Sales of plant-based foods in the United States have grown 11 percent in the last year. According to a recent survey by the NPD Group, 16 percent of Americans “regularly” use plant-based alternatives for meat or dairy products. In Britain, up to 33 percent of consumers prefer plant-based milk alternatives, and an aging dairy industry is scrambling to keep up.
The large spectrum of “plant-based” diets can land you anywhere from pescatarian (vegetarian plus seafood) all the way down to vegan, raw vegan, and even “fruitarian.” Some people willingly forego all animal byproducts, including honey, silk, wool, leather, and even foods grown with animal manure.
But underneath all these popular “conscious eating” hooks is one quiet and slowly raging debate: whether or not it’s morally right for people to eat meat.
To catch a snapshot of how these exchanges often go, let’s look to the latest forum for online debate — good ol’ Twitter:
“She is literally defending killing innocent animals for food. I’m allowed to be angry,” writes @chloemsen.
In response, with over 1,000 likes and 426 retweets, @so_treu quote-tweets: “Oh, please. Migrant farmworkers suffer and die in vegetable and fruit fields. Quinoa and soy farming displaces indigenous folks and makes foods central to their diet too expensive. Almond farming increases drought.”
The sentiments of the first tweet — the strict belief system that we are exploiting another being’s life purpose for our own selfish (and needless) gains — tends to come with a side of moral superiority, marking those who still choose to eat animals as violent.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing to adopt a plant-based diet for personal ethics, but there is a problem when “eating ethically” is reduced to the black and white morals of “plant = good” vs. “animal = evil” without any consideration for the finer intersections of our greater food system or our bodies’ individual needs.
There’s no doubt that poor nutrition contributes to disease . In 2002, the World Health Organization noted that “nutrition-related chronic diseases” included everything from cardiovascular disease and cancer to diabetes and osteoporosis.
However, the end-all-be-all of food as medicine, when applied through a black and white lens, becomes: “If this diet isn’t working for you, you must be doing something wrong.”
Blaming someone for doing their best to address serious health issues feels especially toxic, but it’s a constant conversation in online plant-based communities.
Vegan YouTuber Bonny Rebecca made a 40-minute video back in January detailing her difficult transition away from strict veganism after she and her boyfriend began to experience serious health issues.
Several YouTubers made response videos blaming her for her failure to exhaust all possible options before breaking her moral code. They also blamed the medical professionals who helped her make this transition for their supposed ignorance and lack of knowledge on how to construct a healthy and sustainable vegan diet.
According to Buck Levin, PhD, RD, of Bastyr University, “If you’re committing to being vegan, you can’t really ever drop your guard if you want to meet your nutritional needs.”
Where someone lives, the food environment they grew up in, how health-conscious they already are, their level of knowledge in the kitchen, their overall interest in our food system, and their economic status are all make-or-break factors in determining whether strict veganism will be sustainable for their daily life.
The other downside of promoting a purely moralistic vegan diet is that not everyone has equal access to the ingredients they need to maintain a healthy one.
More often than not, a diet driven only by morals will likely cause people to favor processed foods and plant-based “alternatives” that are more comfortable but inherently less sustainable. How accessible or “fast” a brand of veganism is doesn’t just affect people’s individual health — it factors into the health of our surrounding environment.
Whenever we tell someone that they should or shouldn’t eat for moral reasons, we’re also asking them to sacrifice time, money, and — more often than not — health for peace of mind.
But food purchasing and consumption is a complicated global system, a system that’s not so easily altered or reformed by spending more of your dollars in one category.
Cutting down on meat may be a powerful way for an individual to help curb carbon emissions, but not everyone can cut out meat sustainably or healthfully. It may not be an option for people in low-income households or those living with disabilities or chronic conditions.
That being said, we still don’t talk often enough about what a 100 percent plant-based agricultural system would look like. The unfortunate reality is that it would still create a host of issues.
“The mistake that people make when they ask these moral questions is — let me consult my conscience,” says Dr. Levin. “Most cultures don’t do this, because they understand that their conscience is not a reliable way to make a decision.” He suggests we educate ourselves on the inner workings of our current food industry instead.
Professor Allan Felsot of Washington State University’s Agroecology program raises a point about how we as a population have become too accustomed to convenience-focused food. Veganism does not automatically solve the consequences of our low-cost system and its effects on our environment. It may even exacerbate those issues.
