It is not a rare event when I log onto my various social media accounts and I scroll through a comment section, I find a user irrelevantly urging and sometimes berating fellow users to switch to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
The root intent of this comment is not purely meant to inspire annoyance. It is no secret that switching to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is much better for the planet and greatly reduces each individual’s carbon footprint.
In fact, cattle, sheep and goats in the U.S. produced 178 million metric tons of CO2 methane in 2018. The meat industry, especially beef, billows CO2 into the atmosphere from the moment the animal is born to its transportation to a slaughter house, its production and its distribution to markets, according to the 2020 Carbon Footprint Factsheet by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.
According to the Center, food production accounts for 68 percent of carbon emissions while food transportation accounts for 5 percent.
Vegetarians and vegans are valid in their lifestyle, as it would seem our planet is careening toward destruction as many of its people rely on a carnivorous appetite which is proven to be a lead cause in the increase of toxic emissions.
However, stereotypes often surround the vegan and vegetarian community with hurtful and untrue accusations.
UNC Asheville is a vegan and vegetarian friendly campus with options for many dietary lifestyles at every dining location, according to campus dining. Many students at UNCA sport a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.
Willow Ogburn, a junior at UNCA, said she is a biology major for the same reason she is a vegan, because she loves animals. She found her passion for studying the animals she loves and understanding their ecology as a motivator to become a vegan, and she has been now for two and a half years.
“I have not found it to be restrictive at all. Honestly, I have found it helped open my mindset about food a lot,” she said.
Ogburn is no stranger to preconceived notions about her diet. She said two stereotypical responses often follow her statement that she is vegan: does she get enough protein and is she annoying?
To the first comment, she has a quick and simple response, which is ‘yes’. Ogburn is a marathon runner and is sure to get enough protein from her vegan diet to sustain her.
“I’m like yeah, I get enough protein. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to run 30 miles at one time. And I am still standing,” she said, humorously.
The second response stings Ogburn a little more, as she said she must explain her diet and preface her omission that she is vegan by stating she is not annoying first.
“I feel like I have to justify being vegan, I have to justify the way that I live my life because I feel like they’re going to think that I have some sort of superiority complex, or like I think I am better than people. That kind of hurts,” the biology major said.
Ogburn said her philosophy around veganism is compassion, first and foremost, because animals deserve compassion, but humans are animals as well.
Fellow UNCA student Evie Horton is a sophomore and art student with an environmental studies minor. She is a vegetarian and said she believes it is hard to put labels on diets such as veganism and vegetarianism and it should be up to the individual to navigate their dietary choices.
Her three years living a vegetarian lifestyle has significant reasons tied to the negligence and abuse of animals in factory farms, but she said her reasoning was not because she thought meat itself was gross, which is what she is commonly asked.
“Since I am a white, middle-class female, I can afford to not eat meat because I have other resources of protein and people who cannot afford to purchase meat for their sources of protein may have more access to it if I do not eat it,” the art student said.
Vegetarian and vegan lifestyles are not easily accessible or affordable for everyone. In fact, the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased as consumption has increased, therefore creating a barrier for some families to access affordable produce for a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Research conducted by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2007 proves that low-income neighborhoods have lower quality produce
available to them and stores that offer a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables are located farther away from low-income areas.
UNCA junior and history major Mars Grubbs, a gluten free vegan, notes being vegan is not for every person and should not be a forced lifestyle. Grubbs said they chose to become a vegan because their body chemistry suited the lifestyle better.
“Being vegan is not for everyone, not everyone’s body works that way and not everyone is in a place financially or environmentally where being vegan is an option,” they said.
It is classist to humiliate people living in poverty or on a low-budget for not living a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle because not everyone is on an equal playing field when it comes to access to food that is not only meatless, but healthy and nutritious. Living on a box of rice may be vegan, but it is certainly not nutritionally supportive.
Also, not every culture or religion supports vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. Meat can be a part of many traditions and practices. In fact, humans historically began strategic collaboration through hunting which led to traditions surrounding the hunt and meat consumption. Meat sharing systems developed over time which created sophisticated cultural practices around the sharing of meat, some of which still exist today.
Though, educating individuals on carbon emissions from each source of meat and unsustainable practices surrounding meat farming and transportation is invaluable to environmentalists.
Kiah Dale, vegan of three years, said she knows there are stereotypes surrounding her dietary lifestyle and voices have gone unheard in the fight for vegan environmentalism. Dale is a junior at UNCA and a political science major.
“There is a huge stereotype that vegans are only rich white people. I know that in general and especially in the POC community, being vegan is looked down upon a lot because extreme vegans always take over the social media platform, so people have a very skewed view of what we are,” Dale said.
The UNCA junior said she can attest to the diversity of the vegan community as she has been to events in the past, such as Vegfest in Asheville and other vegan conventions where over half of the individuals she encountered were people of color. In addition, Dale noted that everyone she met was very open and kind — a stiff difference from how she said a lot of vegans are seen as rigid and hateful on the internet.
Additionally, Dale said there is a stereotype of the food vegans eat, which is that it is bland and strange. She said this is not the case, as many places have vegan options which have Asian, South East Asian, Indian, Ethiopian and South American roots, to name a few.
“I just want people to know that vegans aren’t just skinny white people and that we come in different shapes and sizes,” she said.
Vegetarian and veganism are lifestyles which have been sustained by Black, Indigenous and people of color for centuries. These voices have often been left out of the mainstream and predominantly white conversation surrounding vegetarianism and veganism. It is essential that these voices are listened to and implemented as we fight for climate change and emission reduction.
The environmental fault is on the negligence of the industries that produce and transport meat. Regenerative agriculture is possible, but major corporations and the U.S. government have not made significant strides to revolutionize the agriculture industry and reverse the effects of climate change.
As dietary environmentalists, you have a strong voice through your vote and your advocacy against corrupt industries. Educating yourself on regenerative farming and demanding policy changes that correlate with sustainable agriculture is your greatest weapon. Wield it.
Being a vegetarian or vegan is valuable today– you do not have to justify your dietary lifestyle. Together, we must become intersectional environmentalists, advocates for all people and the Earth.