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Farm Sanctuary founder Gene Baur encourages people to eat more plants

It could be something simple to start, such as participating in the Meatless Monday movement or swapping cow’s milk for a soy-, rice-, oat-, almond- or cashew-based beverage.

For those who have already dedicated themselves to a completely plant-based diet, it could mean limiting or eliminating processed vegan foods and opting instead for whole grains, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms and legumes.

“Many times people go vegan for ethical reasons,” said Gene Baur, founder and president of Farm Sanctuary. “I encourage them to think about health issues as well.”

After all, a vegan cupcake is still a cupcake.

Baur will share his food philosophy – as well as a few more practical tips for living what he calls “the Farm Sanctuary life” – when he visits Spokane Vegfest on Saturday. He’s a keynote speaker at the third annual event, which promotes the ethical, environmental and health benefits of a vegan lifestyle as well as aims to introduce people to products that are vegan and free from animal testing.

Baur became a vegan when he was 23 in 1985 and founded Farm Sanctuary a year later. Thirty years later, the nonprofit has animal sanctuaries in New York and California. Its website bills it as “the nation’s largest and most effective farm animal rescue and protection organization.”

There’s a big gap, Baur said, between what most people believe and what most people do. The majority of Americans – some 97 percent, he said – believe animals should be protected from abuse. But most don’t adhere to a plant-based diet.

The first tenet of his book, “Living the Farm Sanctuary Life,” published last year and co-written by Gene Stone of the Forks Over Knives website, is aligning values with actions and taking responsibility.

But, he said, “For many people, looking at these issues is very difficult. We need to be patient and take incremental steps and just be more mindful.

“The key is living well and living according to the best of our humanity and being kind to others, including animals. I believe kindness to animals is also good for us.”

But Baur also recognizes humans are creatures of habit, and habits – especially those enforced by societal norms, such as eating meat, dairy products, eggs, honey – take time to change.

“It’s easy and convenient to adhere to the status quo,” he said. “The status quo tends to want to hold onto itself, and people are oftentimes afraid of change.”

During the past three decades he has worked as an advocate for animals, raising awareness about industrialized factory farming and the food system, Baur has seen plenty of changes.

“It’s never been easier to be a vegan, and I’m very optimistic about the things I’m seeing,” he said. “The plant-based food industry is growing by leaps and bounds. You have enormous investments coming from venture capitalists in the plant-based food business. You have restaurants and food retailers recognizing that citizens are concerned about factory farming and they don’t want to support what happens on factory farms.

“But, also today, with this growing awareness, some of these food retailers are starting to label products to sound better than they are. There are concerns over consumers bring misled by labels that sound overly positive.”

Another concern: “ag-gag” laws aimed at prohibiting undercover photography or filming on farms without the consent of farm owners. These laws specifically target whistle-blowers aiming to expose animal rights abuses.

Baur, who turns 54 Sunday, will go more in-depth into these issues at VegFest. His visit is part of his 30th anniversary Farm Sanctuary tour, and the title of his talk is the same as his book.

“Bottom line is, it’s about empowering people,” said Baur, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, but spends about half of his time traveling, giving talks and trying to visit each of the three Farm Sanctuary locations a few times a year. Combined, they house about 1,000 animals.

A fourth sanctuary is slated to open in 2017 on the New Jersey farm of former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and his wife, Tracey Stewart. The addition, Baur said, makes room for another 100 to 200 rescue animals.

Meantime, Baur encourages people to eat more plants and whole – versus processed – foods.

His typical breakfast is oatmeal, “which I really like,” he said. Another go-to morning meal is tofu scramble. For lunch or dinner, he often opts for “a big arugula salad,” with beans and vegetables, such as peppers and cucumbers, and a balsamic or goddess dressing.

“We’re eating foods that are making us sick,” he said. “It’s estimated we can save 70 percent of our health care costs by shifting to whole-foods, plant-based diets.”