The question was seemingly simple: Should we all be vegan?*
The editor asked me to answer it in a book as part of the Big Idea series from London publisher Thames & Hudson. While meat had never been my favorite food group, cheese might be. I was what we would now call pescatarian in high school and college, but my love of cooking and travel and lack of moral conviction—it was always more of a taste issue for me—meant that one day I craved a burger, ate a burger, and returned to an omnivore diet. I’ll go long stretches without eating meat, but it’s a rare day when eggs or dairy don’t find their way into my gullet. I am not vegan.
No problem. The editor wanted a well-researched, thoughtful, down-to-earth weighing of the arguments, not a heartfelt treatise rooted in personal authenticity.
I took the gig, but as I dug into the research, I became haunted by one grave concern: what if I discovered that indeed we should all be vegan? That, at least, as a well-fed American with the time and resources to follow a healthful and balanced diet, I should be vegan? Would I feel compelled to give up soft-boiled eggs and ripe Brie? Would I never steam Dungeness crab again? Would I no longer demonstrate tribal sympathy with my son and husband by eating three bites of a pork chop on pork chop night?
Having signed the contract, I needed to set aside concerns about potential moral conundrums and possible future hypocrisy. Instead, I faced my fear head-on, investigating veganism’s claim to moral, healthful, and ecological superiority.
First up: the moral question. Great thinkers since Pythagoras have made the case for the ethical purity of an animal-free diet. Whether one thinks it’s straight-up wrong to kill animals for food or not, it is difficult to argue that it’s at least not less wrong not to kill them; advantage, veganism.
Second: personal health. As long as one pays attention to possible sources for the few trace vitamins and minerals that are difficult to get from non-animal sources, an animal-free diet pretty much decreases all the bad things—cholesterol, blood pressure, heart attacks—and increases all the good things. (For anyone screaming “what about protein,” know two things. First, most Americans eat about twice as much protein as they need. Second, the whole “complete amino acid” idea of needing to eat rice and beans or other pairings to get “complete protein” in any given meal is nonsense. Yes, we need all the different amino acids, we just don’t need to ingest them at the same time.) Advantage, veganism.
Third: concerns about environmental sustainability. Readers of this publication likely don’t need anyone to explain how devastating factory farming is to the environment. And yet, regenerative agriculture depends on animals for natural soil aeration and enrichment (see “Where’s the Good Beef?” in this issue). Plus, the world has plenty of non-arable land that only grazing animals—cows, sheep, goats—can make productive. But, unless one is willing to pay insane amounts of attention to where all animal foods come from and how those animals were raised; advantage, veganism.
Yet, there is so much more to what we eat than ethics, physical health, and environmental concerns. There is taste and effort and habit and culture. There is what I think of as “being human.” There is my belief that pleasure and enjoyment matter, that feeling deprived is no fun.
Plus, while I can’t join the “it’s not Thanksgiving without turkey” parade (we are more adaptable to change than we think), many traditional dishes connect people to their cultures and their pasts, and that matters. And when we look at extreme diets, they start to define people. Are Masai Masai without a diet that’s overwhelmingly meat and blood? Are Inuit Inuit without a supply of seal and fish? Our ability to live on such a wide variety of foods has allowed people not just to survive but to thrive in an insane range of climates.
To one view, being omnivores makes us human.
So while from many angles, sure, we probably should all be vegan, it’s not going to happen. And that’s okay. The thing is, the health and environmental benefits of a vegan diet occur incrementally. The more plant-centric we make our plates, the better; it’s not a zero-sum game. And while many people in the U.S. may eat more animal products than is good for them, it’s easy to imagine that everyone being vegan would be an overcorrection. An overcorrection with seen and unforeseen consequences.
A diet that tastes good and feels good, that is sustainable for our life and fits our beliefs, is the only one any of us will stick to anyway. And that’s not going to be the same for everyone. I see in my own household of three how different people crave and thrive on different foods. Does it matter if it’s genetic or habit or taste? What could be duller than a one-size-fits-all diet anyway?
Should we all be vegan—and its assumption of a yes-or-no answer—is the wrong question. The better question, the one rooted in the latest research and eons of empirical evidence, is: how can we make it easy and tempting for all of us to eat more plants?
* ”We” is the likely audience for the book: Western Europeans and North Americans. If being vegan meant you would starve or go hungry; the obvious answer is: “no, you should not be vegan.”
Molly Watson is a writer in San Francisco. Check out her plant-centric but neither vegan nor vegetarian cookbooks—Bowls! and Greens + Grains, both from Chronicle Books.
Illustration by Dan Bransfield: danbran.com