What does it mean to be vegan? — Beyond Veganism

Vegans are sometimes responsible for more animal exploitation than omnivores. This is a conclusion I've come to after a lot of years as a vegan, befriending many vegans, and doing a lot of research.

What does vegan mean?

Many vegans define their lifestyle choice as “not supporting the exploitation of animals.” This extends to not wearing silk, wool or fur, not eating honey, dairy, eggs, fish or meat, and not purchasing products tested on animals. (“Vegetarian” only implies not eating meat.)

What is the value system that leads one to be vegan?

The heart of veganism is “do no harm.” Yet this sound and compassionate core value is often corrupted. Many vegans think of it more as, “inflict no pain, and be not party to inflicting pain.” This distinction leads to a lot of misunderstanding and confused value systems.

Should vegans worry about hurting plants?

They should, yes. Yet by arguing that plants don't feel pain (because they lack a nervous system), and because animals do, there is inherently cause to assume that animals are superior to, or at least more important than, plants. By making this very simplistic assumption, it becomes okay to cut down forests, but not okay to kill and eat animals.
This doesn't seem very well thought out to me.

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Plants serve animals. We absolutely require healthy ecosystems rich in plant diversity in order to thrive. We also require oxygen, sunlight, and clean, fresh water. All animals require these things, and we're no exception.
Equally, animals serve plants. Besides quality water and (usually) sunlight, plants require the nutrients created by animals to thrive. They need our carbon dioxide to “breathe” and our waste to create their soil.
So animals and plants have a symbiotic relationship that is crucial to any thriving ecosystem; we must value plants the same as we value animals. Just because they don't have a nervous system and can't feel pain doesn't mean it's less hurtful to cut down trees than to kill animals.
Even if you don't feel as much compassion for a tree as you do for a wolf, just think about how many animals a tree supports. It provides oxygen for many animals to breathe, it provides a home for hundreds of birds over its lifetime. It provides a service to the soil that creates the environment that its surrounding plants, insects, animals and bacteria are thriving on.
When a forest is clear cut, millions of animals die because they lose their habitat. Birds lose their homes, deer lose their food, and foxes lose their prey.
You could pretty much say that cutting down trees isn't vegan, since it hurts animals.

Is factory farming the main reason to avoid meat?

In my opinion, it's one of the biggest reasons, yes. Not just due to the cruelty to the animals who are factory farmed, but because of the incredibly unhealthy meat that is a result of factory farming.
While some vegetarians are against animal exploitation to the point of violently objecting to owning pets, I think it is safe to say that most of the outrage is over factory farming. Even a sensible hunter or sheep herder can be easily disturbed by factory farming.

Making Exceptions

Vegetarians who make their choice mainly for health and/or as an objection to factory farming may still buy honey, leather and fish. Many people who eat a vegan diet may still find it acceptable to wear fur or leather if they come by it second-hand.
The core value there is “do not waste.” This is a great value, and these examples are not examples of poor judgment, but rather, demonstrations of the flexibility of any given set of values. Unfortunately, our ignorance often leads us into wasteful choices, even when we're under the impression we're making the more ethical, more efficient, choice.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

We act based on what we know and believe. If we know and believe that people are being enslaved and poisoned in the process of growing conventional bananas for us, and we feel compassion, then we buy organic bananas. But if we didn't know, we'd just buy the conventional ones and save twenty cents.
So when we know about factory farming, we may choose to buy local grass-fed beef instead. When we know the statistics of the healthiest most disease-free people in the world (people of the “longevity hot spots”), we may choose to minimize meat in our diet, or eliminate it entirely. When we meet a vegan fitness champion in person, we may choose veganism as a healthy choice for our bodies. You get the idea.
Yet, what we don't know does hurt us.
For example, here are some common mistakes among vegetarians, vegans and even some omnivores and raw foodists:
  • Eating soy burgers (vegetables, right?)
  • Eating more protein (for muscle, right?)
  • Eating lots of beans (for protein, right?)
  • Eating lots of nuts (for healthy protein and fat, right?)
  • Wearing polyester (because it's cruelty-free, right?)
We just assume that if we're a vegan we should eat lots of beans, lots of nuts, a few soy burgers, and not buy silk, wool, or leather.
But let's look at the facts...

