Join me for a memory exercise involving food and family: Think back to the main-course meals your grandparents served you. And, if you’re middle-aged or older, like me, your parents, too.
How many vegetarian or vegan dishes were among those main courses?
Over the weekend, I encountered this question posed by Tobias Leenaert in his book How To Create A Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach. Immediately, my mind was filled with meat images. At my grandmother’s, it was golabki (pronounced “gawumpki”) — a dish is made of cabbage leaves rolled around beef, popular in her native Poland — and ham. At my own home, baked chicken, meat loaf, tuna casserole, beef stew, hamburgers and hot dogs, spaghetti and meatballs and, for special occasions, London broil steak.
Two vegetarian dinners also sprang to mind: macaroni and cheese; and the potato pancakes my dad occasionally made when he relieved my mom as cook. Neither dish, requiring milk and eggs to make, was vegan.
When Leenaert asks this question to groups of non-vegans, most people “come up blank,” he writes. If he were to ask the same thing in Mexico, India, Japan, China, or Lebanon, he notes, he would expect to hear a menu of options. (And, I’d add, not only in those geographic locations themselves but in homes anywhere sustained by rich, non-Western cultural traditions.)
And in that disparity can be found, he says, a message to Western vegan activists:
“With so much vegan information and so many recipes now freely available on the web, it’s tempting for vegans to think that those with no idea of where to start are obtuse or apathetic. However, we should keep in mind that in most Western industrialized countries, we’ve no tradition of vegan (nor vegetarian) cooking.”
When communicating with omnivores, Leenaert believes, vegans and vegetarians might focus on the how, how to shop for and cook with plant foods that are healthy and good-tasting, even more than the why, the ethical reasons that vegans feel are the underpinning of their choice to avoid meat and animal products.
“We vegetarians and vegans,” he writes, “are living, breathing reminders” of guilt (about animal suffering) and fear (of leaving behind food traditions and changing one’s way of life) that omnivores may feel.
As co-director of the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy, Leenaert shares a goal with other vegans, to reduce animal suffering caused by agriculture and by society’s intense embrace of meat and animal products.
It’s just that he works toward that goal in a way that is controversial within vegan advocacy: by actively empathizing with non-vegans, by motivating them to join the growing ranks of “meat reducers,” and even by slightly broadening the definition of “vegan” to embrace people who occasionally go off the rails and here or there consume animal products.
Increasing the number of meat reducers is going to be more effective at reducing animal suffering than trying to convert omnivores to veganism, Leenaert maintains. Lower demand for meat will simultaneously drive up meat prices and accelerate a process whereby plant-based products become more readily available and delicious.
The tough part, Leenaert says, is for vegans to embrace and share a message that stops short of: Eat no animals or animal products whatsoever! Efficacy is critical, he insists — more important than pushing one’s own moral message. This appears on one page in the book:
The question is not:
“Am I right?” nor “Is this my truth?”
But “DOES THIS WORK?”
“Some vegans will actually consider it unethical to take into account where other people are and will only want to bring their message in its pure, undiluted form. This is more or less the opposite of walking in other people’s shoes. It’s the conviction that other people should walk in our shoes, whether they fit or not and whether they like them or not, because they are the only correct pair of shoes.”
I read the book as a person who frequently writes and speaks in public about farmed animals as smart and feeling creatures, and also as a reducetarian in that I eat no meat (but a fish now and then) and have cut down greatly on milk, eggs, and cheese. Leenaert’s message is incredibly welcoming to someone like me:
“Reducers are significant, too, and nothing prevents them from becoming advocates for animals or for meat reduction. Moreover, the vegan advocacy of the vegan isn’t by definition more effective than that of the reducers.”
Make no mistake, Leenaert pushes hard as he himself lives his veganism and his aim is for people to move gradually from reducetarianism to veganism. He maintains, though, that “vegan” is a descriptor better applied to meals or to products more than to people.
According to a 2016 poll (one of numerous polls or studies Leenaert cites to back up his statements), 3.4 percent of the U.S. population identifies as vegetarian or vegan, while 33 percent of us eat vegetarian or vegan meals. (Almost all of us eat at least some vegetarian meals, however. A cheese pizza fits the description, after all.)
Leenaert spells out the main point: “All the reducers together are responsible for avoiding more animals being killed than vegetarians and vegans combined.”
I asked Leenaert, by email, if he has an optimistic outlook for meat reduction in North America and Europe over the next 10 years. Here’s how he replied:
“It’s hard to predict of course, but some points:
— In surveys in Western countries, often up to half of respondents reply that they want/intend to reduce their meat consumption. If we take away the barriers (make it easier, improve alternatives, etc.), this could happen in the next decade, I think.
— ProVeg international, an organization I am co-founder of, as well as other orgs like Greenpeace, have targets like reducing the production and consumption of animal products by 50 percent by 2040 or 2050.
— Clean meat (cultured meat) could be a game-changer, although I’m not sure how competitively priced it will be within the next ten years.”
Responses to the book have ranged from extremely positive to extremely angry. When asked about it, Leenaert said:
“The people who don’t like me are people who seem very concerned about veganism not being watered down in the slightest degree. They are people who try to de-platform me, consider me anti-vegan, and ‘dangerous to the vegan movement.’
On the positive side, I’m getting a lot of feedback from people who say that the book really changed the way they look at the whole vegan thing, that it opened their mind. They find it refreshing in its rationality and anti-dogmatic approach. Many people write that my writings helped turn them from an angry into a happy and friendly vegan.”
As a nonvegan, I’m not about to tell vegans whether to be angry or happy. I will say that I believe Leenaert’s approach moves us forward together, to help animals.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara’s new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape