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:

  1. 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.

3 thoughts on “…But Veganism is Elitist!

  1. Chia seeds are quite expensive for the average Joe to buy on the regular, especially if they’re only accessible in high-end supermarkets.

    While some traditional dishes can have vegan counterparts, it’s best for omnivores to have options rather than guilt them to choose one side or the other if they can have both while allowing sustainable food sources to exist.

    Then what about most indigenous and nomadic communities whose diets are both meat and plant-based and are connected to their land? Forcing them to all go vegan will also mean stripping a part of their identities. That’s as much worse as forcing them to assimilate to a customs and traditions foreign to them.


    1. Thanks very much for your comment! Seeds, including chia seeds, are certainly foods and are certainly vegan, but I would not say that chia seeds = vegan diet or that they are some kind all-mighty staple we all need to be eating, so I’m not clear why they would be the determining factor in whether a vegan diet is affordable. I personally rarely eat them!

      The main vegan foods — foods that virtually every government and virtually every study into nutrition again and again find to be the healthiest and most sustainable and the ones we should be eating more of (foods that the majority of indigenous communities historically ate) are things like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans/legumes. Foods that are a whole lot cheaper than meat!

      When we think about the future we want and our planet needs, what indigenous and nomadic communities eat — a tiny, tiny proportion of people on this planet — is virtually irrelevant. They are not the ones destroying the rainforests, making bigger and bigger factory farms, etc.

      The spread of animal food products and the exponential increases in the consumption of meat, dairy, etc. arise from cultures that are commonly considered to be the most “advanced,” including the U.S., Europe, and Australia. In fact, the majority of indigenous communities were primarily or entirely plant-based, and it is through colonization that diets have changed over time to rely more on animal-based foods. The culprits are certainly not those who have been oppressed by powerful nations!

      This is why people equating veganism with elitism doesn’t make sense: Research shows again and again that the wealthiest nations and the wealthiest people tend to eat the most meat, the most dairy, the most highly processed foods, etc.

      So these are the people whose habits need to change for a sustainable future — that isn’t a matter of guilting people, it’s simply a fact that even the IPCC, UN and other governments have (however reluctantly) recognized and published papers about. Those of us with the privilege to make choices about what we eat should be aware of the impact our choices make and I am glad that what I have said has given you some (excuse the pun) food for thought!


      1. Being from a country where we are dependent on both land and sea for our food resources and all the while hunger and widespread poverty is a deadly combo, I think it’s worth recognizing being able to have a diversified and varied sources is better than a single one, whether it’s meat, fish (especially for coastal communities with aquatic-based food culture) and fruits/vegetables.

        The question now: How do you make veganism accessible to the common man, the masses, many of which earn less than 1 US dollar a day? Out of curiosity, I went to a vegan food festival that took place in an upscale part of our city and it pretty much enforced my own assumptions that vegans in my country are from the higher-income demographics. The shops and stalls in there may be supporting rural communities and whatnot, but the target market is clearly upscale for all intents and purposes.

        It would be nice if said vegan foodfest was placed in a more accessible area but yeah, it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t. Seeing kids in the streets and piers having to scavenge for food, and people salvaging spoilt ones from fastfood joints to re-cook as recycled whole meals that are sold for about 50 cents that comes with a free bowl of rice.

        Supporters of veganism will have to prove to many commoners that being one is not a privilege but a right.


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