What is wrong with soy burgers?

Soy burgers are usually made with transfat, GMO soy, refined sugars and isolated protein extracts. Often, MSG (mono-sodium-glutamate) is among the ingredients. These ingredients clog your liver, wear out your kidneys, deposit wastes in your brain and other fatty tissues, wear out your pancreas, strain your adrenals, stress your intestinal lining and overall leave you less energetic and healthful. These ingredients contribute to conditions such as diabetes, diverticulitis, and dementia — and those are just the D's!
On the ecological side, soy burgers often waste a bunch of packaging and shipping. If you get the ingredients to make your own more healthful patties at home in bulk, you'll save a lot of plastic, cardboard, ink and food miles. Even if you end up using plastic bags when you buy from the bulk section, you still save a lot of energy when you buy bulk instead of packaged foods. Packaged foods are often shipped from one place to another, getting a sticker added or getting another part of the packaging added. It's a lot of wasted gasoline just to market a product to you.

What is wrong with eating more protein?

While protein deficiency is very rare, kidney failure from too much protein happens all the time. In fact, it has become a common cause of death. The healthiest cultures in the world only consume 30 to 40 grams of protein per day. The average American consumes 50 to 100 grams of protein per day. The average health-nut trying to get "extra protein" consumes as much as 140 grams of protein per day! For more on this, read my article on protein (including informative videos that explain how protein works, and why you don't need a lot).

What is wrong with eating beans?

While beans are a compact source of nutrition and calories, they're more a source of the latter than the former. Per calorie, beans don't have a lot of nutrition. They're similar nutritionally (per calorie) to nuts, grains, meat, dairy, eggs and fish. Per calorie, fruits have way, way, way more nutrition than the beans/seeds/meat category of foods. And fruits only have 20% to 30% of the nutritional density of vegetables.
I was rather astonished at how much more nutritious vegetables really are when I first began studying the USDA nutrition data. That is what inspired me to create this detailed chart. Note that I didn't use any special tool to create that chart. I did all the calculations manually using USDA data. The foods used to come up with that data are listed on the chart itself. Click it to view at 100%.
Beans are nothing special nutritionally. Furthermore, if beans give you gas, then you're not digesting them. Most Americans (and people in other similarly developed countries) have compromised digestive systems that can't handle the complex dense combination of starch and protein. For more on beans and why they actually do more harm for many people than they do good, click here.

What is wrong with eating nuts?

Nuts are a fantastic source of healthy fats — when they're fresh. Unfortunately, nuts sold on grocery shelves have been there for weeks, and sometimes months. The entire time they're stored at room temperature and exposed to light. Warmth and light ruin omega-3 fatty acids, and actually transform them into something toxic.
To make matters worse, many nuts (especially peanuts and walnuts), are perpetually moldy. In their dry state, the mold just appears like some black or white discoloration. Yet, look at a fresh normal walnut — it's just a solid light brown color. Those splotches are dead mold. The mold itself isn't a big deal, but the toxins that mold produce to hurt competitive molds are serious — serious enough to cause breast cancer when consumed in large amounts. For more about this, I have an article on eating raw without eating nuts, which includes all the downsides to eating nuts even for people without allergies.

What is wrong with wearing polyester?

The production of polyester is extremely wasteful of water, and harmful for both the environment and the animals living in it. Yet the waste involved in producing synthetic materials is not weighed against the waste involved in producing leather or wool.
Perhaps of more personal concern, polyester contains hormone-like substances that your body mistakes for human hormones, causing mood swings (among more serious long-term side effects).
I'm not condoning animal abuse. Weighing the harm to humans and ecosystems against the cruel treatment of sheep is a difficult exercise for a compassionate person, but ultimately necessary. For someone who really desires wool, they can seek out compassionate sheep-herders.
Consider the state of the fabric selection:
  • Most wool comes from abused sheep.
  • Silk is produced by raising and killing worms.
  • Leather comes from killing cows or other similar animals.
  • Cotton comes from pesticide-laden mono-crops (another huge eco-system destroyer).
  • Polyester fabrics make human hormones go haywire and are bad for the environment.
  • Rayon, such as that “made from bamboo”, goes through so many chemical processes and produces so much waste that it's not hard to call the “eco” label anything other than a lie.
What fabric options are left?

