Shouldn’t we all be vegans? If we really think about it? After all, the huge industry of livestock farming is wildly damaging to the environment, and of course, involves terrible cruelty to animals. We all know and lament this, but the majority of us continue to eat meat and animal products regardless. Even if you don’t think keeping livestock to eat or for its products is inherently cruel, and opt for only free-range, ‘cruelty-free’ options, we can’t deny that eating red meat in abundance can be harmful to our health. So why the hell do we all cling to our steaks and hamburgers? (Or, in my case, to my schnitzels and gulasch?)
Of course, the answer to that is complex. A lot can be attributed to nothing but a lack of willpower, with many of us wishing we could go vegetarian or vegan in the same way we know we should really cycle to work every day instead of driving, and be content with bananas for dessert instead of banana splits. But banana splits are delicious, and cars are damn convenient, so the effort versus payoff doesn’t seem worth it to us.
Eating ethically is especially difficult because the results are so hard to see. Sure, you know logically that by not eating beef you’re saving the life of one cow, ten cows, a thousand – but you’re not actually seeing those cows escape the butcher’s knife. You just have to trust that your decisions changed what happened. To make things worse, in many cases, your choice might not make any difference – if you refuse the sausage offered to you at a BBQ, you’re not making any impact on the meat industry, because the cow’s already dead and the sausage already made.
One of the hardest parts of vegetarianism or veganism, though, is its absolutism. As Nell Frizzell explains, it’s ‘seen as a black-and-white deal. You either are or you aren’t.’ If you declare yourself a vegan, woe betide you if you eat a single Iced Vovo. Those contain milk, you know. A tiny, tiny amount of it, but milk from a cow nonetheless, and even if you didn’t realise, you’ve just broken the only rule of veganism and have lost your right to the title.
Obviously, most vegans wouldn’t actually judge you too harshly for such a tiny slip-up, but the idea that you are forever banned from so many different foods still remains. Being told we can’t have something usually only has the effect of making us want it more, and most diet plans are aware of this. Instead of forbidding all sugar and sweets, they suggest the less harmful options, or advise tiny portions, knowing that we are more likely to obey a plan that limits us to one square of chocolate a day than to ‘No chocolate again, ever.’
This is precisely why the Reducetarian movement, or specifically, the concept fuelling it, is so appealing. It suggests that instead of making the dramatic decision to become a vegan or vegetarian, you decide to simply reduce the amount of meat and animal products you’re eating – whether to the extent that you eat non-vegan fare only if it’s served to you at someone else’s place, or that you have one meat-free day a week. Perhaps you’ll go vegan, but still eat baked goods made with butter and eggs. There’s no rules about when it is or is not appropriate to ‘cheat’, because there’s no rules about what you’re forbidden from eating, which is what makes it so much more practical and easier to achieve than strict veganism or vegetarianism.
To me, food is important not just as a form of nourishment, but as part of culture and a form of enjoyment. When I travel, tasting the food of different cultures is one of my favourite parts of the holiday, and much of that would be impossible if I were vegan or vegetarian. How are you supposed to eat eclairs when you visit France, or traditional gelato in Italy, if you avoid all animal products? While it’s true that vegan or vegetarian versions exist of almost everything now, these alternatives lack one of the main things I seek in foreign food – authenticity. They may be delicious, but they’re not the traditional fare I’ve read about.
Similarly, certain foods can hold nostalgic, cultural or even religious significance. I’m less likely to make a decision that in one fell swoop forbids me from my grandmother’s cake recipe, the schnitzel restaurant I’ve been going to since my childhood and the vast majority of the food cooked up for a Christmas feast with my extended family. Depriving myself of all these foods feels like depriving myself of part of my culture and personal history, and I am utterly loathe to commit myself to that.
But just as I moderate my consumption of my grandmother’s cake or Christmas gingerbread houses because I know that eating too much sugar isn’t good for my health, I can choose to moderate my consumption of these dishes and delicacies without giving them up entirely. Therein lies all of the appeal of a ‘reducetarian’ diet, as it allows you the flexibility to make your diet work to fit in what’s important in your life. You can make the changes that you find easiest, like having almond milk for your cereal but still taking coffee with cow’s milk because you don’t like plant-milk coffee. It’s less intimidating to make minor amendments like this than to suddenly radically change your diet, and thus a reducetarian movement is easier to promote and sustain than trying to go cold turkey on your Christmas turkey (and everything else). And as such, it’s more likely you’ll be able to convince other people to join you, rather than copping eye rolls or defensive explanations from your friends about why veganism totally isn’t that great. In the end, isn’t it better to spread the good word – albeit in diluted form – to as many people as possible rather than scaring off potential candidates with your absolutism?
So if you feel bad about supporting the livestock industry but can’t figure out how to practically introduce veganism into your life, don’t give up hope – just make the changes that you can, by reducing your animal product intake rather than eradicating it altogether, and trying to source only cruelty-free food when you do eat animal products, or swap beef for the lower-polluting alternatives of pork and poultry. It’s exactly the same as trying to be healthier by eating more fruit and less cake – you don’t have to hate yourself for having the cake occasionally, but having fruit instead is better in the long run. And as a bonus, fruit is always vegan-friendly!