The inspiration to write this article was seeded when I had some “intuitive confusions” towards the recent hype on veganism
Raised in a Chinese food culture where balance is the key principle: not overconsuming one nutrient at the expense of another, but instead using elaborate ingredients combined to create a palette of flavors and nutritions, the absoluteness of veganism seems a bit radical to me.
Far away from the habits of “eating straight-up meat” and consuming it as a staple, meat for me is usually a supplement or decoration to grains or vegetables. Oftentimes, meat is represented in an invisible form like oyster sauce or chicken essence. Meat serves an interesting function, as a spice, to activate the umami flavor in all our ingredients. Therefore, it makes the boundary between a veggie dish and a meat dish more difficult to spot. Following this thread of thoughts, I feel there are some exclusions and confusions when we advocate for veganism today.
Before diving into a proper discussion on veganism or a plant-based lifestyle, it is important to define the scope of “veganism” we talk about today. A recent trend of veganism driven by animal welfare and global environmental concerns, which originated (arguably) and is more prevalent in the west or the global north, associated Veganism with key words like “white”, “privileged lifestyle”, or “green capitalism”.
Personally, I believe it’s a very courageous and respectful decision for anyone to go vegan. However, my concern is on how veganism is often advertised and communicated as a better and more progressive form of diet. Branding it as “the better diet” risks putting it on the moral high horse. The following points aim to bring some thought provoking questions, how new is Veganism? Can all cultures and geographies adapt to plant-based diets? and is modern veganism a product of economic progress?
Preaching veganism today risks neo-colonialism
Through doing various work in the plant-based category in some parts of Africa and Asia over the past year, it’s astonishing for me to realize that the dairy and meat industries are inherently colonial legacies. On the contrary, indigeous cultures have had the tradition of following plant-based diets for centuries. With colonization, animal products are made to be considered “essential”. Indeed, many cultures in the world, especially the ones which have their roots in Buddhism, Hinduism or Judaism have been practicing plant-based diets for a long time. For people in these countries, the question arises: we have been eating tofu and soy products in our diets forever, what is this vegan hype all about?
For other cultures who inhabit the dryer lands like Mongolia, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, their diet is mostly meat-based, simply to do with the fact that their land is not suitable for edible vegetable cultivation. For certain regions, it actually takes a thousand times more water to grow an acre of crops for human consumption, than it takes to raise an acre of cow on wild range (cited from Quartz). For them, consuming animal products is actually better for the environment than planting vegetables.
The buzz of “vegetarianism” or “veganism” has gone viral in recent years due to exaggerated media attention. And it is ignorant to brand a plant-based diet as a “global mission” for everyone on earth to combat environmental issues and protect animal welfare.
Veganism is only possible when the society reaches a “satisfied infrastructure”
When I was young, elderly Chinese people would say, “here, eat more meat, that will make you grow taller”. Another famous TV tagline from just 10 years ago still rings fresh in my ear, “every day a cup of milk, all Chinese will be stronger”. Such sayings convey how meat and dairy products are perceived as rarer, more beneficial, and more premium in China.
This reminds me of an interesting idea that “veganism itself is not a privilege, but rather the ability to make food choices is ultimately the privilege”. Many countries have only been out of meat scarcity and started to consume and enjoy meat products from one or two decades ago. It’s not until the 90s when meat became a more daily dish for many Chinese families beyond special occasions like Chinese new year. For a long time, meat has been the cultural symbol of wealth and health, and only until recently, people started to reconsider their food habits and the issue of food (meat) waste. Projecting the meat-free timeline from developed countries to other populations might therefore be a rushed and unjust process that would easily cause backlashes.
Can veganism be reframed to mindful eating?
During an excursion to one of the islands in Palawan, Philippines, I saw a British couple starting to pack all the lunch leftovers from the table. My boyfriend and I got curious and asked them what motivated them. “They sacrifice their lives for us, so we should give them the respect they deserve.” That sentence hit us deep. Anti-speciesism is not necessarily measured by the quantity of meat or dairy consumption alone, but also the attitude and mindset while consuming, whether you are consuming according to your natural digestion capacity and causing no waste. The Japanese articulate this approach very well: “Whatever you are eating, you need to prepare yourself psychologically in three stages. First of all, you need to feel remorse, secondly to feel thankful, to thank the animals’ sacrifices, and the last thing is called “co-exist”, to live on for the animals.”
What are the implications for brands or marketing?
I believe we don’t need to hunt for a universal standard to practice sustainability. Brands that blindly follow trends like veganism have the risk of committing greenwashing and falling into the trap of cultural ignorance. Before suggesting sustainability practices, it’s crucial to understand the local culture, its people’s relationship with nature, the accessibility of food options, and their forms of agriculture. Sustainable branding only works when it’s anchored in empathetic insights into the culture it operates in.
Another interesting angle on a vegan diet is to explore more holistic positioning territories around “mindful eating” or “respectful eating”. Based on the different stages of economic development, cultural heritage or generational differences people can be encouraged to take responsibilities differently and implement various ways to shape a more sustainable future for themselves.