Can You be an Environmentalist and Not be a Vegan?

Go Vegan

It has been less than 24 hours and I have had two in-depth conversations about this topic after being asked my opinion on this question: Can we claim to care for the environment and not be vegan?

I’m not sure what inspired people to ask my opinion. Perhaps because I am a dietitian and there is a new food guide that mentions ‘sustainable diets.’ Or maybe it’s because I’ve shared the tensions I feel personally about eating in a way that is environmentally responsible. Either way, I thought I’d share some thoughts to open up the discussion.

Firstly, I can see why this question comes up. If we continue with ‘business as usual,’ climate change is projected to have drastic negative impacts on our health, economies, and livelihoods. See for example, the Global Risk Report 2019. While it is an uncomfortable thought, our food systems and the way we eat contributes significantly to this. Global experts agree that shifting to plant-based diets can support both human health and environmental health (the two are extremely connected, by the way).

This is an urgent issue, so I think those who support veganism for environmental reasons have a solid point.

So why don’t I eat a vegan diet? Is it because I do not care enough about environmental health? If I am completely honest, I think that it is part of the reason. I could and should care more.

But it is more than that. Food is culture, it is the livelihood of my famer friends, it is social connection and it is tradition. Do I have to give all of these up? Perhaps there is a middle ground approach, but I often feel judged for not being as ‘food righteous.’

When someone asks me “Can someone be an environmentalist and not be vegan?” I think that these considerations underpin their questions.

Ultimately, I don't have any final answers. I do not know how to eat in a way that jointly values environment, culture, social norms, livelihoods and traditions, given our current system. But I do know that far too often we close ourselves up to conversations with those that differ from us.

You may have heard the old joke: “How do you know if someone is a vegan? … Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” The irony is that in pointing out the self-righteous attitude associated with veganism, the person telling the joke seems to lack an attitude of humility and openness to learning.

The ethics of food systems and dietary choices is complex and involves deeply held values. However, if we are to have any hope for the future, we need to learn to have authentic respectful dialogue with those who differ from us. Here is some food for thought:

  • If you care deeply about eating sustainably how can you bring these important issues up in a way that makes people feel safe to discuss even if they disagree?
  • If the idea of ‘sustainable diets’ is something that you resist, would you be willing to learn more about it with an openness to change?

Whether or not you are an environmentalist, I would invite you to start a discussion about sustainable diets with genuine respect and openness. The wellbeing of future society depends not only on whether or not there is a place to live in the future, but also on how well we live together.

Chime in below with any thoughts or reflections on this important discussion.