In this series, I am providing answers to some of those incredibly annoying vegan questions we all get asked, sometimes on a daily basis! Stay tuned for more.
The claim that veganism is for the elite comes in a variety of forms. In my experience, these most commonly fall under the following three categories:
- Only rich people can afford to be vegan
This seems to be quite a pervasive belief. In fact, in my research sample of meat reducers, vegetarians, and vegans, the most commonly reported barrier was the belief that vegetarian/vegan diets are more expensive.
In reality, the most inexpensive foods are generally vegan, including things like grains and legumes/beans and many types of fruits and vegetables. The issues around cost & veganism are more closely linked to: (a) subsidies that drastically distort the cost of animal-based foods and (b) companies making foods cost more simply because they have a “Vegan” label. (Here’s where it can sometimes be less expensive to go for “accidentally-vegan” foods and, of course, eating fewer processed foods is often cheaper!)
A 2014 report by Friends of the Earth discussed some of the ways that national and international governmental policies and subsidies directly support the construction and maintenance of factory farms. In addition, the 2013 book Meatonomics provided an in-depth analysis of US animal agriculture subsidies, finding that actual costs are 2.7 x higher than what the consumer pays.
2. Veganism was invented by rich, white people
While the word “vegan” may have been invented by white Brits, plant-based eating and lifestyles that aim to reduce animal suffering as much as is possible actually more commonly originated in countries in the global South. Check out things like the move to Decolonize your Diet, the Rastafarian Ital diet, or the Jain diet from India, just to name a few examples.
3. Eating a vegan diet means you are hurting poor people by eating more soy, etc.
Producing animal products uses exponentially more resources than just eating the plants in the first place. This also means using more land, land that is often in low-income countries and then used to produce animal feed to make food for people in high-income countries. These foods also produce significantly more greenhouse gases, which contributes to global warming that disproportionately impacts low-income people and people in low-income countries.
In addition, in my research I found that the process of vegan transition may naturally lend itself to considerations of other ways to eat more ethically (e.g. avoiding certain less sustainable foods or trying to eat Organic.) And, as animal-food products tend to use more resources, things like soy are actually mainly used to feed omnivores. In fact, most soy is used as animal feed (including 70% of soy produced in the US, according to the US Department of Agriculture).
So, is veganism for the elite?
No. A vegan diet is, for many, a return to eating habits that were common before a history of colonization led to the increased consumption of meat and other animal-based foods. Instead, the world’s wealthiest countries eat the most meat and increases to meat consumption have directly contributed to rises in global inequality.
Some people may not have the privilege of choosing what they eat. But for those who do, this is where dietary privilege comes in: The ability to choose what you eat. As Greenebaum explains in her 2017 paper, “Mindless eating is both a privilege and a detriment.”
Privileged eating in the modern food system is, instead, the ability to choose one’s food without witnessing the exploitation of animals and workers within the modern food system.