Please Stop Telling Me To ‘Go Vegan’

LEONELLO CALVETTI / MIKROMAN6 / WIRED

Last Thursday, on Earth Day, my social media feeds were flooded with posts imploring me to “go vegan” to save the planet. These posts came from friends, colleagues, and strangers, and were almost uniformly accompanied by filtered photographs of beautiful people in beautiful places. To all these beautiful vegan people: please stop, for so many reasons. It is neither appropriate to tell people what they should or shouldn’t be eating, nor is it factually correct that switching to a 100% plant-based diet is the best solution to the problems facing our planet, not least of all climate change.

I readily acknowledge that a plant-based diet full of varied nutrients is healthy and I try to eat that way myself. And I, by no means, am here to defend modern industrial farming, nor industrial fishing. These are exploitative and anachronistic industries that have scaled ancient animal domestication and husbandry practices to absurd proportions. Deforestation, environmental degradation, habitat loss, carbon emissions, and global warming are devastating consequences of widespread mismanagement of global resources. Changes must be made. But when it comes to actually trying to solve these problems, bleating “go vegan” at people who eat meat is simply missing the mark.

If the world’s environmental problems could in fact be solved by everyone going vegan, there would be a solid moral argument for doing so. However, this is not the case. Researchers from six US Universities including Cornell recently developed a simulation model to determine the land requirements per capita of human diets. They found that diets with small amounts of meat, as well as lacto-vegetarianism and ovo-lacto-vegetarianism, can feed more people than a vegan diet, therefore making them more environmentally sustainable. The reason for this is simple: a fully plant-based diet leaves too many resources unused. In many cases, nothing can be cultivated on pastureland, which can, however, sustain herds of cattle.

Human beings are omnivores by nature, and, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor, “nothing natural is evil.” Cooking and eating meat drove our evolution and it is part of the diet our bodies and their gut biomes are adapted for. Animals in nature eat each other all the time. It is possible to condemn the system of industrial agriculture without condemning people who eat meat.

There are plenty of ways to eat meat that are neither cruel nor wrong. Practices like regenerative agriculture not only don’t deplete the Earth, but help revive it, and undo the harmful effects of climate change by sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil. If we transitioned our agricultural industries away from feed lots and monocultures sustained by pesticides, we could not only eat meat and dairy, but revive natural ecosystems that thrived before our intervention. (Moreover, let’s not forget that the agricultural practices that produce fruits and vegetables using pesticides and tilling are not remotely harmless to the environment or the human body.)

Moreover, making moral arguments for why people should change their eating habits is problematic because it overlooks the actual reasons people make the food choices they do. Eating a 100% plant-based diet can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Many of the Instagram accounts that exhorted me to go vegan this Earth Day are run by people whose literal job is to be diet influencers, whose livelihood consists of photographing their food and their exercise routines and selling their lifestyle in exchange for money. Most people on the planet don’t have that kind of time, energy, or money to devote to cooking and eating a varied and balanced diet comprised entirely of fruit, vegetables, and grains.

Food is sacred, and for many people – especially immigrants — recipes passed down over generations are one of the few remaining ties that bind them to their own heritage. Try telling my father, for example, that it is his moral responsibility to give up kabanos. Kabanos is a type of Polish kielbasa, a thin dry sausage with a strong smell that frankly makes me gag but which will forever remind my dad of his childhood, in a country that he was forced to leave under ethnic and political persecution. His parents, who survived the Holocaust, are now dead. His only brother died in the Polish Resistance. (If you don’t know what that is, look it up before lecturing anyone on their moral responsibilities.) Today, my father lives in a foreign country, in a foreign language. When he drives an hour to Greenpoint in Brooklyn to buy kabanos, it’s an opportunity to speak Polish to the butcher, to revisit his roots, and to taste his homeland and his cultural history. Sometimes sausage is more than a pork product.

A friend of mine used to manage a fast-casual farm-to-table restaurant in New York City, which offered a free lunch to its employees, many of whom were Black or Latino and working two low-paying restaurant jobs to survive. My friend was shocked to find that his employees would frequently pass up the free lunch of sweet potatoes, charred broccoli, and roasted brussel sprouts, in favor of a Big Mac at McDonalds. Why, he wondered, would people choose to spend their hard-earned money on unhealthy food, rather than eat a healthy lunch for free?

Unfortunately for vegan influencers, the answer is complex and nuanced. The simple version is that, after hours working on their feet, people want to eat a meal that makes them happy. They want to eat something that releases dopamine, and gives them comfort, if only in the short term. Systemic inequality, low wages, and a broken immigration system, are all factors that contribute to the food choice of McDonalds over kale salad. It would be absurd to condemn the moral choices of food workers who eat meat, and to claim they don’t love the Earth as much as vegan millennials who travel regularly by airplane and drink almond milk, and therefore have much larger carbon footprints.

If eating a 100% plant-based diet works for you, that’s great. One of the greatest gifts of life in the modern industrialized age is the freedom to make your own choices. And it’s completely fair to feel sadness at the idea of causing an animal’s death, and choosing not to eat meat for that reason. But it is not fair or right to condemn eating meat as cruel and wrong across the board.

In advocating for the abandonment of animal products and meat, vegan influencers and activists inadvertently overlook the fact that they are effectively trying to put hundreds of thousands of people out of work. Instead of boycotting farming altogether, choosing to eat meat and animal products produced by farms that practice regenerative agriculture is a way to vote with your wallet, sustain those farmers and ranchers who practice sustainable methods, and incentivize other producers to transition how they run their own businesses, thus paving the way for a large-scale shift in how we practice agriculture.

Long story short, please stop telling me to “go vegan.” A better use of energy would be to lobby representatives in local and federal government to stop food subsidies for crops like soy and corn, and to start subsidizing farm transitions to organic and regenerative practices. And if you really want me to “go vegan,” show me delicious vegan recipes that make my mouth water and pique my curiosity about what I’m not eating, rather than shaming me for what I am eating.

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