This National Grilling Month, Consider Firing Up Beyond Burgers Instead of Steaks
Interested in trying a plant-based diet, but unsure of where to start? July is national grilling month — marking the start of summer BBQ season. BU philosopher discusses the impacts and ethics of leaning into a “reducetarian” lifestyle this month, and beyond.
With companies like Beyond Meat, Oatly, Impossible Foods, and Tattooed Chef stocking the shelves of many major grocery chains, it’s no secret that consumers are experiencing a plant-based boom. According to a Bloomberg Intelligence report, “the global market for plant-based foods could see fivefold growth by 2030, helped by rising demand for sustainable products.” Study authors also predict that sales of plant-based dairy and meat alternatives could increase to $162 billion by the same year. In 2020, the number was just shy of $30 billion. From burgers to brie, the possibilities for vegetarian and vegan foods seem endless, but do their benefits stack up for the average meat-lover? To discuss this question, and more, we turned to Dr. Victor Kumar, a professor of philosophy at Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences and Director of the Mind and Morality Lab. He weighs in on the impacts and ethics of plant-based diets vs. consuming animal products, what it means to lead a “reducetarian” lifestyle, and how to make veggie alternatives more accessible for all.
From your perspective, what attracts people to a plant-based diet?
People want to be healthy and they also want to live up to their moral values. Nearly 70% of Americans are uncomfortable with the way animals are used in the food industry. However, as my colleague Joshua May and I argue in a recent journal article, this is generally not sufficient to adopt a plant-based diet. Most people need a community: friends and family who provide “social proof” that a plant-based diet is worthwhile and feasible.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about leading a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle?
Many people think that giving up meat and other animal products is unpleasant, unhealthy, and expensive. Not true. Meat is tasty, sure, but there are tons of delicious vegetarian and vegan meals — so much that you’d never run out. Of course, there are unhealthy vegetarians, just as there are unhealthy omnivores, but it’s possible to get all the calories, proteins, and nutrients humans need through a plant-based diet. And you don’t need to break the bank either — for example, beans and lentils are very cheap sources of protein.
How does meat consumption harm the environment?
The meat industry harms the environment in many ways. It contributes to water and air pollution, along with habitat-destruction through deforestation. But the most serious environmental harm is its contribution to climate change, via animal waste and food transportation. According to one recent analysis, animal agriculture causes over 1/6th of global greenhouse gas emissions.
In a recent op-ed with professor Joshua May, you describe some of the benefits of becoming a “reducetarian.” What does this lifestyle entail, and how does it differ from being a practicing vegetarian or vegan?
Vegetarians and vegans are purists who eliminate all meat or all animal products from their diets. This is admirable, but it’s hard to sustain for some and alienating for many others. Being a “reducetarian” means embracing impurity: trying to reduce rather than eliminate your consumption of animal products — for starters, eating meat only for dinner or only on weekends. The aim is to continue reducing until you are mostly vegan — but retain the option to eat animal products on special occasions, if you like. Compared to vegetarianism and veganism, reducetarianism is psychologically more feasible and less alienating; while it’s not quite as good as going cold turkey, it’s more likely to catch on and spread.
Is consuming meat or other animal products morally wrong?
Consuming animal products from humane farms may be defensible, but most of the animal products people eat come from factory farms where animals are tortured while they’re alive and killed without mercy. It’s wrong to support the factory farm industry for the same reason it would be wrong to support any industry (like bullfighting or dogfighting) that inflicts misery on animals just for the sake of fleeting human pleasure (in addition to environmental reasons mentioned above). Pigs and cows are sentient creatures, just as capable of pain and pleasure as household pets like cats or dogs. Reducing your consumption is a matter of moral integrity, but if you can also be an example to others, then together we might help bring about the end of factory farming one day — through consumer choices and political advocacy.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, are there any moral objections or ethical arguments to be made about people maintaining strictly plant-based diets?
Yes. For one thing, it’s not just factory farms that contribute to climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. Many plant crops are unsustainable at scale, and environmentalists who have reasons to reduce their consumption of animal products also have reasons to make ethical choices about the plant products they eat. In addition, some vegans and vegetarians can slip into moral superiority. All of us are imperfect, and while it’s imperative to stand up for one’s moral principles, one should do so with humility and kindness.
How can we, as a society, work to make plant-based diets more accessible?
There’s a lot we can do. We should seek out tasty plant-based recipes and help create a cooking culture that can withstand culinary competition against omnivorous diets. We should end subsidies for animal agriculture and create incentives for producing tasty fake meat, including lab-grown meat. Some people live in food deserts where it’s hard to find cheap, healthy vegetarian food, so we should also advocate for political reforms that generate equality of opportunity and advance animal and environmental justice.
Is there a way to best frame plant-based advocacy in a way that’s encouraging vs. guilt inducing for the general public?
Don’t ask people to give up meat or animal products entirely, which is likely to generate backlash and polarization. Instead, ask people to become reducetarians. That way, they can have their ethical cake and eat it too.