Mainstream veganism needs to focus on equity over moral outrage

Swapping out meat for plants doesn’t address the root cause of exploitation

Not everyone can afford to shop “pure” and “clean.” PHOTO: Anne Preble / Unsplash

by Meera Eragoda, Arts & Culture Editor

I grew up with a vegetarian mother and ate a mainly vegetarian diet until I was about 17. I’m originally from Sri Lanka, and a lot of our food is conducive to vegetarian and vegan diets. Today, I still eat largely vegetarian because the commercial meat industry remains incredibly exploitative towards animals and the environment. If people are able, they should cut down on their consumption of commercially produced meat.

From what I’ve just said, you might believe that I’m a supporter of veganism or vegetarianism, but I’m not. Or rather, I don’t support the mainstream vegan movement.

Mainstream veganism is rife with purity politics, and the presence of racism, classism, and elitism within it. Of course, there are vegans whose veganism is anti-oppressive; there are people of colour who have enjoyed largely plant-based diets for thousands of years before the popularization of it by mainstream vegans. I’m not trying to ignore them, but I do want to address the issue of mainstream vegans not understanding or acknowledging their own privilege.

Mainstream veganism constructs an idea of health as “purity.” While I agree that the commercial meat industry is detrimental, what seems to be motivating mainstream veganism is this idea of purity politics — the idea of putting only “clean” foods in your body. But this requires deeming certain foods “unclean,” implying that the people who eat them are somehow sullied. Mainstream veganism perpetuates the idea that only vegetables and plant-based food are “pure” or “clean” and all meat or meat products are “dirty.” Additionally, it seems to disavow certain types of vegetables if they’re not organic, making it a very elitist stance on food. 

This idea of “purity” intersects with issues of class privilege. Foods that are labelled vegan or organic are actually more expensive, making them unaffordable and inaccessible to many both in and out of food deserts. I cannot recall going into a grocery store and finding organic veggies that are cheaper than non-organic ones. In addition, places that are designed to appeal to vegans, vegetarians, and supporters of “clean” eating, such as Whole Foods and farmers markets, are themselves expensive and, in the case of the latter, designed for people who have time off on weekends to visit them. Often the rebuttal to this is to avoid pre-made vegan foods and instead buy the individual products, which doesn’t factor in that not everyone has the time to prepare a nutrition filled meal without meat. Cooking meat is often faster and cheaper than sourcing together and preparing non-GMO goods for a vegan meal.

Next, there’s the racism present in mainstream veganism. It ignores the cultural ties people have to meat. To use one example, there are Indigenous communities in Canada that still consume meat sustainably and are also active in conservation. Not to mention that often communities of colour are the ones who rely on cheaply produced meat to survive. A veganism that dismisses other ways of being without understanding that colonialism is responsible for animal exploitation and environmental damage is an incomplete veganism.

Mainstream veganism can also be unwelcoming towards vegans of colour and fat vegans. The image of a vegan that is constantly sold to us is a white, able-bodied, thin one. This exclusion is on top of the fact that vegan food can be incredibly appropriative when it sources and profits from other cultures.

Ultimately, the root cause of all this exploitation is capitalism and colonialism. Even if consuming a vegan diet isn’t as damaging as supporting the meat industry, consuming anything under capitalism is. Just look at avocados with their huge water consumption, tendency for deforestation, and drug cartels infringing on the market. Our consumption of coffee also damages land, and the cashews we enjoy are picked by Indian women who get burns on their hands from the toxins. Where in mainstream veganism is the fight to change the working conditions of (largely racialized) people? There are also no efforts to ensure that Indigenous conservation is supported, that migrant workers are protected, or that food sovereignty is achieved.

The mainstream vegan movement should be advocating for all of these causes and for people to cut down on commercially produced meat wherever they can. Greater involvement in this fight would help the movement concentrate on accessibility instead of gate-keeping and moral purity.