First of all, I’m not chasing down PETA volunteers with with a tofurkey torch, or suggesting that eating plant-based is a bad idea. There are a number of reasons why eating more plants is awesome:
I revel in the variety, creativity, and level of intentionality that goes into making plant-based food. Cooking vegan dishes that have multiple layers of flavor and texture is exciting and rarely accidental. I love to “nerd out” over the 10 ways you can brine and smoke a carrot!
Eating more plants may be the only thing that folks from all different diet sectors can agree on. Whether someone follows a keto, Mediterranean, Weight Watchers, paleo, or purple-spaghetti-monster way of eating, we can all agree (and the science supports) that veggies = beneficial for vitality and longevity.
Our precious Mama Earth has finite natural resources, and we all know that something has to change (for the selfish survival of our own species, if nothing else).
HALF of our land and fresh water in the United States is used for animal agriculture. 70% of that agricultural land is used to grow feed for livestock. Therefore meat, when produced en mass in a capitalist system, is the most inefficient use of resources on the planet.
Those things made eating plant-based an enjoyable and simple choice for me…
So what’s my deal with most vegans?
While there are outliers, the vegan community at large lacks the self-awareness and intersectionality that could bring about actual change for people and the planet.
Instead, they insulate themselves in a bubble of acai-dusted moral supremacy that they use to excuse themselves from confronting injustice at large.
I know because I’ve been there.
I’ve been the person who thought that by simply eating plant-based, we could cure the world of diet-related diseases and reverse climate change.
I told myself that I was part of the solution, and patted myself on the back for being such a good person.
Eating plant-based becomes a self-constructed shield against engaging with uncomfortable truths about how we need to change as a society.
Let me circle back to my first talking points:
The face of veganism is a thin, able-bodied, cis white woman (again, been her) who thinks that a change in personal consumption habits is the silver bullet change we need to improve global health.
What that doesn’t take into account is the fact that structural racism and systems of oppression prevent people from having control of their consumption habits. You can only “vote with your dollars”… if you have dollars and leisure time.
And thanks to wage segmentation and labor exploitation, many people don’t have either.
25 million Americans live in “food desserts” with 30% more convenience stores than the rest of the country, but more than a mile from the nearest supermarket. Especially without a vehicle, fresh fruits and vegetables with short shelf lives are more difficult and time-consuming to acquire, making them a frivolous choice. Meat and processed products have more caloric density per dollar, and many people need that.
Half of our land and water are being used to produce food.
40% of that food is wasted.
And yet, people in the United States and are still STARVING.
It’s clearly not because we don’t produce enough food or health resources, it’s because people can’t afford them in a political economy that values profit > people.
I used to think eating red meat was the greatest risk factor for disease. I was wrong.
People of color are twice as likely to experience food insecurity and chronic disease.
If we want people to be healthier, we should start with tackling food insecurity.
We cannot address food insecurity without coming to terms that our food system was built on the backs of workers, women, and people of color (dating back to when organized farming was used as a means of colonization).
I think it’s admirable that so many vegans are passionate about eliminating speciesism (the assumption that one species is morally superior to another, and thus the reason we can #savetheturles while eating salmon fillets) and saving non-human animals. But it doesn’t make sense to march for the cows, if you’re not going to march for the Black Lives Matter, LBTQIA+ or #metoo movements.
If all beings (including all humans) are not free, no one is free.
An intersectional understanding of race, income, gender identity, ability, and privilege is the only way to create true liberation in any one of those areas.
“Intersectionality” is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to help explain the oppression of African-American women. She describes intersectionality as “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.”
The ability to dismiss importance of intersectionality is only on option for those who don’t experience everyday oppression.
Health pt. 2:
The plate-policing that vegans have perfected doesn’t stop at animal products.
Again, while there are outliers, the vegan movement as a whole has broadened the moralization of food until it touches nearly everything we put on our plates. Delineating “good” foods (quinoa, coconut oil, hemp seeds) and “bad” foods (white flour, white sugar, processed snacks) parallel with our society’s unattainable picture of #health creates the perfect conditions for restrictive dieting, shame cycling, and disordered eating behaviors.
Many vegans cloak their own troublesome relationships with food + their bodies in self-righteousness and green juice, which can be triggering to others or cause them to follow suit.
For the record:
Restriction nearly always = weight gain
Weight gain under diet culture’s influence = “back on track” yoyo-ing (sound familiar?)
Metabolic yoyo-ing = harmful to our long-term health
A person’s ability to have a guilt-free, intuitive relationship with food should always be the first line of defense for their health.
And if that includes animal products… I’m happy to live in a society full of thriving, energizing, effective humans who put feta on their salads.
# 3: Environment
I know it’s getting lengthy but stick with me- we’re almost there.
Here’s the deal: whether farming chickens or almonds, industrial agriculture is riddled with problematic labor and land practices that harm our earth and those who work on it.
Vegan products (often owned by non-vegan companies- I’m lookin’ at you, MorningStar and Kellogg’s) and produce still take advantage of overworked, underpaid labor and exploit the natural resources of the global south.
This is because our food is produced in a capitalist social and economic system.
I get it, the first rule of talking about capitalism in a capitalist country is…
don’t talk about capitalism in a capitalist country.
But whether we he-who-must-not-be-named-it or not, capitalism is the system that currently shapes life around the globe. Its primary purpose is to create profit, not care for people. If enough people want something, be it chia seeds or Cheetos, someone will turn that into a commodity at the expense of people and the planet it in order to report profit.
We can’t change our food system without getting to its roots in our economic system.
Now to be clear, I still eat plant-based.
It makes sense to me to do the best that I personally can to reduce my carbon footprint, look after my health, and eat delicious freakin’ food WHILE I advocate for systemic change. I can act in accordance with my convictions on an everyday level, while still trying to knit together the fragmented social justice movements that will be stronger together.
For me, that personal best from a dietary standpoint looks like 99% plant-based.
For you, it might not.
And that’s okay.
What’s not okay is using ANY way to eating to pedestalize a group of people and let privilege go unchecked.
Opening my eyes to animal suffering, unsustainable land usage, and the health benefits of eating fruits and veggies does not mean I can close my eyes on injustices that effect my fellow humans and the oppressive systems that perpetuate them, or how those things are linked.
I’m learning. It’s a bumpy, uncomfortable road, but one that I am committed to.
So if you need me… I’ll be over here munching on kale chips and advocating for worker’s rights.
Many people are far more knowledgable than me about all this stuff, and have been invaluable in my continuous education about justice in the food/vegan space.
I highly encourage you to check out:
- A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism, by Eric Holt-Giménez
- Keynote: Capitalism, Food, and Social Movements: https://foodfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/JAFSCD-PBFS-Keynote-Capitalism-Holt-Gimenez-August-2019.pdf
- Dr. A. Breeze Harper’s work at sistahvegan.com
- Vegan Voices of Color on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Veganvoicesofcolor/
- “Mexie” and “A Privileged Vegan” on YouTube
- @thisrawsomeveganlife and @queerbrownvegan on Instagram
- The Vegan Vanguard podcast