We are thrilled to continue Heroes of Compassion, where we recognize people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to help animals and make the world a more compassionate place.
Today we honor Seth Tibbott, founder of Turtle Island Foods, makers of the amazing line of Tofurky products! Since founding Turtle Island in 1980, it is certain that Seth has touched the lives of just about everyone reading this post. For example, when I first discovered Tofurky slices, I immediately emailed another friend and said, “Stop whatever you are doing, go to the co-op, and buy these new Tofurky slices.” A half hour later, I received a response: “How do they do that??”!
Cultivating Compassionate Communities: What does the term “living compassionately” mean to you?
When in Germany last year, an animal rights group gave me a bracelet that sums up compassionate living to me. In German it reads “Leben Und Leben Lassen,” which translates to “Live and Leave Living.” Life on this beautiful planet is all too short for all sentient beings, human and non-human alike. Anything we can do to live more compassionately and do less harm pays huge dividends to ourselves and the planet as well.
What inspired you to start down this path?
I stopped eating animals in 1972 after reading Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappé. I was a teacher/naturalist at the time and her book pointed out to me the inefficiency of animal agriculture from an environmental perspective. The word vegan was not in popular use at the time and I started out as a vegetarian, flopping back and forth from vegetarian to vegan — which had been called a “pure vegetarian” diet for many years. When I later learned about the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the cruelty inherent in the factory farm system, it felt like my decision was a win-win-win for myself, the animals, and the earth.
My flopping stopped when, thanks to Farm Sanctuary, I finally understood, in my heart, the sentience of farm animals — who just like you and I, only want to spend as much time as possible on this glorious earth, living in peace with our friends and family.
What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?
Some people, smarter than I, change from their meat- and dairy-based diet overnight to a vegan diet. I was not one of them. On the one hand, in 1972 there were no farm sanctuaries of any kind that I was aware of, nor animal advocacy groups beyond the ASPCA. PETA was founded, I believe, the same year I started making tempeh — in 1980. But even after that, when more and more information became available, it was still a gradual process. Even though I thought of my diet as “flexo-vegan,” eating a small amount of cheese and at some points even fish, it took many years before becoming totally vegan. Though I regret not becoming vegan sooner, I am glad to be vegan now and I know too much now to ever go back.
What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?
Finding food is no problem, even while traveling the world and visiting strange places that you would not think of being vegan-oriented. I think it’s challenging sometimes interacting with friends and loved ones who are not vegan. I try and live by example without judgment, but sometimes struggle with feelings of separateness by eating a diet that is very different than the norm of many friends. That said, I recently went to a potluck hosted by some of my best friends and as it turned out, there was no meat at all there!
What advice / tips would you give to people who find it hard to cope with living in a world where the vast majority of people eat meat and so many farm animals are suffering and dying every day?
I am 65 now. I’ve been in business for 37 years with a front row seat, watching the world slowly begin to change its dietary course. While this change is more like an ocean liner gradually turning than a small sailboat tacking on a dime, the growth I have seen over my lifetime has been tremendous. In 1972 there were not only no meat alternatives in wide circulation, there was not even any granola on the shelves of the supermarket. Today, plant-based foods are a five billion dollar industry and growing fast. That’s basically growing from zero to billions in what is a blip in time. None of the great social causes changed fast enough and this change is no different, but this change IS happening. We are well on our way to seeing plant-based foods be the new norm.
How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and how did you get involved?
I first found out about Farm Sanctuary’s Adopt a Turkey Project in 1997, I think [see Tofurky Feast box below]. We had just launched the Tofurky Feast two years earlier, so it seemed like a good fit to support Gene and Lorri, who were just getting started. We devoted one panel of the box to this great program and gave a little money. Gene’s story of authentically growing Farm Sanctuary has paralleled, in many ways, our own approach to developing the Tofurky Company: slowly but surely, not selling out to anyone who would tell us what to support and what not to support. It’s an honor to be associated with the Farm Sanctuary today that is in full bloom and changing so many lives.
Has there been a specific animal who was special to you?
Well of course I love the turkeys, but honestly it is the pigs that I really like to hang out with the most. So cuddly but also so smart.
Do you have a favorite resident at one of the sanctuaries, and/or do you have a special affinity for a certain species of farm animal?
It was a great honor to meet my namesake, Tibbott the turkey [below] at Orland in 2013.
How do you think things will change over the next 50 years or so?
I think the protein market will be dominated by plant-based foods and possibly, if they develop in the right way, cultured meat grown without harming any animals. I doubt that all animal agriculture will disappear by then, but factory farms will be a shameful footnote in history and no one will understand how this generation ever accepted such institutionalized cruelty.
What is your favorite “main dish” recipe or meal?
I love all products but keep going back to the Tofurky Roast with gravy and all the trimmings.
Thanks to much for everything, Seth!