Veganism and Vegetarianism- What’s Really Ethical?

With rising awareness of the impact agriculture and raising livestock has on climate change and the quality of the environment, many environmentalists are making the switch to veganism and vegetarianism. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, their 2014 reports stated that 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions came from agriculture, forestry, and other land use [1]. This “other land use” refers to things like livestock. Livestock has become a major industry like any other, and like others, has grown in an unsustainable manner because of things like widespread deforestation to make space for livestock. This has led many to switch to veganism and vegetarianism out of concern for the environment. Some also decide to make this switch because of ethical concerns regarding animal treatment.

While these are all very valid concerns and great reasons to switch to veganism and vegetarianism, there has also been seen the shaming of others for not making the switch as well. This has been done on social media platforms, or even in person, with people implying that a person can’t care for the environment and continue to consume meat. A variety of articles exist displaying this, and I for one have seen it done on platforms like Twitter and TikTok. I’d like to insert the notion that one doesn’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to care about the environment, and that shaming someone for not complying to those dietary rules is an ignorant statement to make- it can even be a harmful one. Maybe some people don’t realize this, so I’d like to bring to your attention why this is, so hopefully we can work to make environmentalism a more inclusive movement.

A large variety of these statements are made blindly without thinking about the situations of others. For example, vegan alternatives are on the more expensive side and are typically only found in supermarkets like Whole Foods, and while they’ve been making their way into more places, they still aren’t readily accessible to a wide variety of the public. This plays into another concept called food deserts. Food deserts are geographic areas where the people residing in the area have restricted or non-existent access to affordable, healthy food options because of the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance [2]. This makes it even more difficult for people to access foods, including vegan and vegetarian options. To add another layer of complexity to this issue, food deserts typically exist in low-income minority communities, making it an issue of environmental justice and environmental racism as well. This is due to the fact that these food deserts exist primarily in black and brown low-income areas, highlighting the socioeconomic injustice faced by these communities. People located in these communities don’t have the money or the access to food to go entirely vegetarian or vegan. Additionally, some foods are integral to the cultural identity of people belonging to cultural groups. Food is such an essential part of this, and as someone whose parents are immigrants from South America, I can see firsthand the role of food in enhancing someone’s cultural identity and ensuring that ties between them and their culture remain intact no matter where they are located. Shaming people for not having this privilege isn’t the right step to take.

And then there’s the question of ethics. Some vegans/vegetarians might still think that doing this is bringing awareness to why switching to this dietary mode is best for the environment. And while it does do this, to some extent, it can come off as ignorant for the reasons above. There are also ethical issues on the side of vegetarians and vegans that many fail to consider. While it may be ethical to not consume meat and be helping reduce carbon output that comes from livestock, there are several questions many people don’t think about- are underpaid workers picking your food? Does your food have high food mileage, depending on where it comes from? Are large sections of forest being cleared to make the food you’re consuming? This isn’t meant to be a call-out, it’s meant to get people to think deeper about some issues and understand that all issues are more intricate than they may seem at first glance. Not to say that all vegans and vegetarians do this, but some do- maybe because they aren’t aware of their privilege, but it’s still something we need to focus on stopping.

Not all hope is lost! And maybe you’re asking yourself now- what can I do to help? Well, here’s a couple of things. Firstly, be and advocate and raise awareness! A lot of people don’t know about the existence of food deserts, so talking about it and letting more people know will help more people spread the message. Stopping someone from shaming someone and explaining to them why their statement is misguided will help stop this behavior from happening and continuing, both in person and online. Secondly, use your civic power! Vote in a way that helps spread the word- and if you can’t vote, tell your representatives that environmental justice is an important issue to your community. Sign petitions, go to protests (as public safety permits), and just spread the word in whatever way you can! Lastly, spread ways we can be sustainable and environmentally friendly that are easy for people to access, like reusing bags, using public transportation or carpooling, using/buying secondhand items like clothing and furniture, and/or recycling in any way someone has access to. There are so many ways we can be environmentally friendly without bringing someone down for what they can/can’t do. We all have the same mission- helping our planet and the people who live on it!

[1] IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report.

[2] Food Empowerment Project. Food deserts. Retrieved March 04, 2021, from https://foodispower.org/access-health/food-deserts/

Sam Ayala is a senior at Stony Brook University doing a double major in Environmental Studies and Political Science. She has always had a passion for advocacy, especially regarding environmentalism/sustainability and environmental justice. She’s excited to be a volunteer at the Ashley Schiff Preserve and hopes to continue spreading the message of environmentalism and environmental justice.

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