Vegetarians As “Woke” — The Newest Climate Slap-In-The-Face

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Lately, eating a plant-based diet has been described as a political decision attributed to progressives. On the one hand, we vegetarians focus on environmental, health, and animal welfare as problems in the industrialized world that can be solved by conscious choices about the foods we eat. On the other hand, labeling vegetarians as “woke,” an opposition point of view sees rejecting meat as an attack on western culture and an infringement on the right of free choice.

Stats indicate that roughly one-tenth of Americans are mostly vegan or vegetarian: about 6% of Republicans and 12% of Democrats. Clearly, plant-based eaters still make up a small portion of the populations of industrialized nations, yet their influence on the food industry seemed significant by 2020 due to the rising number of meat and dairy substitutes. But then plant-based sales plateaued in 2021, and some of the plant-based meat favs — including Beyond Meat and Impossible — began to dip. Deloitte suspects that the addressable market may be more limited than previously thought with a growing cultural resistance to its “woke” status, even among those seeking to reduce red meat consumption.

The Wall Street Journal cites a survey that found nearly 40% of people had bought a product for the first time solely because they approved of a brand’s position on a controversial societal or political issue. It’s not much of a leap for consumers to associate plant-based food choices with dominant party platforms and ideologies.

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A Bon Appétit essay reminds us that “mass meat production in America is a miserable industry that exploits people, animals, and the land we all roam upon.” With this background framework, the article reminds us that alleged animal welfare violations loomed large when McDonald’s released its failed plant-based burger. Customers on both sides of the political aisle rebelled against the product. Plant-based food fans interpreted the menu addition as corporate greenwashing, and fast food loyalists rejected the fake meat burgers as “woke.” Little of the diatribe focused on the potential to help reduce environmental harm. Instead of succumbing to the social media mudslinging, Bon Appétit called out McDonald’s, stating the the iconic fast food company could sell non-meat items at an enormous scale in the US if it directed appropriate marketing to the task.

Deconstructing Vegetarians as “Woke”

“Food is always political, but meat has become hyper-politicized,” writes Emily Contois, author of Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture. “This has occurred as meat-free eating has transformed from a counter-cultural and relatively fringe movement into a more common feature at restaurants, in grocery stores, and in food culture more broadly.”

Look no further than Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan, who told viewers that “vegans are unethical” because of the transport required to import the large amounts of nuts and grains across the world to fuel their plant-based diet. “My belief is that eating meat helps sustains the planet and that vegans are unethical because they all eat almonds, which kills millions of bees.”

“In a literal interpretation of the political ‘red meat’ approach, conservative pundits have seized on the hamburger as an apparently effective symbol of personal freedom,” Contois maintains. “The claim that Democrats want to take away your burger — like the claim Democrats want to take away your guns — is a strategy to manipulate classic conservative anxieties about individual autonomy and liberty.”

Then there’s the 2023 Swedish study of the Oatly “Help Dad” marketing campaign that concludes the company manifested a type of woke branding and even some “woke-washing” aimed to make a statement and seemingly influence young people to discuss sustainability with their parents. Parents are portrayed in the commercial as unaware of social and political struggles in the world, while youth are portrayed as clever and strong. Ultimately, the commercial was criticized for capitalizing on difficult issues and the polarizing rhetoric used throughout the campaign.

Deconstruction the Oppositional POV: Vegetarians as “Woke”

In June, 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced it had added “woke” as a new word.

“Aware of social and political issues, especially racism. This word is often used in a disapproving way by people who think that some other people are too easily upset about these issues, or talk too much about them in a way that does not change anything.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently declared from the stage at a campaign event. “We can never, ever surrender to woke ideology.” Soon after, the ideology was written into law.

The “woke food movement” is epitomized through findings generated by the EAT-Lancet Commission, which has called for “a radical transformation of the global food system.” Recommendations to achieve this transformation include a more than doubling in the consumption of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, and a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of less healthy foods such as added sugars and red meat (i.e. primarily by reducing excessive consumption in wealthier countries).

The EAT-Lancet Commission consists of 37 scientists from 16 countries and various disciplines who seek to reach consensus by defining targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production. The findings of the Commission have provided the first scientific targets for a healthy diet and sustainable food production within planetary boundaries that will allow us to feed up to 10 billion people by 2050.

Critic Julian M. Alston argues in the Natural Resource Management and Policy book series that such a food transformation is “associated with rich liberal elite groups” that “have done harm” because “the movement is essentially intolerant.” Citing “calamitous consequences from misguided policies” such as global opposition to genetically engineered food, Alston says the recommended food policy changes are little more than “non-sense that collectively may loom large in terms of their overall social cost.”

The author finds fault with “market intermediaries as gatekeepers in the food chain, imposing private policies as de facto technological regulations at the behest of activist groups.” Implications for the supply side of the world food equation, the global incidence of poverty and malnutrition, and for the environmental burden of agricultural production are listed as oversights by the woke food movement.

In response to such criticisms, the EAT-Lancet Commission does note that some populations worldwide depend on agropastoral livelihoods and animal protein from livestock. In addition, many populations continue to face significant burdens of undernutrition and obtaining adequate quantities of micronutrients from plant source foods alone can be difficult. Given these considerations, they acknowledge that the role of animal source foods in people’s diets must be carefully considered in each context and within local and regional realities.

The Alarming Essence Behind the Plant-Based Politicizing

For decades, fossil-fuel giants like Chevron, BP, and ExxonMobil have spent millions to convince the public that consumer choices and lifestyle changes will solve their image problem: major oil companies knew their products were changing the climate as early as the 1960s, and used their vast profits to sow doubt about the science of climate pollution.

Agriculture is a significant contributor to anthropogenic global warming, and reducing agricultural emissions — largely methane and nitrous oxide — could play a significant role in climate change mitigation. Similar to Big Oil, top meat and dairy companies, along with livestock and agricultural lobbying groups, have spent millions campaigning against climate action and sowing doubt about the links between animal agriculture and climate change. Corporate agriculture has frequently set targets for greenhouse gas reductions, but these commitments are short on specifics or focus on carbon dioxide reductions, while the bulk of emissions from animal agriculture comes from methane. In some cases, the companies’ commitments don’t address emissions from their whole supply chain.

Seminal studies on the fossil fuel industry calculated historic emissions from individual companies and then assigned responsibility to those companies. What would happen if a comparable plan were to be enacted to build out the climate responsibility of meat and dairy producers?

Such a question scares Big Agriculture and their lobbying groups to their core. So they have fought climate regulation in the US Congress and before the Environmental Protection Agency, and, in doing so, shaped a counternarrative around animal agriculture’s role in climate change.

Enter vegetarians as “woke.”

The knowledge that plant-based eating would reduce the direct and indirect threats to Earth’s health and habitability for us, and for all wildlife, flora, and fauna are left out of such conversations. This sadly masks the larger discussion about how we’re living through a period of unprecedented and catastrophic climate change. We should be taking every possible step to ensure human life as we now know it for future generations, including dramatically decreasing the practice of eating animals.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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