Choosing Healthful Ecological Fabric

Organic linen, hemp and cotton. Non-sprayed plant fibers. Just like our ancestors used. At the time of writing this I've only been sewing for a year, and yet I've replaced over half my wardrobe with organic clothing that fits me well, is very comfortable, very stylish and is very ecological.
If you're not inspired to sew your own clothing, you can also buy home-made organic clothing on etsy from hundreds of different self-employed people around the globe. This is a great way to support small business, support the planet and support your own personal well-being all at once.
Clothing is just one example of where many people are confused about what is and isn't harmful to themselves, animals, and the planet. Click here to see my "green living" products recommendation page. I continually update this page as I learn about better products. Anything that is proven inferior will be removed from the page!

The Cycle of Fear

I'm not out to make vegans look bad. I've been eating vegan for nearly a decade now, and spent a lot of time around vegans. I support eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and having minimal meat or no meat at all. I think that's a great move for the Earth and for your personal health.
That said, it shows a lack of overall awareness and compassion when people become angry, stressed, upset and argue with everyone they encounter who eats meat. All that anger and stress isn't good for your health, and it makes vegans look bad. And as a side note, it is rather hypocritical to be self-righteous when you are still harming animals (and other humans and plants) with your actions.
Vegans are often “hated on” by others who don't understand a diet without meat. They get asked all the common stuff, like “where do you get your protein?” Vegans get defensive, feeling like they have to be extra muscular just to prove something. It's difficult at Thanksgiving dinner (or any formal dinner) when your own family may be unsupportive, the premise for an article called How To Enjoy The Holidays with Carnivorous Relatives.
Omnivores often feel threatened by vegans and feel defensive just by being around a vegan, as if the salad being eaten is a statement saying, “I'm better than you because I don't eat meat,” or, worse, if the omnivore is unhealthy and overweight, they might feel that a thin vegan is judging their weight by making statements related to dietary choices.
It doesn't help anyone come to understanding, peace, health or happiness to be defensive. The best way to form a connection with someone is to actually listen to them. Empathize with them. Agree with as much as you can. Instead of picking out things to disagree with, go out of your way to leap on the points you really agree on.
Just finding plenty of common ground and gaining someone's respect will be enough to make a positive impact on someone's life. Don't worry about “shocking someone” into changing. You're more likely to just upset them. At worst, you'll make them think that people who “eat like you” are “crazy like you.”
Because of the prevalent hostility toward eating healthier, especially eating vegan, there is great cause to band together and find solace among others who understand where you're coming from.

The Importance of the Veggie Community

Joining a vegan community is important for most (and essential to many) in providing the moral support needed in a meat-centric society. I got started with raw food by attending raw vegan potlucks. I didn't know what a vegan was until after I had been to many raw vegan potlucks. It took me even longer to figure out what was — and was not — raw. This experience was very positive for me. Prior to that, my experience was that everyone was “against” my new healthy choices.
The community support is priceless when you're making a big change. I highly encourage anyone and everyone to look on meetup.com for the nearest raw food group, vegetarian group, vegan group or healthy foods group. Attend a potluck and meet some people. Worst case scenario is that you're bored. Best case scenario is that you discover an amazing community of people who you come to love and enjoy.
Well, actually, there is one other problem. These communities tend to have pervasive and dangerous assumptions, and while I highly support finding and founding such communities, I think its about time we started busting some of these common myths.
Don't be surprised if you try to contradict the common myths, and get verbal flack from high-horsed vegans — people who are very defensive about their lifestyle choices. These vegans are often hot-headed due to the harassment they get from family and co-workers on a regular basis.
As a member of a vegan community, it can be hard to get a word in edge-wise about why you opted to eat fish last Friday, or why you might want to wear wool socks instead of polyester.

The Big Picture

As compassionate, responsible people, it only makes sense to consider all sides of the picture, thoroughly weighing the personal pros and cons, as well as the far-reaching effects of the production and consumption of each product.
Purchasing any plastic is harmful to the Earth. One blogger became so disgusted with plastic that she started a blog called My Plastic-Free Life.
Plastic needs to be carefully chosen only for things that really better the planet, and not used for mere trinkets or things we'll just put in the trash. The average life-span of any given object that is purchased in America is just six months. Six mere months and it's in the trash! For more information on this, enjoy the twenty minute film called The Story of Stuff.
If businesses didn't have “planned obsolescence” for products, and if we went back to carefully crafting things to last, then there would be no shortage of luxuries for every human on the planet. Yet instead of focusing on increasing quality of life, our culture is dead-set on increasing profit margins and the illusion of superiority.

