Oct 7th, 2019, 07:58 PM

Politics Takes a Bite Out of Vegan Momentum

By Cameron Waggett
Image Credit: Creative Commons/Vegan Photo
You. Yeah, you! Put down those utensils, press pause on that flesh fest on your plate, and get a load of this. Veganism’s on the rise. Make no bones about it – veggies are trending, and yes, carnivores might not find this humerus.

“Why’s veganism on the rise?” you might ask. Well, that’s due in large part to its unbreakable bond with morality, the environment, and health. And with 2019 having been dubbed the year veganism goes mainstream, it would seem that this movement finally has the ability to reach its full potential of social good. I believe, however, that there is still one locked door holding back veganism from self-realization, and the entity with the key is politics.

Looking at the United States, liberals show a higher degree of morality than conservatives do (or not necessarily, according to research; however, I'd beg to differ). For example, presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke speaks of opening U.S. borders to “the oppressed, the persecuted, and the hopeful from all over the world” and goes on to claim that “the current administration is pursuing cruel and cynical policies that aim to sow needless chaos and confusion at our borders.” This type of language from a presidential hopeful expressing concern for fellow human beings is thus undoubtedly moral in nature.

Dr. Gordon Hodson’s research on the left-right difference in lapsing back to meat consumption after switching to a plant-based diet is particularly interesting in light of this discussion on morality. First of all, Dr. Hodson finds that conservatives are more likely to return to eating meat after switching to a plant-based diet because they are less likely to cut out meat for social justice reasons (animal welfare, feeding the poor).

Also of interest: a 2018 Gallop poll shows a significant difference between the percentage of plant eaters in each of these two political persuasions. Liberals are five and a half times more likely to be vegetarian than conservatives, which, according to Dr. Hodson, reinforces the idea that, “political ideology is a very strong predicator of meat consumption.” It would thus seem that liberals are willing to further the connection between veganism and morality; however, when even an above-average morally-upstanding liberal candidate, such as O’Rourke, holds onto his love affair with Whataburger, the ability to make progress in the areas of veganism and morality seem daunting.

A recent The Guardian podcast (May 30th, 2018) titled “We need to talk about … the rise of veganism” delivered a shocker by citing that the global livestock industry contributes to a higher percentage of total greenhouse gasses (around 14.5%) than the entire global transport industry (trains, planes, cars combined at around 13%). These are sobering figures.

Image Credit: Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Now let’s fast forward to September 12th, 2019. The stars seemed to align when a democratic debate moderator surprisingly asked the only vegan candidate, Cory Booker, a question about veganism. Instead of speaking at length about the ecological disaster that is animal agriculture, in his response, Booker essentially sidestepped a highly public opportunity to really address veganism’s potent role as an actor in reversing environmental destruction.

On the rare occasion when a potential leader of the free world is asked about veganism in connection with the environment and instead decides to punt, we are being deprived of a very impactful conversation. Unfortunately, the observation from The Guardian podcast episode stating that, “[a]t the moment there is no political movement surrounding veganism” (2:03-2:07) remains applicable roughly a year later.

And this is a shame – climate change is real folks and we need politicians, like Booker, to bring home the bacon so that they can save our bacon (both not literally, of course). Could it be that Booker succumbed to the sway of a Thomson Reuters Foundation News article which sought to weaken the argument related to the above figures? Notwithstanding the information in this article, the extent of the environmental impact of the global livestock industry is too astonishing to dismiss.

Image Credit: statista/Jan Conway

The plants-for-health trend has been gaining credibility, convincing everyone from everyday consumers (points to self*) to powerful organizations. For example, according to a 2018 survey the top factor influencing American millennials’ decision to adopt a meat-free diet was “overall health.” And these findings came on the heels of a Forbes article, which stated that according to research firm GlobalData, the number of U.S. consumers identifying as vegan increased by 600 percent from 2014 to 2017.

Also of note: the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report titled “Climate Change and Land” acknowledged that shifting away from meat would combat climate change and, incidentally, also improve human health: “Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health (high confidence).”

It is therefore not surprising that IPCC’s co-chair, Hans-Otto Pörtner, does not equivocate on a plant-for-health argument. He states, “it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.” Despite this influential advocacy for a plant-centric diet, a particular word is missing from this IPCC report.

Can you guess?


There appears to be an unwillingness on the part of politicians and politically influential organizations alike to use the v-word. Pörtner is also quoted as saying, “[w]e don’t want to tell people what to eat.” The harm here is already done. Veganism is healthy but not that healthy. A political entity has once again pumped the breaks on veganism.

Veganism is omnipresent in society today and continues to drive societal changes that will benefit peoplekind. The extent of its positive influence, however, rests squarely in the meaty hands of politicians/political organizations. We’ve seen a prominent liberal politician failing to show up to the vegan/morality party. We’ve seen another prominent liberal politician sidestepping the issue as it relates to the environment. And we’ve seen an intergovernmental organization panel coming up short of a full-on endorsement of veganism. If the political world eventually opens up more to veganism, who knows what we might be calling 2020 – the year veganism takes over? Only time will tell.

PS: As the powers that be refrain from a full-on endorsement of veganism, the movement must rely heavily on a bottom-up approach to make further inroads in the political arena. All members of civil society can play a part. And within this framework, the importance of creative, non-violent, small-scale advocacy groups can’t be stressed enough, (I’m looking at you, AUP Vegan Club) – be a voice for the voiceless; there’s no rest for the weary when we’re almost there.