Not many changes to American food consumption patterns have been as prevalent and consistent as the rise of veganism over the past few decades. Once considered to be a fringe diet only followed by animal rights activists and health enthusiasts, the number of vegans in the United States has increased from 290,000 to 9.7 million over the last 15 years, and Google Trends data reports that interest in veganism in 2019 was 10 times what it was in 2004. Even more notable is the increase in demand for plant-based products among non-vegan consumers. 39% of American consumers in 2017 were reported as trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet, and just this September, the factory farming magnate McDonald’s introduced their first-ever Beyond Meat burger.
Veganism fills a growing desire in the West to eat more sustainably and ethically. As an alternative diet that seemingly rejects the industrialized processing commonly associated with the livestock industry’s factory farms, it often comes across as a panacea for all agricultural industry issues. However, veganism alone is not the best dietary solution to the unsustainable and unethical practices of industrial food, since it exists within the food industry’s colonialist framework, and its absolutist dietary ideology oppresses cultural interpretation outside of its Eurocentric guidelines. Furthermore, if they lack proper focus on the local context, vegan diets can still have perverse effects on sustainability. In its narrow emphasis on food products over food production, without a further prioritization of local agriculture, veganism is an incomplete solution to the ethical and environmental problems it seeks to remedy.
The Complexities Veganism Doesn’t Capture
Veganism is a diet with one rule — cutting out the consumption of animal products. The simplicity has drawn in various non-vegans, who have started “looking for more plant-based options, [whether they are] looking for something healthier, something more sustainable … the demand is growing,” explained marketing researcher and assistant professor of marketing at Williamson College of Business Dr. Emre Ulusory in an interview with the HPR. This can also create problems, however, by ignoring some of the fundamental complexities of sustainable and ethical dieting.
Sustainable food systems need to consider the method of production in addition to the products themselves. Generally, animal products are less sustainable than plant-based. An oft-cited 2018 analysis of the global food industry showed that for many individuals, eliminating the consumption of animal products from their diet was the most significant action they could make to reduce their impact on the environment. Still, vegan food’s environmental impact varies greatly depending on the local context of both consumers and producers.
Culture is one such local context we must consider. Classifying veganism as an ethically superior diet can have harmful impacts on marginalized communities. Universalist classifications of animal food products as morally reprehensible stigmatize some cultures’ traditional consumption practices, highlighting how avoiding absolutism in veganism is important. Such stigma is seen in Northern Canada, where some Indigenous groups have been attacked for their traditional seal hunting practices. When viewed in the context of centuries-long oppression, it becomes clear that imposing Westernized values and dietary practices in this manner is a form of colonialistic cultural suppression.
Veganism’s absolutism is also harmful in the pursuit of environmental sustainability. “Environmental sustainability depends on where the production takes place and what the critical environmental issues are in that region,” Dr. Hanna Tuomisto, professor of sustainable food systems, told the HPR. Tuomisto discussed how in Finland, many lakes are kept healthy by fishing practices which prevent overcrowding, making the consumption of that fish environmentally sustainable for the region. Similarly, in some Arctic communities, most plants cannot sustainably grow and must be transported over long distances for consumption, making nutritionally efficient foods like seal meat more sustainable. These cases do not comply with the global trend, showing that considering sustainable food systems at a focused local level will reveal many complexities that a dietary focus alone will not capture.
This local analytical focus has the potential to reveal innovations that can make animal products, and the entire food industry, more sustainable. Tuomisto spoke about the rise of mixed farming systems that, by combining livestock and crop production, reduce many environmental damages present in other more intensive forms of production. By using, say, the manure from the livestock directly on the crops, these farms eliminate the carbon emissions of resource transportation. Efficient solutions like mixed farming systems emerge from focusing on the production of food and not the products themselves.
Focusing on production over products is furthermore essential to truly eat ethically. The world agricultural system is extremely exploitative, and this fact does not change between plant-based and omnivorous diets. Today in the United States, it is estimated that 75% of farmworkers are undocumented, opening the door for rampant mistreatment and underpayment by employers due to the threat of deportation. On average, farmworkers are paid just under $14 per hour for intense physical labor, and wage theft, sexual harassment, and chronic exposure to toxic chemicals are all too common. Globally, approximately 3.5 million agricultural workers are enslaved people — about 530,000 of them in developed economies. The issue of worker exploitation is present in essentially all major food companies, with few making significant progress in combating the use of forced labor in producing their product. Ethical eating must include justice for these workers behind the staples of a vegan diet.
Big Food’s Looming Presence
Despite the complexities of sustainable and ethical eating that veganism does not capture, it is empirically clear that the livestock industry is responsible for a great deal of both environmental degradation and worker abuse. According to advocacy groups like Uprooted and Rising, the titans of the food industry, also known as “Big Food,” are to blame for these issues. These issues are fueled by a handful of corporations, with the assistance of complacent governments, turning a blind eye to worker exploitation, neglecting environmental impact, and cutting corners on quality to push out more processed and profitable products.
