If there’s a thing of which we vegans are truly guilty, it is the tendency to forget how privilege facilitates our choice. Proud of our conscious and careful eating; caught up in a sense of superiority, we let the feelings of purity and righteousness cloud our critical vision of what veganism would look like for the less fortunate. We forget that veganism, in most parts of the world, does not take the form of quaint indie cafes with diverse vegan menus. Nor does it look like a range of reasonably priced veggie burgers at the supermarket, accessible nutritional shakes, cruelty-free beauty products, or understanding friends who keep soy milk in the fridge for when we visit. In most part of the worlds, we forget that veganism would look like malnourishment, hunger, and cultural deviation that leaves one isolated.
It’s no coincidence that veganism is most common amongst the privileged in the west, where a wealth of dietary information and vegan forums are at our fingertips. Where we have the education to process this information, and make informed choices on how to make veganism work for us. Where we have doctors and nutritionists to turn to, should we need advice on how to personalize our vegan diet for our particular lifestyle. It is far too easy, from this position, to claim the high ground, look down on those not making the same choices, and to overlook the realities of veganism for the vast majority of people on earth.
By now, it’s common knowledge that the meat industry is unsustainable in a number of ways. A single fast food beef burger takes 660 gallons of water to process. Livestock is believed to be responsible for more carbon emissions than transport, and the footprint will only grow as demand for meat increases in Asia. The vast space required to accommodate for these animals reduces the amount of land that could otherwise be used to grow crops. The effects of meat consumption on our health is equally frightening, with meat eaters getting heart disease at higher rates than vegetarians and vegans. Diabetes, prostate and colon cancer are all diseases more common in meat eaters – potentially along with other illnesses where science hasn’t yet verified a connection to meat consumption. People gush over Youtube videos of adorable baby pigs and chickens, only to close the laptop and make a ham sandwich a minute later. The disregard of, and disassociation from, animal rights is amongst the biggest hypocrisies and psychologically fascinating phenomenons of our generation.
Veganism and the Death of Cultural Cuisine
So it makes total sense, in terms of environment, health and animal welfare, to advocate a global vegan movement. It does not make sense, however, on a practical level. At least not for the humans who are giving up foods that have nourished them their whole lives, that are deeply rooted in tradition, and that remain a main source of protein for them and their families. AsapSCIENCE recently made a video which theorized on the effects a sudden and global transition to vegetarian would have upon earth. Whilst positive impacts were unsurprisingly plentiful, there was also an unavoidable negative consequence of world-wide vegetarianism – namely the 1 billion people who would lose their full-time jobs of raising and processing animals.
In Mongolia, every meal from breakfast to dinner consists primarily of meat, animal fats and dairy products – typically from the cattle, horses, yaks, sheep and goat they spend most of their lives looking after. The animal fat helps Mongols withstand the cold winters. Vegetables are uncommon. Mutton, the most popular rural dish, is regularly eaten on its own. Dumplings are also popular regularly eaten in Mongolia – and they’re deep fried in mutton fat. Creamy porridge is one of the few meat-free dishes in the Mongol’s diet – and it’s made from cow’s milk. In the Maldives, a person consumes over 150 kg of fish per year (that’s over twice their body weight in fish). Tuna is featured in almost every dish the Maldive islands have to offer. It would be unthinkable to completely remove animal products from these nation’s cuisines.
Perhaps you’re thinking that’s fair enough, but surely the Western world has no excuse to continue eating meat. Then look at France, where vegan options might be more accessible, but where saying no to croissants, camembert, macarons, crème brûlée, croque monsieur, foie gras and quiche means saying no to quintessential French cuisine. It means saying no to national and prized delicacies which are part the French identity. Whilst this may appear a small sacrifice for some vegans, one must appreciate the significance of a country’s culinary culture. To be vegan is to give up many traditions and experiences which are important and highly enjoyable parts of life. I would be thrilled to see veganism gain popularity in France – but I believe it is important to keep in mind that the transition can be harder in some cultures for reasons other than a nutritional dependency upon meat.
The Wealthy Vegan
The question of whether you are privileged enough to be vegan does not just come down to accessibility, convenience and social setting. Above all, it comes down to money. Veggies and fruits are often sold at low prices in the average supermarket. This should make healthy eating easy – providing you are content with lower quality and non-organic foods. Imagine having to forego a rich variety of flavorsome vegetables and exotic fruits, settling instead for the cheaper and blander of plants in the vegetables aisle. When potatoes and canned fruit are more budget-friendly than avocados, squash and mangos, then adding meat to the family’s dinner would certainly be a tempting and easy way to make the whole thing more appetizing. When a snickers bar is half the price of cocoa peanut granola bar, when soy milk always costs more than cow’s milk, and ordering a quinoa salad is three times more expensive than KFC – veganism starts looking pretty expensive. Self-indulgent even, to the people for whom a single dollar in price difference makes a difference. There’s a reason obesity is more prominent amongst the American living in poverty than the Americans with financial stability.
Even if costs are reduced by making more dishes from scratch (buying individual ingredients to make your own patties, curries, hummus, smoothies) there is still the requirement of time, effort and skill. For those working 9-5 jobs, frying some meat for dinner will seem infinitely easier than flavouring a block of tofu, soaking lentils or making a falafel mix. Should we criticize busy and low-income people for prioritizing cost efficient sustenance over the benefits of veganism? Not unless we ourselves have ever had to experience the challenge of being vegan on minimum wage or less.
The vegan diet’s connotations of privilege and wealth is most prominent in the world of celebrities, where veganism is sometimes treated as a trend or bragging right. Beyonce goes vegan when she’s dieting, switching back to meat every few months. Actors Woody Harrelson and Jared Leto claim their reasons for going vegan stem out of ‘respect’ for animals and the environment; the implication being that people who eat meat don’t have such respect. Professional poker player Daniel Negreanu criticizes a meat-obsessed culture whilst casually discussing how his personal assistants cook all of his meals, fill his cupboard with vegan snacks and customize dining plans around his frequent travelling. What goes undiscussed is how Negreanu has a multi-millionaire lifestyle which facilitates his veganism. Being vegan is expensive and time-consuming for everyone except the rich, for whom the diet is a breeze and symbol of status. The food industry has perpetuated this fact with pretentious marketing and absurd prices for what should be simple, accessible foods. Artisan restaurants, overpriced health stores, smoothies made from rare superfoods – all are staples of the rich person’s vegan lifestyle that stem not out of compassion but out of vanity.
Vegans are the subject of much underserved criticism and stereotyping, when the fact is that going vegan is one of the most wise and selfless decisions a person can make. The point stands, however, that vegan ethics are not black and white, nor equally applicable to every person in the world. Global veganism does not happen from everyone suddenly becoming enlightened as to the evils of meat production. Focus should instead be shifted toward reforming the food industry for better access to vegan foods, and to move away from the mentality that going vegan is an overnight commitment, when the reality is that even the smallest of vegan-friendly changes to a diet can make a difference.