Reducing Waste & Healing The Planet

Many simple things can help: donate your old clothing and items, even if it seems like stuff that “nobody would want.” One man's trash really is another man's treasure. Post nice things to freecycle so that people can pick up your unwanted old furniture, clothing, fabric, art supplies — you name it.
Giving things away is empowering. It enables you to realize exactly how much you do have. It's harder to feel like you, “don't have enough,” when your actions are saying you have, “more than enough.” Many of the most respected people on the planet have explained this phenomenon, including Oprah Winfrey and Napoleon Hill. (Click here for my recommended reads.)
Shop at second-hand stores, and see what others are posting on freecycle.
In the photo below, there is a necklace I re-gifted because I never wore it. The receiver of this necklace was very excited about it and put it on right away. Anything not being used at least every couple months is stale and lifeless. Stimulate the economy of love, nature and compassion by giving away anything you're not going to use.

Advertising — Your Ticket To Debt & Depression

We already have enough stuff in America. There is enough to go around for decades without anyone buying a thing. This is why corporations spend billions of dollars on advertising, purposely insinuating that your life is not complete without a given item.
If you don't have a coke in your hands, you're not sexy. Without a car, you're not a man. Without a pedicure, you're not feminine. You're not as hot as the men who wear [insert cologne name]. You're not as cool as the kids wearing [insert shoe name]. Your life isn't good enough without owning your own car, home, TV, computer, spanking new cell phone, La-Z-Boy chair, and the new-fangled thing that peels your potatoes and looks like a glove.
And if you buy it right now, we'll give you a second one, absolutely free!
Even if you're saying to yourself, “These advertisements don't affect me, though,” think again. Advertising is an incredibly powerful tool based on research into human psychology. Companies spend millions of dollars on it because it works, even on the most “aware” and “awake” people. Advertising is such an important part of business that many businesses spend as much as 70% of their entire budget on advertising alone. The Lord of the Rings movies spent 50% of their budget on making the films, and the other half on advertising.
The truth is that advertising always has an impact. For some, they may be repulsed and say, “I don't want that!” Even still, negative reactions often produce favorable results. Controversy generates buzz. Products listed on Amazon actually sell better when they have negative feedback as opposed to none at all. (From this NPR episode: audio version here, transcript here.)
How advertising got to where it is today is a fascinating story, which you can learn about by watching The Century of the Self, if you're curious.

What does this have to do with veganism?

Vegans, like everyone else, are consumers. They buy things. They buy drinks, food, clothing, make-up, cars, homes, electronics, paper stuffs, books, hangers, lamps, cigarettes...
Cigarettes do a lot of harm. They kill many more animals than is superficially obvious. They kill humans; the production kills many rodents and small animals; the pollution created by the production, use and waste of cigarettes destroys entire ecosystems... Cigarettes can't be called vegan by any stretch.
But about advertising — it's not evil inherently, but we're not using advertisements to educate and inform others about how to increase quality of life with quality items.
Wait, cigarettes? Was it just me who noticed the guy in the E.L.F. documentary was smoking cigarettes?
This guy who supposedly cares about the environment so much that he sacrificed his own quality of life in the name of making a stand? He washes his plastic baggies and re-uses them, and yet he smokes.
Instead, advertisements are intentionally deceptive about what they offer. They make cigarettes look harmless and glamorous. In reality, cigarettes look like shriveled black lungs and a landscape of ash.
Advertising exploits our emotions intentionally. Advertising exploits humans. Humans are animals. Advertising is exploitation of animals and therefore not vegan.
I'm kidding a bit, of course, but I also hope you see the validity of my point.

