Cutting out the Meat: An Overview of Plant Based Diets and the Intricacies Within the Movement Towards Veganism
The world is changing rapidly around us. Younger generations are educating themselves on the issues the world faces today and are pushing hard for changes to be made. Today we see people fighting against human rights violations, fighting to fix the systems with institutionalized racism, and fighting for environmental change. Part of the environmental movement is the idea of fixing the agricultural system within the United States because both animals and humans are being deeply harmed by the current practices taking place across the country. One of the largest pieces of this agricultural change movement is the move towards veganism; the benefits for human health and the health of animals are pretty significant.
Plant Based Diets:
Before writing this blog post, I was fortunate enough to interview Professor Kofi Boone from North Carolina State University and Patricia Heid, a current graduate student of Nutrition, who is becoming a registered dietician. Both Prof. Boone and Mrs. Heid helped me understand some of the fundamental issues within our agricultural system and specifics about how veganism can play a significant role in leading to change.
In my interview with each of them, my first questions was:
According to your knowledge of plant-based eating, what is your definition of veganism?
Prof. Boone simply put it as “the nutritional requirements for human beings that don’t require animals or any animal products. So a plant based diet is attempting to meet those nutritional requirements”. Mrs. Heid also gave a clear definition with information from her background in nutrition by adding that “there are no animal products whatsoever, right, not dairy, not eggs, not honey even, because the idea is that you leave all the animals alone.”
This is probably not surprising to most of you reading this because being vegan is so common these days, this definition is everywhere. I started the interviews with the definitions in order to set the stage for the rest of the conversation and as you continue reading, you will see why acknowledging the importance of leaving animals out is so significant and how systematic change can be made through that.
Systemic Racism in Agriculture
As I continued my research into the scientific side of this issue, it was strange to me why veganism isn’t more wide-spread than it already is? If the information is out there, what is making the switch so difficult for people? The answer: education. There are so many misconceptions portrayed in the media that deter people from cutting out meat. The education of veganism is hidden behind the unknowns and the holes within nutrition. Part of this lack in education comes from a racist mindset that finds its way into systemic racism. During my conversation with both Mrs. Heid and Prof. Boone, we discussed the issues of food deserts and their relation to systemic racism that leads to negative health effects on low income communities of color. This conversation was really interesting because I learned how all of these different issues; economics, agriculture, education and environmental justice, are connected. Low income areas often lack adequate and healthy options for food. The grocery stores that some people are used to like, Whole Foods, Fairway, Wegmans and other big chain grocery stores; are usually nowhere to be seen. In these communities, the easiest and fastest food options are usually fast food restaurants that have mainly meat options. There is significant evidence that shows how fast food businesses find store locations and this is deeply connected to the low income areas of color, because it brings in the most revenue for them. At the same time, it is a cause of obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease in black and brown communities. Prof. Boone and I spoke about how food is portrayed to communities of color and how life would change for these communities if they knew more about plant based diets and if food deserts were eliminated. Prof. Boone also pointed out that black communities are becoming vegan or switching to plant based diets 30% faster than white communities, which shows how education can really make a difference.
Animal Mistreatment and Subsidies
There is also a lot of animal mistreatment in the agricultural industry which is one of the main reasons people decide to eliminate meat. They want to decrease the demand for meat while increasing the demand for plant based options, hoping to push for a change in supply.
I asked Prof. Boone:
How does having a plant-based diet eliminate issues of animal mistreatment in the agricultural industry?
He started by saying that this question is a little bit complicated because so many things play a role in how factory farms function. “It’s the market forcing factory farms to meet the demand. Going through the industrial agriculture model, farmers don’t make a lot of money, they took out a lot of loans and a lot of debt adds up, you know, and so they’re kind of inclined financially to produce more in a shorter period of time and they are inclined to get it to as many markets as possible.” Prof. Boone really helped humanize the citation which I think is really important. He pointed out that it’s not as if farmers want to harm animals or keep them in terrible conditions, it’s that the system forces them into a corner where either they produce as much as possible or they go hungry. It is a really hard issue to fix and he is unsure if just plant-based eating will solve the problem. Especially since the government gives out subsidies that keeps farmers chugging along in the system, whether the demand is there or not in some cases. Prof. Boone did point out however, that “animal and milk consumption has been on the decline for decades but now there are a lot of farmers constantly dumping their milk in the sewer because nobody is buying it. I think there are some parts of the market that are shifting.” So on the bright side, the markets are shifting, but will it be enough and how much food could be wasted in the process?
The agricultural business has had federal support since the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the land-grant colleges to teach agriculture and other subjects to individuals hoping to go into the field. Since then, the amount of federal aid has skyrocketed to approximately $20 billion a year in subsidies given to farms in an effort to support their work. In theory, the idea of providing a subsidy to farmers makes sense, however this money given to farmers is not doing what it was meant to do. In the earliest stages of the subsidies, they were meant to help struggling farmers stay in business during rapidly changing business cycles, but now farm subsidies go mainly to the highest-earning farm households, instead of the struggling small farmers. This, however, is not the only problem with crop subsidies. One of the most significant issues is that farm subsidies are responsible for high methane gas emissions because of the overproduction that farm subsidies encourage. This pushed a market failure, which is a situation in which a market is not regulated enough and thus fails to produce the wanted outcome that would benefit society the most. The overproduction stems from the federal aid that pushes for farmers to overproduce certain products while underproducing others. This happens by drawing “lower-quality farmlands into active production,” and by pushing bad land into being designated for agricultural use, when it could instead be made into a park or playground for social use.
