Current Location: London, UK
I’ve been naturally shifting towards a more plant-based diet over the past few years as a result of being heavily involved in environmental coursework and research (the “how the sausage is made” effect, if you will). I stopped eating red meat three years ago after learning how inefficient and carbon-intensive beef production is. I stopped eating shellfish two years ago after a research project where I learned about the destructive ecological consequences of shrimp aquaculture and the widespread use of slave labor on many farms in southeast Asia. I stopped eating certain types of fish because of overfishing, and I all but stopped eating eggs after my pesticide poisoning incident over the summer. Many of my friends in London are vegan or vegetarian and I noticed that I was unconsciously making an increasing share of my diet plant-based.
For my November challenge, I decided to make a commitment as part II of sustainable consumption. I opted to take a page from the modern Kosher eater’s book and switch to completely animal-free consumption at home with more flexibility when I eat outside the house. Before I get into why I opted for more flexibility rather than going cold turkey (pun absolutely intended, Happy Thanksgiving), I’m going to give a brief overview of why I feel increasingly strongly that animal-free consumption needs to be more mainstream.
There are three primary motivations for going vegan: 1) Health; 2) Ethics; and 3) Environment. I know several vegans who are motivated by ethics, and I think it is great that ethical vegans and environmental vegans are brought together by a shared passion. Personally, my main motivator has been for environmental reasons. The environmental justifications for reducing animal-based consumption are extremely compelling. I’m borrowing this graphic from WRI’s report, “Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future” because it so neatly demonstrates how problematic animal-based consumption can be on almost any metric of sustainability.
If you don’t find this wildly compelling from a sustainability perspective, I don’t know what else will. Think about all of the little things that reduce energy use, CO2 emissions, and water use, like turning off the lights when you leave the house or curtailing use of the tap. All of that pales in comparison to the impact that a shift away from animal-based foods can make. The statistics on beef alone are appalling and the inefficiency of animal-based consumption overall is mind boggling.
Agriculture is the second largest emitting sector (after energy). It is one of the more difficult industries to regulate because it is hard to track producer-specific emission levels and many producers are extremely small in scale. Think about the amount of emissions we could cut, not to mention divert water use and free up valuable land, just by shifting away from meat consumption. Think about how the chart would look if we eliminated all animal sources of food. The impacts of the plant-based sources are quite literally negligible compared to the impacts of animal sources.
So after all of this, why am I not going 100% plant-based? The primary reason that I am not going completely vegan right now is that I am concerned that veganism can be somewhat restrictive, and that championing veganism as the only way to be a sustainable consumer could be alienating. As is the objective of the Shifting Diets working paper from WRI, just getting people to make steps away from animal-based consumption, particularly beef, is a hugely important change. If sustainable consumption is viewed as an all or nothing approach, many people will simply choose to do nothing–as one person put it to me, if you eat an egg sandwich while hungover, you shouldn’t view it as falling off the bandwagon and abandon it completely.
I also feel strongly about incorporating plant-based eating into the mainstream even for non-vegans. For example, you will often see a vegetarian/vegan designated section of a restaurant menu. Most people view these options as for vegetarians/vegans only. I think it would be awesome if non-vegans started making plant-based choices; because they taste good, because they want to save money, or because it is no longer the norm for meals to be centered around animal sources.
Ultimately, I’m avoiding the vegan label because part of the reason I wanted to write this blog is to demonstrate that being a sustainably-minded individual isn’t difficult or lifestyle-restricting. I firmly believe that you don’t have to be a tree-hugging hippie to be a conscious consumer. Looking forward, maybe I will find that completely eliminating animal-based products isn’t as difficult as we perceive it to be, and I’ll make the case for going completely vegan.