Waste Not, Want Not — The Crucial Key Is Efficiency

What we all want is an efficient life. We don't like wasting our time, energy, effort, emotions or money. We don't like long lines. We don't like to feel like we're not accomplishing anything. We don't like to feel like our efforts are not appreciated or useful. And yet, the way business is set up, it's more profitable to not be efficient. That is the problem with advertising — it's a tool to convince us to do something that is not efficient so that a few people at the head of a corporation can become rich.
Efficiency happens when there is no waste. Efficiency is when there is no suffering. Vegans and eco-activists are both seeking efficiency.
When seeking efficiency, one needs to ask: If we sacrifice one thing (like an animal), what is gained? Do we thrive as a result?
When a lion kills a deer and eats it, it thrives. When cows leave manure all over the ground, plants thrive. When flower blossoms open, butterflies thrive. Everything is meant to thrive. This is the basis of a fantastic documentary called Thrive.
What happens when humans eat factory farmed meat? We don't thrive, that's for sure. Most humans today are not thriving. Our natural state of being is thriving. Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. Lilies toil not. They express their love and perform as intended.
Yet we're not thriving as mass-consuming over-worked poison-laden people. Our “primitive” ancestors ate some meat, but none of them ate meat in large volumes like we do today in America. None of them ate any processed foods. They certainly didn't wear clothing made from materials sprayed with tons of toxic chemicals. Cotton is one of the most-sprayed crops on the planet.

What else is inefficient?

Besides our dietary and clothing choices — which are currently bad for our health and bad for the planet — what else is there to consider? Quite a lot, actually. Even if you choose to eat raw and vegan, I have an observation that even makes a raw vegan diet (when bought at the grocery store) still ecologically inefficient and wasteful (although still better than our other readily available options).

Monocrops: A terribly inefficient farming technique.

Monocrops are highly unnatural. (Monocrops are huge fields of a single crop.) They destroy top soil, imbalance soil flora, take away homes from bees, rodents, birds and other animals. They provide a mini desert that only has food at one time of the year — the harvest. For the rest of the year, this huge area is a barren wasteland for animals, bees, and insects. These monocrops are a large part of bee colony collapse syndrome. Watch this TED talk for more on that, where she explains that our monocrops are actually agricultural food deserts for bees.
Monocrops are inefficient. Yes, they use less human labor, but at what cost? The food is less and less nutritious as years go by, the animals and plants are depleted as a result, and overall, this weakens the ecosystem of the Earth.
Monocrops grow much less food per land than is possible. In this article — “How much land does it take to feed one person? And, are we overpopulated?” — I illustrated that it is possible to feed over one hundred people on a single acre. With our current model we use two to four acres per person! Yet every city has enough land-space (including NYC) to feed itself without outside farms. It’s a matter of using permaculture principles, aquaponics, and roof gardens.
While we can implement simple solutions to improve monocrops, such as hedgerows of different kinds of plants to provide flowers for bees, I think ultimately we should be aiming to get rid of this system entirely.
Monocrops exploit humans, bees, insects, animals and nature itself in the name of profit (under the guise of feeding the world). I would say it's safe to conclude that monocrops are not vegan, making 99% of everything available in your grocery store not vegan.
The alternative? Growing your own, of course. But even easier, we can go back to foraging. Its easier than you might think. In Markus Rothkranz's DVD set Free Food & Medicine, you're given everything you need to forage for medicine and food in any climate, whether you live in the city or not. I was astonished to discover that medicine and food grows in my garden in the city without me doing anything to cultivate it. Its just there! Don't mow it, eat it!

Cob: A highly efficient architectural alternative.

