Sustainability Spotlight: Veronica Johnson, ACSEM intern

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We met with our very own sustainability office intern Veronica Johnson (Martel ‘16) to talk about wolves, animal rights, and her dream of someday owning a vegan taco food truck.

Where are you from?
Veronica Johnson: I was born in Arizona and most of my extended family lives there. However, I was raised in a small town called Cleburne just south of Dallas-Fort Worth. Currently, my parents and my three dogs live in Temple, Texas.

Did you spend a lot of time outdoors as a kid?
VJ: Not really. Once in a blue moon, my dad and I would take our dog out to the lake that was near our house in Cleburne. For the most part though, I spent a majority of my life indoors. Even the one time my family went camping, it was in an RV!

So how did you first become interested in environmental issues?
VJ: In high school, I went to an engineering camp for girls and took a survey to determine what type of engineering I should pursue in college based on my interests. Since I was very involved with agriculture and the National FFA Organization, I got “environmental engineering.” I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded interesting, so I came into Rice as an environmental engineering major. However, I was convinced to switch to civil engineering with an environmental focus in order to get a B.S. degree. But then, I went on an Alternative Spring Break trip in 2014 to a wolf sanctuary in Colorado which made me realize that I didn’t actually want to be an engineer. So I switched to ecology and evolutionary biology... and then switched to environmental science. I took so many environmental themed courses across my various majors, I became more and more interested in environmental issues as I learned about them.

What is your major now?
VJ: Ironically, I am exactly what I came in as! I’m majoring in environmental engineering with minors in environmental studies and energy and water sustainability.

Earlier this year you led a group of students on a spring break trip to Colorado. Tell us about that experience.
VJ: As mentioned earlier, I was a participant on the 2014 ASB to Mission: Wolf in Colorado. That trip was really my first time ever interacting with and being immersed in nature. After that trip, I knew that I had to do everything in my power to live more sustainably, to preserve nature, and to protect the beautiful creatures that share this planet with us. I wanted other students to have that same experience and return as environmental leaders. So Ben Baldazo (Hanszen ‘18) and I applied to be ASB site leaders to revive the trip. Our application was rejected, so we ended up establishing the Rice Wildlife Conservation Corps, getting a group of fourteen students together, and went to Mission: Wolf anyway. The trip itself was amazing; it was remarkable just watching the other students experience real sustainable living and learning about the importance of wolves in nature. Two of the participants from this year will be leading the same trip next year. Hopefully, it’ll continue long after I’m gone!

Why wolves? Why not go to a different wildlife sanctuary?
VJ: Wolves are apex predators and play a critical role in ecosystems. For example, when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, they caused a trophic cascade. They reduced the population and changed the behavior of elk, which then increased the population of several plant species subsequently leading to the transformation of the entire ecosystem. Wolves are often misunderstood to be these deadly creatures and are often killed just because people fear they are going to eat them or their livestock. In actuality, wolves are more afraid of humans than we are of them. There are people who aren’t afraid of wolves at all and choose to have them as exotic pets - sometimes even breeding them with domestic dogs to create wolf-dog hybrids. Wild animals belong in the wild, not in someone’s backyard or in a cage. Once these owners realize wolves and wolf-dog hybrids don’t actually make good pets, they get rid of them. These animals don’t have a pack, know how to hunt, or know how to survive in the wild. Mission: Wolf takes in these wolves and wolf-dog hybrids that literally have nowhere to go. Mission: Wolf exists to educate the public that wolves should not be killed out of fear, do not make good pets, and belong in the wild.

What were your biggest lessons from the experience?
VJ: Mission: Wolf is an extremely sustainable facility. They compost and recycle, use their own solar panels to meet all their electricity consumption, use rainwater harvesting to meet their water demands, produce their own biofuel, grow their own produce in their growing domes, and use recycled building materials in any new construction. Nearly all the volunteers even live in teepees! Going to Mission: Wolf twice has shown me how easy and necessary it is to apply sustainability to my everyday life.

Recently you’ve become interested in the intersection of animal welfare and food. How has your interest in animal rights and well-being changed your diet?
VJ: Well, I became vegan a little over six months ago after watching the documentary “Cowspiracy” on Netflix. The documentary is about how animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change, deforestation, and species extinction and how major environmental organizations choose to ignore the issue to avoid losing public support. As a self-proclaimed environmentalist, I realized that I couldn’t just ignore how my dietary choices were impacting the natural world and the species I had sworn to do everything to protect.

Tying in to animal rights and well-being, I ended up watching “Earthlings” about a month after I became vegan. At that point, I was a flexible vegan and just omitted animal products from my diet. “Earthlings” is about humanity's use of animals as pets, food, clothing, entertainment, and for scientific research. “Earthlings” is by far the most powerful documentary you could ever watch and just shows you how messed up humanity is. After watching “Earthlings,” I became a strict vegan and stopped purchasing anything that originated from an animal or supports animal exploitation.

For students who are also interested in these issues, how do they become more involved at Rice?
VJ: When I first started a vegan diet, I made a Facebook group called “Vegans at Rice” so that I could meet and get advice from other vegan Rice students. In just six months, the group has grown significantly and has nearly 40 members! I would advise anyone who is interested in animal rights or going vegan, that they join that Facebook group. I’m also the Rice University peta2 campus rep. Peta2 is the high school and collegiate version organization of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Basically, I am responsible for hosting eight events throughout the semester centered around a vegan lifestyle and animal rights. If anyone wants to collaborate on an event, they should definitely reach out to me!

How has being a vegan changed your life?
VJ: I mentioned earlier that in high school I was really involved in the National FFA Organization, which letters stand for Future Farmers of America. I was the president of my chapter and the queen of the livestock show my senior year. I raised goats, chickens and rabbits, and was a member of my chapter’s milk quality and products judging team. And now I’m a vegan and a peta2 campus rep. So you could say I’ve made a complete 180.

What new foods have you discovered as a vegan?
VJ: Textured Vegetable Protein is awesome! It is a low calorie, high protein, super cheap, meat substitute. It looks like a weird hybrid between oats and granola, but once you add water, it has the same consistency as ground meat. It’s great to use in tacos, shepherd's pie, sloppy joes, and even chili. I also really enjoy the So Delicious brand’s salted caramel cashew milk ice cream. I also have an app on my phone called “Food Monster,” which has tons of plant-based recipes!

Do you ever backslide, and if so, for what?
VJ: I haven’t intentionally cracked since I watched “Earthlings,” but I’m sure I might have accidently consumed something that had a non-vegan ingredient. Most restaurants don’t really disclose every ingredient or outright say if a menu item is vegan. Most times, I just make assumptions as to what is vegan and what is not if it doesn’t have a clear ingredient list.

You’ll be graduating in December. I’m told your dream job involves a food truck. Do tell!
VJ: That’s one of my dream jobs! Once I have enough money to make an investment, I’d like to live in a mobile tiny house that also operates as a food truck. It’ll be powered by solar and biofuel made from fry oil, and I’ll only serve 100% organic and local vegan tacos with fusion twists - like a sushi taco or a chana masala taco. Eventually, it’ll become a chain, and I’ll make millions that I will donate to conservation organizations. I’m half-Mexican, so my mom alway made the best tacos growing up. My future taco truck will have a Hispanic flare while also encompassing sustainability and a plant-based diet.

But until then, I’ll be applying for a full-time position as a communications and events coordinator in a sustainability office in higher education, which is very similar to the internship I currently have here at Rice. After a few years of working, I want to get an MBA in sustainable management which should help me with my taco truck dream.