In an age of climate change denialism and inaction from politicians, personal initiative towards reducing our impact on the environment is at an all time high. You’re likely familiar with the new campaign to eliminate the use of plastic straws and single use plastic bags. Doing a Google search for “reusable water bottle” now yields thousands of results at affordable prices. And of course, there’s the prospect of changing your diet. One of the largest contributors towards the eroding away of the ozone layer is the greenhouse gas methane, which is released when fossil fuels are burned or organic matter begins to decay. However, the overwhelming majority of methane emissions come from livestock agriculture and factory farming, as a result of large-scale manure storage initiatives that become breeding grounds for excess methane. In tandem with that, factory farming is currently the biggest user of the world’s limited freshwater supply, as it not only goes into drinking water for livestock, but must be used to grow feed for these animals as well. Going vegetarian or vegan can dramatically reduce personal contribution to methane production, and overall have a large impact on lowering individual carbon footprints.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VEGGIE 4 ME
So, there’s no debate as to whether or not vegetarianism/veganism is beneficial for the environment; the science has already concluded that meatless diets have a tremendous impact on consumption of resources and gas emissions. Where my issue lies with vegetarianism is not within the realm of science, but rather the assumption of some vegetarians that this lifestyle is easily adaptable to everyone. Spoiler alert: it’s not, so let’s stop shaming people for their dietary habits, shall we?
Let’s start off with one of the most glaring issues: being able to eat vegetarian, to have reliable access to healthy meat-free options, is a privilege. Food insecurity in the U.S. is an issue impacting millions of Americans, yet is hardly discussed, nor are many people familiar with it. The USDA’s Economic Research Service defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food” (USDA, 2019). For the thousands of Americans who struggle to put any food on the table at the end of the day, the ones who miss meals entirely or don’t have the money to buy fresh groceries, thinking about the ethical implications of dinner is simply not realistic. Being able to have a diverse array of food options, so much so that one can choose to opt out of eating a certain food group, is a privilege in and of itself. The reality is, the whole system is at fault here; there is a long winded history of fast food chains being established in impoverished communities, with full knowledge that their cheap options and “meal deals” entice economically struggling families into purchasing their products. This then results in disproportionately high rates of heart disease and obesity in poor communities, particularly those with large POC demographics, and the ever growing gap between the eating habits of the rich and poor expands. (This phenomenon is called food oppression. It’s sickening and very, very real for thousands of people living in this country.) At the moment, there isn’t much that we as individuals can do to challenge this system; however, one thing perfectly within our grasp is changing our mindsets. Recognize that these systems are in place to target the poor, people of color, etc. and with that thought in mind, remember that being able to devote your time and energy into protesting factory farming and animal cruelty is not a luxury everyone has. People have individualized priorities, and they have the right to address the issues they see as most pressing first. Passing up a $1 hamburger based on ethics simply cannot be everyone’s reality.
Perhaps it’s the psychology minor in me coming out here, but there are also psychological findings to suggest that a vegetarian diet may not be sustainable for everyone. According to a 2012 study published by UNC - Chapel Hill doctoral students, there is a strong correlation between vegetarianism and eating disorders in adolescent females. Their surveys with young women hospitalized for eating disorder treatment found that actively ill patients were strong proponents of a vegetarian diet, as well as being significantly more likely to have been a vegetarian for weight-related reasons than individuals without eating disorders. It’s understandable that you may wonder, but what does this have to do with other people not being vegetarian or doing their part? Well, individuals, particularly those who identify as “Type A”, perfectionistic and have high anxiety are somewhat predisposed to a higher chance of developing eating disorders. While it’s not a given that they will develop one, the correlation exists. For at-risk individuals to adopt a diet that imposes strict dietary rules on them can be a trigger of disordered eating behaviors and act as a segway for them to further restrict their diets.
While it seems inevitable that our society will arrive at meat-free diets one day, at the moment, dietary choices remain just that - choices. So please, I implore you, before you ask someone, “Why not?”, take into consideration that we all behave in the way we do for our individual reasons, and policing someone’s reasons is NOT a vibe.
Kelly is a sophomore English major with a minor in Psychology.