Disease Dangers in the Vegan Community

chicago_vegan_mania_disease

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 relevant 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? Fear mongering over puritanical and dogmatic standards is not in the spirit of the vegan 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

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

Anti-GMO Injustice

Me, Kavin & KarlHaving been a vegan food activist in the past has given me insight from countering perspectives. I feel a sense of urgency and injustice with the GMO issue, obviously. I’m not the only one who feels this, by far. Early in 2015 I teamed up with my buddies Karl Haro von Mogel and Kavin Senapathy. We hatched a plan to counter this year’s anti-GMO march in Chicago. It was dubbed, the “March Against Myths (About Modification)“, #MAMyths for short. Anti-GMO aren’t bad people, they’re just victims of pervasive myths spun by a few crafty manipulators.

Taking to the street, especially to counter a protest isn’t the (albeit valuable) armchair activism most of us tend to do. But the tide is turning on junk science with more and more people finally pushing back. Enough is enough! The response and support we’ve received in kicking off this effort certainly surprised me. Science defenders in cities across the world rose up to start their own chapters. We found ourselves inundated with a movement I didn’t expect to spark. Sometimes though the chapter is just one lonely person. But they’re willing to get out there for a just cause and that bravery is so very inspiring!

For me, countering anti-GMO goes beyond just being correct, but being right. The narrative guise of Evil BigCorp to demonize GMO isn’t cute anymore, it’s deadly. The precautionary approach to new technology is most championed by those who need it least. I think it’s a moral imperative to judiciously implement beneficial new technology as a soon as possible. It’s immoral to stifle such efforts otherwise. With recombinant DNA technology, there is no question as to it’s safety. All efforts to obfuscate the issue (tobacco science anyone?) with fear, uncertainly and doubt should be called out for what they are.

But what’s in a march? Why take the streets? Getting out, being disruptive is part of the toolbox as an activist. Nonviolent direct action is a way for the disenfranchised to collectively rise up. Together they get their voices heard against injustice and oppression. It’s often a loud noisy affair that often annoys and disrupts but makes a point with a show of solidarity. I think it often gets characterized as something a certain type of personality does or a worthless ploy of emotion. That’s a hasty, unfair judgement as there’s precedent in gains for social justice movements.
MAMyth Leaflet
Is the GMO issue worthy of such a tactic? For the anti-GMO protestors, they think it is. They have a dystopian view projected through a distorted lens. Big corporations of suits are driving society into the ground for greed and unleashing a gene-y (see what I did thar?!) that will end up destroying all life as we know it. Scary stuff, I would march too if I thought that! So are they at fault? Are they to blame or worthy of ridicule? I think not, in fact I congratulate them for rising up!

What about pro-GMO? How can we be so presumptuous to appropriate a tool of social justice. Clearly the dry issue of science and technology hardly warrants any cries of protest. What do we have to be provoked about except somebody is wrong on the internet? As I alluded earlier, there are parts to the story few are keeping tabs on. Even fewer unlikely to trumpet them as loud and long as anti-GMO tends to persists in their myths. And it’s these things that are unjust, it’s these things that are worthy of indignation and action:

Monsanto Collaborators•Targeting scientists, journalists and advocates as “Monsanto Collaborators” with veiled death threats.
•Targeting science advocates with FOIA requests to create a chilling effect.
•Hindering solutions for micronutrient malnutrition or global food security putting millions of lives at risk.
Ableist fear mongering.
Torturing animals, parading those images of their victimized broken bodies and insisting on more testing.
•Terrorizing labs with acts of vandalism when scientists do research even when they desperately plead activists not to.1
•Stifling progress in:
GMO 2.0 crops 2
-Solutions for disease-carrying Mosquitos.
-Animal product alternatives 3
-Novel factories and delivery methods for medicines4

And I can go on all day but gosh ya know, I don’t have time. I have protest signs to paint and a bullhorn to charge up.

See you in the streets.


My citation list may be light but will come back to fill out later.

  1. GM wheat trial at Rothamsted vandalised
  2. Maize that resists drought, Bt Brinjal, virus resistant black beans, non-browning apples and potatoes, purple anthocyanin tomato, Lower Glycemic wheat, Late-Bright resistant potatoes, Edible cottonseed, Fertilizer efficient crops, Bananas that resist bacterial wilt, citrus greening resistance, disease resistant strawberries, high-linoleic canola oil, restoring the American chestnut, tearless onions, eliminating allergens, plant-based medicines (vaccines), biofortified foods.
  3. Omega-3 fatty acids from plants, vegan cheese from yeast
  4. tobacco plants and vaccines