Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The 80% Vegan: A EcoBlog Debate

Mike's Original Post

I’ve been having a debate recently with some of my more purist vegan friends about whether a 100% vegan diet is the only way to go when it comes to sustainable living.  To clarify matters for those who are confused by the terminology used by those who adopt plant-based diets, by a vegan diet I mean one that is free of any food items that come from animals.  In practice, this means that a true vegan would avoid eating the flesh of animals (beef, pork, lamb, and yes, fish and chicken as well) and would avoid eating products that come from animals (milk, yogurt, eggs, cheese, chocolate, etc). 

First, here’s where I agree with my purist vegan friends: 
  1. A vegan diet most certainly is optimal for the health of individuals.  The China Study—the largest epidemiological study in the world—clearly shows that the closer one moves to a purely plant based  diet, the less one is afflicted by the diseases of affluence suffered by so many Americans (e.g., obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease).
  2. A vegan diet is optimal for the well-being of animals, including egg-producing chickens and dairy cows, which experience as much suffering as animals used for meat.
  3. Finally, studies have conclusively shown that our planet itself would benefit if there were fewer animals producing methane (and thereby contributing to global warming) and polluting our waterways with their waste run-off.
So, there are some definite reasons why one would want to go 100% vegan.  You’d look better and be much healthier, animals would suffer less, and the planet would certainly benefit if larger numbers of people adopted a totally plant-based diet.
But here’s where I part company somewhat from my noble vegan friends.   I believe that this lifestyle is far too difficult for the average American to adopt.  A vegetarian diet is difficult enough, but just try going out with your friends for dinner on a Friday night and see how many vegan options there are at the local Applebee’s or Friday’s in the New York area (the answer is virtually none).
So what I propose is a less purist solution, but perhaps a more practical one that would have many of the same benefits as a purely vegan diet.  I call it “The 80% Vegan”.   Assuming one eats 21 meals a week, in practice this would mean that 17 of these meals would be vegan.  The other four would ideally be vegetarian, but might also include modest amounts of meat products as well. 
Those four meals where people could eat whatever they want in reasonable amounts may not seem like much.  But this would allow enough flexibility in one’s diet to avoid annoying your friends when they want to go out for a night on the town and there are no vegan options available.  It would also mean that you wouldn’t have to offend your dear Aunt Sally when she makes her famous leg of lamb on Easter Sunday.
Those four “anything goes” meals would also mean not having to worry if you are getting enough protein, vitamin D, iron, and vitamin B-12 in your diet.  The first three are rarely a concern with those who adopt a vegan diet, but the B-12 issue is significant for some vegans. 

Finally, the 80% vegan diet that I am proposing would come closer than either the strict vegan diet or the standard American diet to the kinds of eating habits of our ancestors and people in traditional communities around the world.  Most healthy, traditional diets—think of the famed Mediterranean and Okinawa diets, for example—are mostly plant-based, but include very modest amounts of meat or fish on special occasions. 

The question that I would like to raise is whether this sort of more flexible, less dogmatic veganish diet would (1) be more likely to be adopted by the average American, (2) be more likely to be followed consistently, and (3) produce some of the same sorts of benefits as its more rigid counterpart.

Response from Elyssa Hopkins
Resolution Kitchen

To answer your questions.. yes, yes and yes.

First, it is unlikely that the average American will be presented with vegan options at every single meal. Unless you're preparing every meal, every day for yourself, you're going to encounter animal ingredients. Eating vegan at restaurants is usually possible (salad is always an option!), but when was the last time you went to dinner at someone's house and they served vegan dishes? I suppose you could only eat a side of veggies or something of the like prepared by your host, but is it worst offending them? That's one way to make sure you follow a strict vegan diet, since you won't be invited anywhere after that.

Secondly, it's definitely more likely to be followed consistently. Advocating absolutely no animal ingredients ever is not likely to be appealing to most people. I think it's more realistic to promote what you're suggesting, a lifestyle including healthier choices for yourself, animals and the environment, and it's up to individuals to set realistic goals for themselves. For example, in my house I make almost all vegan dishes. Occasionally I'll use cheese in something (there's just no good substitutes for delicious cheese!), and I'll even make a chicken dish once or twice a month to appease the hubby. While my friends and family know how I eat at home and do try to cook accordingly, when I eat at their homes I would never refuse something on the basis that there is an animal ingredient in it. And when I meet a friend Tiger Lily Cafe in Port Jeff tomorrow you can bet I'll be ordering the Provencal, an old favorite, which has brie. Stressing over menus and declining invitations is not how I want to live all the time. This brings me to your third question. Any sort of reduction in animal products will result in a positive change. While the "80% vegan" will not have results as drastic as the "100% vegan", they're still making a positive difference and setting a good example. I understand that there are people out there who think any sort of animal exploitation is abhorrent, so they live their daily lives without animal products regardless of the situation, but most people aren't as drastic. What I'm getting at here is that everyone should do the best they can to be responsible citizens of this Earth, and should implement healthy lifestyle choices, but at a rate that they determine feasible.

