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White veganism

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PETA’s no-tolerance policy regarding the use of animals for any means, whether consumption or otherwise, is designed to be easily adaptable for white, well-off Americans. Meat-based cultures around the world, however, display attitudes toward animals that are less compatible with PETA’s policy. In a time in which large entertainment nights, such as the 2020 Golden Globes, are going vegan to make a statement about the urgency of saving the environment, social pressures are threatening to harm cultural meals. While it may be easy for a celebrity with ample funds and star chefs to transition into a plant-based diet, meat-based societies with little access to plant alternatives may find making such diet changes difficult.  

Many countries, primarily in South America, have developed largely meat-based diets. In Chilean cuisine, for example, signature dishes include Pastel de Choclo, Cazuela and Asado — all which are meat-based. Likewise, Brazilian cultural dishes include Picanha and Feijoada, which are not only meat-based, but red-meat-based. Many of these dishes have a history dating back to early inhabitants of the area, making these foods not only nutritionally vibrant but also a centerpiece for social gatherings and the identities of many people. People are what they eat and what they choose to prepare for others.

Tensions rise, though, when the demands of being vegan or vegetarian are introduced in such areas. Social pressures, from celebrities to PETA and all things in between, are placed on these cultures without any regard for the cultural necessity of meat. Organizations, activists and individuals push their anti-abuse and environmental agendas and campaigns. Such advocacy, though often well-meaning, threatens the livelihood of these cultures by placing the unrealistic expectation of veganism upon them.

Traditional meat-based diet practices of indigenous peoples are often disregarded in the movement to reorient towards planet-friendly cuisine. For the indigenous peoples of North America, meat-based cuisine is accompanied by a higher level of respect and gratitude than is otherwise displayed when meat is, for example, the product of factory farming. Unlike the highly processed meat industry we think of today, indigenous practices tend to utilize all aspects of the animal killed, showing respect and gratitude for the sacrifice such an animal has made. In these instances, food is a centerpiece of social life and celebrated. 

Veganism thus is not culturally adaptable or accessible for all people around the world, and the movement surrounding veganism in wealthy circles or large anti-meat organizations often lacks consideration for the importance of meat in many cultures. On a grand scale, all people can relate to the importance of food within their lives. Beyond nourishment, food is the centerpiece for countless social events and gatherings for families, friends, communities. Diversity in cuisine around the world is a reflection of diversity in the people who consume it. 

To oversimplify the matter, when the global North values fighting the effects of climate change, it pursues methods that are blasé about the cultural threats it poses on the global South. The question this poses is whether and to what degree the global North can ask the global South to sacrifice its cultural identities to prevent further environmental damage. The rhetoric espoused by the global North obscures the fact that the global North, in general, is the primary culprit perpetrating to negative environmental impacts such as pollution, acidification, and deforestation. For example, 17% of the Amazon has been lost in the last 50 years, due mainly to the development of cattle ranches owned primarily by North American corporations. Lifestyles of those in relatively wealthy regions have rapidly increased the collective use of our natural resources, a problem that affects not only the global North, but also, and equally, the global South. We face the tragedy of the commons. The global North is primarily responsible for most of the environmental issues we suffer from today, yet the global South suffers inordinately, and the cultures of the global South are being asked to adjust accordingly to mitigate these issues. We have to then question the moral obligations of both groups and the role they play in combating climate change in the long run.

Some may say that cultures are not worth preserving in a world that is dying. In hundreds of years, when climate change has peaked and we exist in a world in which natural catastrophes destroy thousands of lives on the daily, it won’t matter that we preserved cultures. Yet our morals tell us otherwise. Plant-focused diets are one of many solutions to limiting and possibly reversing the climate impacts caused by humans, but are also one of the most detrimental to human lifestyles. Thinking from a utilitarian perspective, the preservation of human life on earth is far more important than the preservation of human culture. By the contrapositive, though, we might also think that human life is not worth continuing if we have to sacrifice our culture to do so. 

Vegan trends and the social pressures surrounding becoming vegan, whether for the environment or otherwise, are threatening to the livelihood of people around the world who rely on meat as a keystone within their cultures. Vegan pressure threatens not only cuisine but the centerpiece of all social gatherings and even various religious practices and meals. Looking back across history and all the cultures that have been lost, it is essential that we strive to preserve the strong traditions left within the world. Culture and tradition strengthen communities and family structures. They give people a sense of identity and background that allow them to further connect to the world. In a large sense, tradition and culture must be preserved out of respect for history and world connections. 

Veganism may be easily adaptable for some groups — as we’ve seen within white, upper-class Americans — but that does not justify it across the board. I fear in the future that these social pressures will alter supply and demand within the economy, forcing vegan food prices up and cutting the supply of meat. As farmers switch to meet the demands, and possible climate policy is instated, meat could see a large decrease in its production. This threatens cultures that rely on meat to cultivate their relationships with others. As people around the world are urged to “go vegan for the environment,” cultures and traditional practices of many people are disregarded. The assumption is made those dishes consumed generation after generation can easily be given up. But just because the white American finds it easy to become vegan, doesn’t mean vegans themselves have the right to pressure others into that lifestyle. 

Contact Jenna Rezekowicz at ruzekow ‘at’ stanford.edu