The industrial food system is both the product of White supremacy and colonialism, and helps to maintain them — from the colonialism which determined the ownership of farming land and the agricultural system of today to the systemic exploitation of workers of color ingrained in North American food systems. This connection is also apparent in the barriers the U.S. Department of Agriculture has placed and continues to place against Black farm ownership, as well as the disproportionate impact poor-quality food has on the health of marginalized communities. Big Food frequently partakes in exploitative practices and commoditizes food to the point where local and personal connections are all but insignificant, making it easy for environmental and ethical transgressions to go unchecked.
For Uprooted and Rising, a holistic approach centering food sovereignty and justice for both the exploited earth and the exploited people who produce our food is the solution. Food sovereignty advocates for people’s right to define their own food and agriculture systems, by placing local economies and the needs of those who produce and consume food at the heart of the food system. In the current system, corporations like Coca-Cola and Unilever hold a “concentration of power [in which] small and midsize producers really don’t stand a chance.” The solution to a systemic issue like this is not only uncaptured by simple solutions like veganism, it is sometimes threatened by them.
According to Uprooted and Rising representative Tina White, veganism is “not holistic enough to actually get to the roots of the problem.” A focus on “vilifying one type of food” is not only an incomplete solution; it is a misdirection of blame. Many Indigenous practices exist outside of the extractive Western food system and are fully sustainable while including meat consumption. Food sovereignty advocates have fought to protect these and other traditional practices, as not only are they fundamentally incongruous to the livestock industry, but they too exist in opposition to the larger food industry as sustainable, locally sourced, and culturally significant forms of nourishment. “Food [is] at the nexus of so many things, just like land and water,” said White. It is cultural, traditional, and individual. A broad-brush ideology such as veganism remains ignorant of this, in the same manner that colonialism does.
In fact, many vegan dietary practices are a part of the Big Food system. Popular plant-based alternatives to animal products like the Beyond or Impossible Burgers are still overly processed. Though they do not carry the environmental consequences of meat, specifically, they remain problematic in their contributions to deforestation, habit destruction, and carbon emissions during transportation and processing. Furthermore, many Big Food companies have begun to capitalize on consumer concerns with sustainability by introducing plant-based products and greenwashing themselves as environmentally conscious. Companies like Tyson Foods and Nestle both rank extremely low on workers’ rights and are major polluters. Tyson Foods pollutes America’s waterways more than ExxonMobil, and Nestle is the world’s third largest plastic polluter. Nonetheless, they have been quick to release “green” products and vague environmental plans “for the planet.” Veggie burgers are not a solution to Big Food’s problems; they are a distraction.
Moving Towards Real Food
Big Food’s complicity in unsustainable and unethical food systems is why Uprooted and Rising, in a world bursting with dietary advice, declines to prescribe a one-size-fits-all dietary solution. White stated that the optimal dietary choices for an individual are “dictated by where you’re located” and “dictated by how much money you make.” Rather than claim an absolutist diet like veganism to be the solution, Uprooted and Rising holds what they call “real food” as the gold standard.
Real food is produced sustainably and ethically; it is fair trade, respectful of food sovereignty, and locally based. Most of the livestock industry in the West does not fall under this standard. But real food also does not include plant-based foods grown with labor violations. As White told the HPR, “We want to focus on actually how the food is produced. … [Are] those farm workers unionized? Are they actually community-based? Are they a public corporation that isn’t held accountable? Are they using harmful production practices?” These are all central concerns in determining real sustainable and ethical food. White explained that though agribusiness produces food extracted from the earth, “it also extracts labor, especially from Black and Brown bodies,” and that this consideration is just as important as the former. “We have to recognize that it’s a specific way of producing food that has cost; it’s not eating meat itself.”
It is clear that industrial food’s exploitative system is the source of unsustainable eating practices. However, a diet full of real food is an unrealistic expectation for many. Tuomisto stated that while the current consumption levels of animal proteins in developed countries are not sustainable, it’s quite difficult to get consumers to completely switch to a plant-based diet — “it’s not a simple solution.” Uprooted and Rising takes dietary advice a step further; they said that regardless, “individual purchasing is not enough to combat this type of food system and to address the root problems in it.” Instead, advocacy for transparency, systemic changes, and alternate purchasing by large consumers of food like universities are the changes with the greatest potential impact.
Despite the immense problems in the food industry, vegans like Ulusoy are optimistic. He claimed that tackling the livestock industry, an undeniable contributor to the Big Food system, is “just a starting point, the most pragmatic solution that exists for us to actually exercise.” For individuals with less access to a higher standard of local and fair trade food, and for most individuals unable to contribute to the transformation of the industrial food system as a whole, adopting a plant-based diet is a worthwhile change. Going vegan is, in many cases, an effective treatment to the disease of exploitative food systems. But for the sake of food sovereignty, workers’ rights, and hope of a longer-term transformation, it is important to understand: It is not the cure.