Response of Demosthenes Maratos
Molloy College Sustainability Institute

First, allow me a clarification or terms. Veganism is not simply a diet, but a lifestyle and there really is no such thing as an “80% vegan”. You’re either vegan or you aren’t. There is no in between. People who eat animal products regularly and intentionally are not vegan, period. If anything, an “80% vegan” is really just an omnivore who happens to eat more vegetables than animals. A true vegan, as correctly defined in the original post, is someone who eschews all animal flesh and animal byproducts. It might be confusing for readers to believe that someone calling themselves vegan would, even on occasion, eat animals. I also believe it’s far too easy to revert back to unsustainable and unhealthy eating habits if, even on occasion, one continues to consume animals and their byproducts. But I digress.

Those of us who are seriously concerned about the environment should go vegan and take a strong animal rights position. No other food choice has a farther-reaching and more profoundly positive impact on the environment and all life on earth than choosing to become vegan.

Here’s why:

1) Being vegan is easy. In fact, it’s never been easier. To contend otherwise seems really more about maintaining convenience and tradition rather than a defensible ethical position. There are vegan alternatives in virtually every grocery store in North America. Websites, discussion forums, books, magazines, videos and more are all available to help make the transition. I became vegan in 1989, and while it was not particularly difficult back then, it is absurd to characterize it as difficult today. To consider veganism difficult or even a sacrifice is to believe that we have the right to use and abuse animals any way we choose. Being vegan is not about giving up; it’s about not taking. It’s not about giving up meat, dairy and eggs; it’s about not taking someone else’s life and liberty. Sure, you are more limited in your restaurant choices, particularly if you don’t live in or near a large city, but in the New York Metro area? And if this inconvenience were significant enough to keep one from being 100% vegan, then I would question just how serious about the issue they were in the first place.

As far as being annoying to friends when dining out, people tend to default to what’s convenient and familiar, but you learn quickly that it doesn’t mean people are going to be put out because you suggest the vegan friendly Asian restaurant instead of Applebee’s. Remember, your friends like you for you, not what you eat. If your friends only like you for the way you eat chicken wings, you need new friends. You don’t have to change your personality or treat people differently because you’re vegan, so don’t.

And I have to be honest, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been thanked by omnivorous friends for introducing them to vegan restaurants, and I’ve had exactly zero complaints from unsatisfied friends following a vegan meal.

Sure, you’re bound to get some antagonism for your choice not to take part in animal exploitation, but that’s nothing for which you need to apologize. After all, these subjects make people very uncomfortable. It forces them to look inside themselves and ask, "Is consuming and otherwise using animals really ethical and just?" For a lot of those folks the antagonism is often a display of just how uncomfortable your lifestyle makes them when thinking about their own. I know that regardless of the hurdles I’ve overcome being vegan, the decision was a sincere desire to shift the paradigm that views animals as things, even if I did offend some omnivores along the way.

I don’t apologize for being vegan. I know what I’m doing is right for me, right for the planet, and right for animals.

And if you’ll allow me, don’t let anyone tell you that vegans sacrifice delicious food. See here for example. A vegan diet can include fruits, vegetables, beans and grains from all over the world. If one is interested in vegan meats, cheeses, ice creams and other sweets, there are more and more of these types of products hitting the market every day. See here.  It might take some time and effort to learn about vegan products, but any change in routine requires an adjustment period.

2) Becoming vegan doesn’t necessitate changing anything that we already believe. It’s a simple matter of aligning your actions with your ethics. Here’s an example: Most Americans agree on the following ethical considerations: Protecting the environment, protecting animals from abuse, and doing what we can to alleviate global hunger. In fact, 90% of Americans recycle because they believe the environment is an ethical value, 97% of Americans, according to Gallup polls, believe that as an ethical matter there ought to be laws protecting animals from abuse, and I would bet that everyone reading this believes that where we can, we should try and alleviate the scourge of global poverty. Veganism is about living all three of these already widely held ethical beliefs. So you see, no one has to change anything they currently believe to become vegan. Again, we only need to do align our actions with our ethics. Our food choices matter; taking the life of a sentient creature, harming the environment, and contributing to global hunger cannot be trumped by our desire for convenience, tradition, or the mistaken belief that we must consume animals to be healthy.

Some people become vegan gradually, while others do it all at once. If you can't become vegan overnight, you might find that you can eliminate one animal product at a time, or go vegan for one meal a day, or one day a week, and then expand until you are completely vegan.

Connecting with other vegans or vegan groups can be very helpful for information, support, camaraderie, recipe sharing or local restaurant recommendations. The American Vegan Society is a nationwide organization, and members receive a quarterly newsletter. Many organizations have vegan events, and there are also many informal Yahoo groups and Meetup groups for vegans.

3) The environmental benefits of a vegan lifestyle are significant and fully realized if the dietary aspect is followed consistently. Consider a 2009 climate change study from the Netherlands’s Environmental Assessment Agency titled, ‘Climate Benefits of Changing Diet’ that reported the following: “A diet without ruminant animals, which produce the most methane, would reduce the cost of climate change by 50 percent. However, switching to a diet of no animal products, including no eggs or milk, would reduce the mitigating costs of climate change by more than 80%”. Those are by no means comparable benefits resulting from the two diets. And a 2010 study out of Dalhousie University in Canada warned, “the projected doubling of meat and dairy consumption by 2050 would imperil the planet, due to increased emissions related to animal agriculture”. They also compared substituting chicken for beef, finding that the net reduction in environmental impact would be only 5-13%. However, a diet of 100% protein from animal sources ranked on a scale from 1 to 100 as 100, compared to only 1 from a vegan diet where 100% of protein came from plant sources. Again, in no way can those numbers be construed as comparable benefits resulting from the two diets. And if authoritative studies are not enough or perhaps you’re a fan of celebrity news, Oscar winning director, James Cameron, who switched to a vegan diet for ethical reasons has recently admonished meat-eating environmentalists to switch to a vegan diet if they are serious about saving the planet. He did so in a 28 second video clip on the Facebook page of the documentary ‘Earthlings’.

And he also recently told the Calgary Herald, “It’s not a requirement to eat animals, we choose to do it, so it becomes a moral choice and one that is having a huge impact on the planet, using up resources and destroying the biosphere”.

By doing nothing more than simply living as a vegan – which means to eliminate one’s support for all exploitation of sentient beings – we have the power to greatly lessen our ecological footprint, take our health into our own hands, play a part in eliminating world hunger, and experience the peace of mind that comes from making a powerful personal contribution toward peace on earth.

4) Lastly, I submit that the basis of veganism is recognizing the inherent value of animals as individual beings unto themselves. And for that reason, one cannot be a part-time vegan or even an 80% vegan. From the moment Donald Watson first coined the term ‘vegan’ in 1944, veganism has been about the rights of animals to be given equal consideration. To this day, veganism continues to be the only cogent answer that gets at the heart of animal exploitation. Furthermore, if we consider animals to be part of the moral community, it’s misleading and not ethically consistent to present not eating the flesh of animals at 80% of meals, but not 100% of meals. Think of it this way: Sure, you’re not having a hamburger today, but that’s little consolation to the chicken you’re eating on another day or the goat confined and impregnated to make your feta cheese on yet another day.

I must also add that I believe an environmental thrust alone is an insufficient basis for a long-term vegan position, or for a movement seeking to gain animals important rights. To put it another way, going vegan for solely environmental reasons is quite like opposing the Holocaust because the trains to Auschwitz had a big carbon footprint. I know that is a provocative thing to say, but before getting up in arms, think about the central point I’m making. In both cases, yes the person is opposed to the holocaust. But all of us would argue that the person making an objection on environmental grounds is really failing to see the larger point. That is that genocide is profoundly disgusting and wrong because it violates the inherent rights that we think all human beings should have.

Being vegan is your everyday statement that things are not right as they are, that you are one more person who is standing up to be counted in opposition to the exploitation of animals. It is a refusal of a system that produces enormous profits at the expense of animals who are just as sentient as the family dog or cat. Veganism is and has always been about animal rights.

That does not mean we need to be silent about the environmental benefits of veganism, but when we do address such benefits, we should point out that, while great, they are very much incidental to the grave moral wrong of exploiting and unnecessarily breeding and killing the innocent. I would be vegan even if it were bad for the environment, but it's good to know that I can be a good environmentalist and a good vegan simultaneously. Focusing on the environmental or health benefits of veganism undermines the whole moral point of veganism.

If you’re not vegan – go vegan. It’s really easy. If you are vegan – stay vegan. It’s better for the planet, better for your health and most importantly it’s the ethically right thing to do.

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