“It’s not so much whether animal agriculture is inherently good or bad,” Felsot says. “It’s more about how it’s utilized within the individual farming setup. The advantage of using animal manure for fertilizer is that the nitrogen breaks down slowly enough for the plants to utilize it effectively.”
Patrick Barkham highlighted this conundrum perfectly in The Guardian: “It is dawning on many vegans that although they eschew eating animal products, the fruit, vegetables, and cereals they consume are grown with animal manure. Factory-farmed animal waste may contain antibiotic residues but even organic farmers have long argued it is not possible to maintain soil fertility without animal manure.”
Alternatives like chemical nitrogen still have setbacks. “[This] hits the plant all in one go and comes with a greater risk of leeching into the soil and producing chemical runoff that contaminates our water supply,” says Felsot.
Felsot also identifies our national knowledge deficit around farming as one of the most significant issues in our current consumer food culture. A farmer’s main concerns are always going to be land, water, fertilizer, and pest control .
This is not to say it’s impossible to successfully manage these concerns with tools like cover cropping, humus composting, and no-till farming methods. The problem is the drastic increases in labor, time, and financial cost these methods would require.
The reality is that we don’t currently have enough young, interested workers; arable land; or groundwater supply to convert all of America’s farms to truly sustainable plant-based practices.
According to a 2019 survey by the California Farm Bureau Federation and UC Davis, more than 40 percent of farmers say that in the past 5 years, they haven’t been able to find enough workers to produce their main crop. The immigration crackdown, on top of increased mechanization, has worsened this shortage.
“Farmers are aging out, and most farmland is being replaced by housing developments,” says Felsot. “It would really benefit people to learn more about how agriculture works in the United States. They don’t see it as an integrated whole system.”
Without more labor and interest in farming itself, smaller-scale farms can produce only so much. Even building out more organic farms — let alone plant-based farms — would increase land use by 16 to 33 percent and worldwide deforestation by 8 to 15 percent, according to a 2017 study.
Meaning: If we actually follow and farm without animal manure and fish fertilizer, we would experience a fertilizer deficit. And the commitment it takes to increase the production of alternative fertilizer is not always better.
In today’s reality, eating ethically means eating seasonally and doing our utmost to minimize food waste. It means educating yourself on how to use every part of the plant or animal you purchase, signing up for a local CSA or growing your own food, composting your food scraps, and learning how to preserve, can, or pickle and how to make the most out of what you’ve got.
It means knowing the consequences of your food choices and making intelligent decisions as to your impact on other species, the people who grew and harvested your food for you, the way it was transported or preserved, and the environmental consequences of that farming operation.
It also means that “plant vs. animal” isn’t the debate we should be having right now
We should really be talking about how to spread knowledge about food waste reduction and focus on lifting up communities and individuals who don’t have access to sustainable and healthy food choices.
Plus, there are so many other ways for us to improve our health and our environment that don’t involve the moral choice to forego animal products.
Local urban agriculture initiatives, bulk buying, and advocating for increases in government farming subsidies for organic certifications, reductions in imports, focus on local soil regeneration, “carbon farming,” and investment in community solar projects and electric vehicles are all more effective ways for us to address similar problems.
We can work on a path to sustainability without shaming others in a race to a moral high ground. Shame only begets suffering in those who are being marginalized by it. It relies on fear to increase awareness or willingness. And for those who don’t have the economic or geographic access to get calories from plants, it does not help.
It also directly impacts our physical and mental health, with consequences ranging from addictive/avoidant behaviors to depression and acute anxiety.
So don’t blame people for their food choices in an unequal system that’s completely out of their control. Instead, ask what’s realistic for their lifestyle and their individual needs. Ask if someone wants your advice before you wax poetic on how they should change their diet or lifestyle. Support, not judgment, will lead to the most growth.
If you still want to involve morals in your dietary choices, consider the moral implications of where your food is coming from, what it takes to grow and transport it, and the effects of that process on all beings involved.
Get your information from reputable sources. If you want to share it, cite those sources. Advocate with your own dollars and time for organizations that are already doing the work you want to do.
We can’t rant and rave about sustainability and the equality of all living things if we aren’t considering who’s being left behind in our arguments. That only perpetuates the same patriarchal inequality that we advertise fighting against.
Instead of bombarding your fellow humans with unfounded judgments and assumptions, listen and encourage empathy.
Leigh Huggins is a freelance writer and tutor living in Los Angeles. Her work focuses mainly on health and sustainability, and she also publishes on Medium.com.