probably was why that particular event became aggressive. Still a goal was to disrupt and disrupt they unwaveringly did!

Stephan of MAMyths, Washington DC

Stephan of MAMyths, Washington DC

Everybody in Portland
Portland probably had the biggest turnout and many were personal friends of mine. They went in and mixed it up one on one doing personal outreach and just having conversations without judgment. Sara at It’s MomSense summed it up: “But in the end, there was nothing scary at all.” Read more about their experience here: Outside looking in: March Against Monsanto

MAMyths, Portland

MAMyths, Portland

And so many more.
I know I left out many others, particularly my excellent Chicago crew, sorry! It’s just that I still underestimated the amount of outside support and number of people who so enthusiastically joined us. Leading up, some thought we were just trolling. Some thought it would be an ineffective waste of time. Some thought it would legitimatize this fringe group. And those thoughts haunted me from time to time. What happened though, was a perfectly honest example of people doing the right thing, even if it might not have been the most comfortable thing. That is activism.

I’m incredibly proud and honored to take up the tiny role that presented itself to me. None of this would have happened without those who came before us. We MAMyths activists are standing on the shoulders of giants. What really made this possible were the scientists, farmers, advocates, and educators. The people who have been pounding away every second of the day stemming the tide of pseudoscience mythology. We simply struck some flint and ignited the passions of people who were already primed. People empowered by the undergrowth of support that took years and years to create. Those thankless tasks taken up for the love of truth and science. They’ve had our backs for years, now it’s time to give them a front and march forward against myths.

I was still on Chicago streets with my bullhorn when the message came in: “How do I sign up for next year?” Now, with all that momentum behind us people are clamoring to join up and do more. We’re completely overwhelmed with this growing movement, and that’s a good problem to have. So, we march! And you can too.

  1. Satyagraha

    Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha)engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. – Mahatma Gandhi

    Mahatma Gandhi developed this concept of an insistence of truth. That untruth doesn’t exist but in the mind and unabashedly holding fast to truth will naturally overcome as it, by definition, truly exists.

  2. Agape

    Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate. It means understanding, creative, redeeming goodwll for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is the love of God operating in the human heart. When we rise to love on the agape level, we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but we love them because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. – Martin Luther King jr.

    Martin Luther King jr. appealed for tactics with an underlying principle of love not hate. This helped to constructively move foreword in a positive direction rather than poisoning a movement in the negative.

  3. For an updated list of media from the event please watch our News page on the MAMyths site.
  4. The anti-Rachel Parent: 10-year-old future scientist counters sea of GMO misinformation | Genetic Literacy Project