Is Veganism A Privilege?
Veganism is that dangerous topic where everyone in my family shouts over one another but no one truly listens.
“You can’t get enough nutrition without meat”, my grandma once declared, waving around her chopsticks like a laser pointer, “Without meat, you can’t be strong.”
I had picked up a piece of pork, stared at its glistening skin and fatty tissue. Meat. To Asians, meat is associated with prosperity, with nutrition, with strength. Technological advancements have made animal products more accessible, made meat an ever bigger fixture on our plates.
But our dance with meat comes with a cost.
Extreme weather, global warming, wildfires; climate change only amplifies our descendance into an apocalyptic future. Curbing greenhouse gas emissions now seems more paramount than ever.
An emerging response is to go vegan. The meat industry is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide worldwide, so shifting to an animal-free diet seems like the most effective solution.
But is it really? Veganism’s popularity has me contemplating. Will reducing our meat consumption really solve our woes? Or is veganism just another fad, just another badge of privilege, a matter of choice which exemplifies the cracks in our food system?
Firstly, cost. Veganism, in its most basic form, requires a larger consumption of plant-based food for satiation and nutrition as opposed to a meat-filled diet. Vegan staples (as many of you know) can really add up, especially as most grocery stores price items by weight. Sure, lima beans might cost less than a McDonald’s, but for people living on low incomes or within a food desert, a catty of meat is just an easier way to get calories and nutrition than a bag of choy sum from the market.
There is also the cost of our time. Not every Hongkonger can spend hours experimenting with new recipes, or educate themselves in nutrition; our notorious ‘workaholic’ culture establishes us as such. If we truly want veganism to be a permanent positive change, we should start by making vegan options more accessible. If we truly want veganism to be possible in more than one social class, we should focus on teaching accurate nutritional information with an emphasis on environmentalism. Only by changing our mindset towards meat can we shatter the glass ceiling.
But the sectoral shift towards plant-based worries me. I’m afraid corporations will only use veganism to stay ‘relevant’, to only make plant-based products for profits. Indeed, mainstream media has so strongly reinforced stereotypes around the ideal vegan (is truly every vegan white and skinny? Do they all consume smoothie bowls?) that there is disillusion around people who don’t fit into the mould. Take India, for example. Their population has been largely plant-based for centuries, living on legumes, rice, sabzi etc without many of the man-made alternatives now on the market. While Indians fulfil the criteria for veganism in literal terms, media who explicitly associate certain consumption patterns and product preferences with "veganism" ignore them because they don’t fit into their version of vegan splattered across social media.
And those fake meats, plant milk or acai the media often promote? Their commodification undeniably carries a social and environmental cost, too. Branding, marketing, packaging, distributing… Food still has to travel thousands of miles to our plates; foods still have to be wrapped in packaging and stored in giant fridges; prices of previously staple foods for Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs) will still rise as we shuttle crops away to More Economically Developed Countries (MEDCs) for our consumption. We won’t solve anything by merely substituting one food for another in the same industrialised system; rather, we should focus on fixing the system, on distributing food surplus to those in need, on empowering our next generation of leaders to protect the environment. That way, veganism will become the diet that benefits all, not just the wealthy who can afford alternate sources of protein.
Veganism is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’. No one can go vegan in a day - that’s impossible. But what is possible is using our platform and knowledge to open people’s minds and hearts to veganism, thus widening our options towards a more sustainable future.
Written by Kadence Wong
Edited by Aiswarya Rambhatla
Education and Resources On Veganism and the Food System: