How Human Advocacy Leads to Vegan Cheese

A few weeks ago, I interviewed the owner of Treeline Treenut Cheese, Michael Schwarz, for my Village Voice column.

Because of my health, everything I put into my mouth – or don’t – has been considered for its helpful or harmful affects on my body and spirit. I’ve been off of cow dairy for a long time now because of digestive issues, but I do occasionally eat goat and sheep milk products, and I do eat meat and eggs. I make sure all of the food I buy is sourced as responsibly as possible: I buy only organic grass-fed meat, organic pasture-raised eggs, and organic produce through farmers and ranchers I trust. I consider the impact of my dairy-free products and brands, too. Yes, I definitely slip up, and while I am fortunate to mostly dine in only higher end restaurants where the chefs at the helm have a similar ethos with sourcing their products as I do, I am realistic in allowing things to get by when they’re not in my control.

I believe in treating the world and all the beings within her with compassion, love, and respect. But I never preach about my own choices to others; my path is not yours, my body and spirit are not yours, and our priorities shift and flow with time and experience.

Speaking with Michael about how his products came into being was fascinating, as expected. But what I hadn’t expected was his honest, humble explanation as to why he started a vegetarian and then vegan diet. His beliefs are his, and his business the result of them. And while he was nervous – as I often am – about how his beliefs might read on a page to those who don’t know him, I have nothing but respect for his honest, humble explanation.

Have a read.

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How Human Advocacy Leads to Vegan Cheese

What inspired you to embrace a vegan lifestyle?

A lot of times when people ask me about how I became vegan, they don’t really like what they hear. So I can give you the sort of gentle version, and say I became vegan because it’s good for my health (and there is no question that a plant-based diet is healthier than any other). Or I could also say I did it for the environment, since animal agriculture is the most leading cause of climate change and is the worst as far as runoff, overuse of land and that sort of thing. I could say that, and they are important.

But the real story is this:

I grew up in South Africa, and in those days it was the norm for whites to treat black people disrespectfully. That was something that was not allowed in our house. As far as my parents were concerned, the fact that other people were doing it didn’t mean I was going to. We were never allowed to  say, “What I do doesn’t make a difference.” It does. It makes a difference to people if you treat them respectfully or don’t. Something that sticks in my mind and doesn’t leave is that when I was in High School I played rugby, and on the way back from playing other schools things would get rowdy. On one of these trips, the guys on my team started putting their heads out of the bus and spitting on black people walking on the side of the road. I distinctly remember sitting on my bus and thinking that I had a choice whether to join in it or not. Of course I didn’t. And I don’t regret that I didn’t. If I had, I would have felt a sense of shame looking back.

And when I say that my parents wouldn’t have allowed that, I’m serious. My father was the activist Harry Schwarz, and my parents were prominent in the anti-apartheid movement. My family really made great sacrifices to move things forward.

I think it’s really important that you know you’re doing the right thing. Especially when you look back on your lot – did I do the right thing or not?

Year later in the 1980s, I was living in Texas and I started to realize just how badly animals are treated for food. I realized just how enormous the scale of this is. And I was sitting and thinking about my life and about what’s important to me, and I started thinking about when I lived in South Africa and had choices where I could have lived with regret or not. And at that point, I said, “Okay, I’m done. I’m not eating another piece of meat ever again.”

At that time I didn’t make a connection between dairy products or eggs and animal cruelty – I didn’t understand that dairy cows are killed and egg-laying chickens are killed after they’ve served their purpose. As information became more widespread, I started making that connection. And the idea of taking a nursing baby away from its mother and taking the mother’s milk seemed wrong to me. It seems wrong for adults to drink milk when babies are weaned long before adulthood.

25 years after I became vegetarian, I became vegan completely. That was my path.

I really believe that future generations will look back on the way we treated animals and abused the environment, and go, “What were you people thinking?” in the same way we look back on our history in South Africa and America and go, “What was that about?”

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