Our construction practices are another aspect of our culture that is inefficient and wasteful in every way imaginable.
We go through a lot of wood, for example. This wood comes from clear-cutting forests. When the forests are cut down, they take down everything, causing dozens of species to go extinct. It's estimated that 200 species are going extinct per day. Varieties of trees that may have had delicious or healing bark, varieties of herbs that may have held the secret to healing cancer, animals that may have been beautiful or uniquely beneficial to ecosystems — going extinct!
We go through a lot of concrete, as well. The cement industry is one of two primary industrial producers of carbon dioxide (CO2), creating up to 5% of worldwide man-made emissions of this gas, of which 50% is from the chemical process and 40% from burning fuel.
Our homes are highly vulnerable to calamity. Our homes are not Earthquake resistant, they're not heat efficient, they highly susceptible to flooding, and a single broken beam can mean the collapse of most of a home. Yet none of these apply to cob-built structures.
Traditional cob — a careful mixture of sand, mud and straw — uses little to no wood. Cob uses little to no concrete. Cob can incorporate recycled materials for the roofing and foundation. Cob can withstand flooding as long as it has time to dry out. Cob is the most Earthquate-resistant form of construction known to man, and also the oldest form of construction known to man.
Cob homes even require less training to construct. Elderly people and children can build cob homes safely. With your own hands you can build a home that will last hundreds of years, and yet modern construction methods make homes made to last only a single century. Some of the oldest buildings in the world were built out of cob. Many devastating earthquakes that left entire cities decimated left the cob homes still standing. Cob, when built correctly, stands for hundreds — sometimes thousands — of years.
Thick cob walls are highly energy efficient. In a calamity where we lose access to electricity or gas to heat our homes, millions of people in Northern climates will freeze to death because their homes are built out of walls no more substantial than layers of cardboard.
In short, a house built out of mud can do every single thing better than a modern fancy home can. It can be any shape, it can serve any purpose. In fact, the ability to build beautiful rounded walls is another reason why cob is better for our health and safety. Curved walls are stronger and less likely to collapse and injure someone. Curved surfaces have also been shown to be healthier for our mental state. Notice that in nature there are almost never any flat surfaces.
Cob is just flat-out more sensible. You can see for yourself in this eye-opening enjoyable documentary called First Earth: Uncompromising Architecture. (It starts out sounding sad, but this documentary is actually very uplifting.) If you want to build your own cob house, there are dozens of great books. I've recently finished reading The Cobber's Companion, which gave me all the basics I need to know to build my own home that will last for centuries in any climate.

Beyond Veganism

If you consider everything else I've just said, you'll see that it is no longer a question of “is it vegan?” to me, or “was it made from renewable resources?”. If you ask a single simple question like that, you'll make a better decision than an impulsive one, but it'll be far from the best you can do.
Consider this: Setting foot inside most stores in and of itself isn't really vegan. After all, you're being party to animals and ecosystems being hurt just by showing up at a Walmart, or pretty much any store at all that isn't a “ma & pa shop”.
I'm all for boycotting Walmart, and have already been doing it for over a decade. But never setting foot in any corporate store would mean I'd have to start growing all of my own food right away. I'm not there yet. And beating myself up over having to shop at a store wouldn't do any good either.
The fact is that we live in a wasteful, inefficient society that is rapidly destroying the planet with everything it does.
What's my point? We can make ethical decisions that support the people, the plants and the animals. We're all in this together. Every action impacts every other living creature. So here is my simple guideline to going beyond veganism and beyond simple value systems in general:
When you buy something, ask:
  • “Is this product worth what was sacrificed to create it?”
  • “Am I willing to live with the consequences to giving more power to the person who created this product?”
  • “What would happen if everyone on the planet purchased this product?”
  • “Am I excited enough about this product to jump up and down and squeal about it in public?”
I personally use that last question a lot. Sometimes I make myself jump and squeal just to see if it was really in me. Whenever I couldn't make myself do it, and bought it anyway, I regretted it later.
Asking these questions can help you see if you really want to purchase it after all, and stop you from making impulse decisions.
You can also help prevent poor decisions by not watching commercials and avoiding media as much as possible. Even movies have product placements designed to affect what you purchase. By avoiding these things, you'll be more likely to do your own research and come to a less biased decision. Instead of listening to advertisements, I read reviews on products before I buy them. Even if I don't buy the product from Amazon, it’s a great place to look up reviews on products.
I hope any vegans reading this will leave this page with a lighter heart. Isn't it actually kind of amusing how uptight we can get over a friend's fur coat when we ourselves are driving cars around guzzling gallons of gasoline?
And I hope any omnivores reading this will leave this page with the understanding that those “crazy vegans” really have “do no harm” (or “be efficient”) at heart, and are just a little misguided when they start screaming about the cruelty of your dietary choices.
And I hope, even more than that, that you'll think more carefully about all of your decisions, not just whether factory farming was involved.
For a “big picture” look at your life, your dreams, your goals, your health and where you want everything to go, sign up for my free e-course. You'll be empowered to make the decisions you really want to make, and led along one small step at a time. The lessons include short assignments that naturally lead you to more conscious, more directed living. The sign up form is below.
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