Don’t get mad at vegans—get mad at climate change

Plant-based burgers.
Plant-based burgers.
Image: Reuters/Beck Diefenbach
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As British comedian David Mitchell has confessed, the growing number of vegans makes non-vegans like himself feel extremely uncomfortable. Mitchell is fairly transparent in his rant (“I don’t like change and I do like sausages,”), acknowledging that what gets him most is “the nagging suspicion that they might be right.” Still, he touches on an important cultural discourse on the social impact of what we eat—and what we don’t.

In my view, we should be far more uncomfortable with accelerating climate change, poor health, and animal suffering—all symptoms of meat, egg, and dairy industries—than we are with the increasing prominence of people who prefer to eat plant-based food.

But this may help explain some of the outrage that was directed at LA city councilman Paul Koretz after he introduced a proposal in late 2018 that, if passed, would require food vendors in city-owned properties, large private venues, and movie theaters to offer at least one vegan protein dish. It would also require every terminal in LAX to feature at least one fully vegan restaurant, and for all LAX restaurants to provide a minimum of one vegan main dish.

According to critics, such as food writer Gustavo Arellano, Koretz’s plan is one of the dumbest US laws that was proposed in all of 2018. Restaurants in these venues would offer vegan options if customers wanted them, Arellano decried. In addition, businesses subject to Koretz’s proposal will lose money, because they would already be offering vegan food if it was profitable, he said.

Eating vegetables doesn’t solve everything—in fact, plants and agriculture can be problematic, too. And while Arellano did not dispute that animal products come at an environmental and social cost, he believes Los Angelenos are too concerned with local homelessness, traffic, and poverty to make a concerted effort to preserve the planet.

But the numbers suggest otherwise. The international meal delivery service Just Eat named veganism a top consumer trend in 2018. Restaurant consultancy group Baum + Whiteman slated plant-based as “the major food trend of 2018.” And The Economist called 2019 the year of the vegan

Refusing to increase vegan options compounds a number of missed opportunities—environmental, ethical, and financial. I and many people I know would certainly buy more food at venues like movie theaters if there were substantial vegan items on offer; that would increase profits, not diminish them.

Data scientist David Peterson has written that interest in veganism—as revealed by Google searches—shows that California is underpopulated with vegan restaurants. According to his findings, while California has the third-highest search interest in vegan restaurants (behind Nevada and Oregon) compared to other states, it only ranks 10th highest in the number of vegan restaurants per capita, at 8.7 restaurants per 100,000 residents.

From a purely numbers stance, this bill is solving a problem by meeting a demand. About 85 million people go through LAX a year, approximately 5 million of which are vegan. Many others are flexitarians who, like many of my own omnivore friends, will opt for a veggie burger just because they know it is better for them and the planet, or that might just be what they are in the mood for. A vice-president at Nestlé believes “only a quarter of the people buying his company’s vegan meals are committed vegetarians or vegans,” and a survey put out by research group Nielsen found that while 23% of Americans “want more plant-based proteins on the shelves,” two in five shift between omnivorous and plant-based diets.

It’s true that requiring businesses to offer a vegan menu doesn’t reform the entire food system, nor does it solve climate change. And, yes, it will cost some vendors more money, at least in the short-term. But it doesn’t inhibit people from making their own dietary choices, either. In fact, it increases the options.

When it comes to reducing our carbon footprint, it’s at least an improvement, and it gives us a way to work toward fundamental reform. If we point to bigger problems in order to resist small steps forward in the fight against climate change, we risk preventing progress altogether. Plus, the dearth of vegan options isn’t just leaving some of us hungry when we go out—it’s also worsening the prospects of future life on this planet.

Ultimately, the question is not whether movie theaters offering vegan hotdogs solves everything. The question is when, or whether, we’re going to stop squabbling and resisting whenever someone proposes a step that could slightly slow down the destruction of our planet, and instead start treating climate change and health epidemics as serious problems that we are all responsible for, even if it requires some uncomfortable changes to how we live our lives.