Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Does it Matter? Well, Yeah...

Veganism, Plant-Based, Whole Foods, et al.

The UK's Cambridge Independent ran a piece by a plant-based restaurant owner today which purportedly sought to examine the question "Vegan or plant-based: What’s the difference and does it matter?". In it, Louise Palmer-Masterton positions vegans as having issues with the term "plant-based" because they view it as "ethically inferior". To her, she says, the two terms "mean the same" (although much of her piece ends up confirming that she thinks the opposite).

[T]he truth is, [my restaurant] is all about wholefood plant-based ingredients, ethically sourced, low carbon, circular, compassionate and cruelty free. So, is that vegan or plant-based? And what is the difference anyway?

Palmer-Masterton goes on to mention Donald Watson's coining of the term "vegan" but says that its final definition wasn't hammered out and "clearly defined" until "the 80's" at around the same time that Dr. T. Colin Campbell "coined the term 'plant-based'". He did so, she says, "seeking a term that described this diet without invoking ethical considerations". With a focus on health, he specified that a plant-based diet would also need to be a "whole foods" diet. So Palmer-Masterton sums this up by saying that veganism isn't health-focused, but that a whole foods plant-based diet is. Her restaurant, she says, is both.

But Veganism Isn't a Diet 

If a plant-based diet means one "free of animal products and/or exploitation" then one can say that a vegan's diet is plant-based. Using the term "vegan" to describe food (or other things) rather than specifying its use to describe actual people adhering to veganism has always been problematic in this sense, with many people choosing to self-label as "vegan" because a few times a week, they consume meals which don't contain animal ingredients. We end up with people trying to sub-categorize veganism to include animal exploitation (or conflating "plant-based" with "vegan") when they're all really completely different things. Palmer-Masterson seems to imply that vegans who point out this distinction do it as a condescending sort of nose-thumbing, adding that vegans will sometimes "have a go" at people who self-label as plant-based. (Mostly, I am guessing that vegans are simply again caricatured here as waving their fists angrily whenever they try to explain to someone that veganism isn't a diet. Everybody loves to perpetuate the "angry vegan" stereotype.)

Veganism as a Dirty Word

Historically, she says, veganism has always been very "fringe" and that its being associated with animal rights activism was uncomfortable for many in the mainstream. Because of this, she says, it was "unattractive" to the "average" person. That the term "plant-based" gained popularity and entered the mainstream "contributed significantly to the rise in popularity of veganism" she says. But did the term really contribute significantly to the rise in popularity of actual veganism? Or did it contribute to a rise in popularity of a watered down misinterpretation of veganism--one which leaves open the option to shrug off the ethics of animal exploitation where the sake of the animals themselves is concerned? Particularly those animals who don't end up on your plate.

Hold the Animals; Save the Planet!

She writes that current day environmental concerns are leading people to choose to lower their consumption of animal products. She asks whether they are "
eating more vegan food or more wholefood plant-based food" and proceeds to argue that consuming whole food plant-based food versus eating "a vegan diet containing processed foods" is better for the environment. But here she seems to be insinuating that 1) veganism is a diet (it isn't), 2) plant-based foods are somehow de facto non-processed foods (they're not) and that 3) "vegan" and "processed" go hand-in-hand (nope). I doubt many vegans would deny that eating fewer processed foods is beneficial to the environment, but the point she seems to be arguing is that someone's following a plant-based diet is more environmentally sound than a vegan consuming what's actually a similar diet and that simply makes no sense. 

When she wraps up and turns her attention to clothing, her focus remains on sustainability and the environment. Although she does point out that manufacturers are wrong when they claim that clothing containing animal products have been more sustainably or ethically produced, she states that "[t]
here has to be a deeper dive into production beyond simply avoiding animal derived ingredients". The truth is that many vegans do indeed understand and accept that going vegan is the least we can do--that it's merely a starting point and that we need to do more.

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Palmer-Masterton says that she sees "wholefood plant-based eating and veganism converging in the coming years". (Has she no idea that many vegans actually do consume a whole foods plant-based diet? There is overlap.) She asks that "wholefood plant-based and vegan people" make "peace" with each other as if there's a war going on and that everybody should just hug it out since we're all on the same team, fighting the same fight, changing the world for other animals, et al. 

The thing is that we're not all on the same team. We have different intentions, a different follow-through and some of us choose to continue participating in animal exploitation while some of us take the rights and interests of other animals seriously. Although vegans may consume a whole foods plant-based diet that's suitable for them, someone who consumes a whole foods plant-based diet may not give a fig about what happens to other animals (except solely in terms of the extended effect meat and dairy industries have on the state of the environment). Plant-based diet followers who aren't vegan often gripe about vegans in shared online or IRL groups because the dieters who continue to participate in animal exploitation simply loathe there being any mention of ethics. Vegans will generally gripe about plant-based dieters when the latter often self-label as "vegans" and get offended when told that veganism isn't 
a diet and they can't lumped in as some sub-category of vegan.

As for the whole foods slant on it? Many of these same discussion groups are littered with people who constantly health-shame (or even
body-shame) vegans for not adhering to a strictly whole foods diet. Is a strictly whole foods plant-based diet better for health and for the environment? Very likely. Could vegans benefit from incorporating more whole foods into their diets? Very likely. But veganism isn't a health movement. Additionally, shaming people who've already substantially lowered their carbon footprint by eschewing the consumption of animal products (particularly when the one doing the shaming chooses to otherwise participate in animal exploitation)? Well, it just seems a bit weird. At the end of the day, though, if the two movements do "converge", it has to be with the understanding that veganism is the starting point.

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