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Food privilege: The unfortunate truths of veganism

Don’t worry, this isn’t exactly a depressing article, just a true one, and sometimes the truth sucks. Unfortunately, we live in a society that utilizes stereotypes left and right. We live in a world that stereotypes the color of our skin, the length of our hair, and even what we put on our plate. That salad, that steak, that plate of scrambled eggs drenched in syrup, it all come with connotations that we immediately associate with the consumer. Even worse is how we label one another’s lifestyle choices when they pertain to food. Vegans? Vegetarians? Who needs those hipster, tree-hugging, alternative, animal-obsessed people anyway? Right? Kidding, of course.

Everyone’s lifestyle choices are entirely up to them – especially when it comes to food – because we all deserve respect. That being said, there is a great difference between respect and a lack of awareness and it is with this idea that I offer this disclaimer: this is an article that may be pointed at people who reject meat. It in no way seeks to critique this lifestyle choice but rather to curiously approach it from a global perspective, a view that has been overshadowed in the modern-day-meat-forsaking psyche.

Although his rhetoric on the vegetarian and vegan population has always been exceptionally harsh, there is truth to Anthony Bourdain’s comment that vegans are a “first-world phenomena.” It is ironic that the majority of “vegans” and “vegetarians” are actually found in non-Western countries throughout the globe. I use quotations because these people are not actually vegan or vegetarian by choice, but rather simply because they cannot afford meat. When 13-14% of the world is chronically undernourished, the last thing these approximately 900 million people are concerned with is whether the consumption of a chicken is morally just. It’s not to say that the ethical question is unimportant, but that for almost a billion human beings, a significant portion of our global population, the question is just so irrelevant. According to NPR, the average American eats ten times more meat than the average Mozambican and twelve times more than the average Bangladeshi.

Such statistics are directly related to income, wealth, and fiscal security. A visual representation of the varying levels of meat consumption throughout the globe and where they occur can be seen in the diagram below. This images shows a clear correlation between wealth and meat consumption, adding another layer of complexity to a situation and lifestyle that is already extremely complex.



Furthermore, the impossibility of veganism is not limited to starving people in far-off lands – a dehumanizing way of separating ourselves from those subjected to famine – but also to those close to home and in the United States itself. Dairy-free groceries and fresh food are expensive and may be completely unavailable in areas known as food deserts. Additionally, the information that is required to healthily sustain veganism is often inaccessible and difficult to properly pursue. This is vital to maintaining a suitable diet that consists of food which, silly as it sounds, just tastes good. At the end of the day it comes down to the fact that when you’re vegan in a first world country, it is your choice to not eat meat while others aren’t given the option at all. There is something inherently unfair about this and it should be acknowledged when we reach our dieting decisions. Moreover, this is applicable to any and all of us at Tufts who can go to the dining hall and choose what we put on our plate. In this act alone, we have a food privilege that others simply do not.



So what does this mean? Honestly, not much. The truth of the matter is information like this should not be groundbreaking. These statistics about our fellow human beings are well known but unfortunately obscured amidst silly debate over whether meat is natural to consume or how much animals suffer. In my opinion, the important question should be how are we going to change meat distribution? How are we going to pursue proper allocation? When will we forsake the food on our own plates and start considering the lack thereof on the plates of others?

I do not have the answers to these questions; this is just a hope that these facts, these unfortunate truths, may spark a new way of looking at the choices we are fortunate enough to make when it comes to our diets. And please, next time a vegan or vegetarian or anyone informs you about all the reasons meat consumption in the Western world – particularly the industry and packing conditions – is detrimental, listen. They have great points and there are a plethora of articles establishing these facts and unfortunate truths. But it is just as important to remember that the option of rejecting meat is one that too many people simply do not have. Such a rejection, no matter how validated and understandable that choice may be, still has undertones of privilege that may be very offensive to those who will be able to consume an animal maybe twice a year, once in their lives, or never at all.

Every lifestyle choice we make is layered with these connotations and every decision has trade-offs, this is a part of life we cannot escape and thus must be conscious of. When we acknowledge these connotations we can be more assured that the choices we make are layered with deep understanding, an understanding that is pivotal for generating positive change.

 -Lauren Samuel

Cover photo source.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Luna #

    what a stupid article, even in poor countries, people do have that choice, you obviously have not been in any poor country of Africa or Asia, veggies are actually cheaper than meat there

    October 16, 2013
    • The article agrees with your statement. Veggies are cheaper than meat, meaning a lot of people can’t readily afford meat, and are vegans/vegetarians not by choice, but by necessity.

      October 16, 2013
  2. Joe #

    So the point of the article is that… some people eat what they eat because they have no choice? Yes… sure. That’s how poverty works – all of your life choices are made be necessity… what impact is all this supposed to have on vegans, again?

    November 7, 2013
    • Thanks for reading Joe. As the author states pretty clearly throughout, it is important for vegans to realize that the majority of their vegan peers conform to that diet because they are unable to eat animal products due to cost. If you are privileged enough to choose veganism, you should acknowledge that.

      November 7, 2013
      • I think it is important to note that choosing veganism is only considered a privileged trait in America because we have the privilege of eating meat in the first place. I suppose this article is addressing people who choose to be vegan or vegetarian for morality reasons, not those who are just trying to avoid the large-scale inhumane practices that allow meat to be so abundant in the first place.

        May 31, 2015
  3. Feli #

    I do not disagree with the facts mentioned in the article, however, I have no idea whatsoever why the writer addresses it to vegans in particular. While they make more sustainable food choices, preventing – just as one example – immense amounts of land in poor countries to be used for soy that feeds American cattle instead of using it to feed the inhabitants of those very countries, omnivores also have the choice to eat whatever they eat. So I agree with the ‘Food privileges’ part of the title of this article, but to make the connection with vegans seems pretty far-flung to me..

    November 14, 2013
    • You are right– you can situate any food choice in a global context. To say that a privilege exists is not to obfuscate all over privileges. This article chooses to focus on veganism in order to provide specific statistics and address the misconception that veganism is always a bourgeois choice.

      November 14, 2013
  4. I’m a pretty well-off white American, but even I don’t have the ability to make the food choices I would like. I can’t afford for everything to be organic, or fair trade, and vegetarianism is impossible for me with the food allergies I have.

    I think this is important to note, because a lot of the vegans I run into frame their decision as a moral imperative, that even though I’m aware of the problems in the food industry I don’t buy organic/ethically treated beef (rural area: no grocer offers it, no local farmers raise beef)– and that makes me morally “bad” in some way.

    They can afford to make decisions I can’t, and then many judge me as inferior or evil for not having the money and means to follow them.

    September 21, 2014
  5. humanemeats #

    Veganism is characterized by more than dietary choices so I would disagree that individuals who must resort to plant based diets make up a large proportion of vegan populations. The whole reason a vegan lifestyle is privileged is because individuals are provided the option to choose how they live. They are privileged enough to have the money, education, and access to foods that may not be available to less privileged individuals. I find that in my experience with veganism my diet has been influenced by my educated views on related subjects like environmentalism, anarchy, feminism, etc. but it is only one aspect. It’s the whole package that creates and is perpetuated by privilege. I would even dare say that because veganism is much more a mentality and way of life, that intention is a main identifying factor, but hardly necessity.

    February 5, 2015

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