The result of overproduction is an increase in methane emissions from agriculture. For example, let’s look at the production of rice. Rice is one of the top three crops that farms in the United States receive insurance for and thus it is a food that is highly overproduced. Rice releases high amounts of methane gas which has a predominant impact on global warming in comparison to other greenhouse gases. The reason why overproducing rice is problematic for the environment is because the flooding of rice fields cuts off the oxygen supply to the soil, which leads to anaerobic fermentation of biotic matter, which produces methane. This is the part of the puzzle that makes changing the market difficult and more complicated. When you have the government pushing for farmers to continue producing goods that are not in high demand, like meat products or products to feed animals, it is hard to change the market. If subsidies weren’t involved, the market would have most likely made considerable shifts in moving towards more plant based eating and farming.
There are some common misconceptions about plant based eating and both Prof. Boone and Patricia were able to shed some light on the situation. One of which is:
Can you get enough protein from just plants alone?
Prof. Boone immediately said “Yes! You know, there are bodybuilders and professional athletes who are vegan and it doesn’t hurt their performance.” He even spoke of a good friend of his, who is very active and whose children are also very active in sports. Prof. Boone asserted that,
“I have a good friend who has been vegan for 30 years whose sons are getting recruited for college basketball who are also vegan, and they still perform at a very high level.” Prof. Boone was also able to provide me with some extra information through a link to an online resource that contains information about being an athlete and also being vegan.
Mrs. Hied, was able to use her background in nutrition to explain more about how you can get enough protein. The first thing she mentioned is that, “Most Americans get way more protein than they need because we overload on it. It’s something where if your body has too much, your body just flushes it out because it can’t be stored.” This was super interesting, and I did not know this, but it makes a lot of sense with the amount of protein that is in the “American diet” and she explained that once your body has enough protein to grow, build muscle etc, the rest will be flushed out and not used by the body.
The next common misconception I touched on, was:
Can you find good alternatives for the foods people love?
And luckily for us, Mrs. Heid said that you definitely can. She expressed that when she first started out as a vegan there weren’t that many plant based alternatives, but now that time has passed and being vegan is more popular, there are so many options.
“Now there is really good cheese!” she explained, and we laughed together about how much we love cheese, and how glad we both are that alternative cheeses are available. Not only does she make her own vegan cheese, but she is an avid vegan baker and cooker. She was able to send me a good list of useful cookbooks that helped her find yummy meals to make. (These are listed at the bottom of the blog post.)
At the end of each of my interviews, we talked about moving forward and making personal changes, and I hope that I can make some of those changes for myself in the future. I really enjoyed hearing each person’s take on plant based eating and how it can be healthier for you and healthier for the environment. I hope that through reading this post, we can all learn that being vegan can have a deep impact on the environment if the markets change enough to match the changes in demand. All in all, agricultural change needs to happen for many reasons including protecting our planet, but also to increase the health of people in the United States and around the world.
My Favorite Vegan Recipe Books
* America’s Test Kitchen. Vegan for Everybody: Foolproof Plant-Based Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and In-Between. Penguin Random House, 2017.
Green, Aliza. Beans: More Than 200 Delicious, Wholesome Recipes from Around the World. Running Vegan Heritage Press, 2016.
Horn, Nadine and Jörg Mayer. VBQ: The Ultimate Vegan Barbecue Cookbook. The Experiment, LLC, 2018.
Landau, Rich and Kate Jacoby. V Street: 100 Globe-Hopping Plates on the Cutting Edge of Vegetable Cooking. Harper Collins, 2016.
McCann, Jennifer. Vegan Lunch Box. Da Capo Press, 2008.
* Moskowitz, Isa Chandra. Vegan with a Vengeance: Over 150 Delicious, Cheap, Animal-Free Recipes that Rock. Da Capo Press, 2015.
* Moskowitz, Isa Chandra and Terry Hope Romero. Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook. Da Capo Press, 2017.
* Reinfeld, Mark and Jennifer Murray. The 30-Minute Vegan: Over 175 Quick, Delicious, and Healthy Recipes for Everyday Cooking. Da Capo Press, 2009.
Schinner, Miyoko. The Homemade Vegan Pantry: The Art of Making Your Own Staples. Ten Speed Press, 2015.
* Stepaniak, Jo. Vegan Vittles: Down-Home Cooking for Everyone. Book Publishing Company, 2007.
Stepaniak, Joanne and Vesanto Melina. Raising Vegetarian Children: A Guide to Good Health and Family Harmony. McGraw-Hill, 2002.
* Thug Kitchen. Thug Kitchen: Party Grub. Rodale Books, 2014.
The asterisk indicates the “best” ones, the ones that have a range of recipes that are accessible to most people, and the ones I use most often.
Sources: Agricultural Subsidies: Downsizing the Federal Government, Changing Perspectives on the Environment. In Environmental and natural resource economics: A contemporary approach, The Discourse of Economics, Environment International: Investigations of methane emissions from rice cultivation in Indian context