The Benefits and Challenges of Cutting Back on Meat

There’s a curious logic to environmentalism. We praise, in most cases, those who make incremental lifestyle adjustments to support environmental causes: turning off the lights before leaving your home or driving an electric vehicle is seen as a meaningful—albeit small—step, even if you don’t give up electricity for good. No one would shame you for not cooking your dinner with a fire from flint.

But the logic breaks down when animals are involved. Reducing meat consumption, without fully going vegan, is seen as a compromise, a slightly shameful cop-out. “Meatless Monday” is often accused of sloganeering, and “humane slaughter” is considered an oxymoron. But interestingly enough, the feelings between the accuser and the accused tend to be mutual: even those who have drastically cut their meat consumption—say, to once a year—often can’t shake a sense of complicity themselves. Many vegetarians harbor a lingering sense of guilt for not being vegan. The reducetarian movement and its leader, Brian Kateman, aim to change that.

Inadequate labels

The Reducetarian Foundation stresses the value of “the small changes in personal and institutional behavior that collectively result in a significant difference in the world.” Kateman, a Staten Island native, grew up with the standard meat-heavy American diet. But in 2010, when he was a junior in college, he was exposed to the philosopher Peter Singer’s views on animal welfare, he became aware of the ethical and environmental consequences of eating animals.

However, even as Kateman’s meat consumption was nearing zero, others around him were alert less to his ethical commitment than to violations thereof. He remembers one Thanksgiving when he, as a gesture to honor his family’s tradition, took a slice of turkey, only to be immediately teased by his sister: “I thought you were a vegetarian, Brian?”

Kateman stopped calling himself a vegetarian, but other labels—like “cheating vegetarian” and “lazy vegan”—were defined in terms of negativity. Neutral terms like “semi-vegetarian,” “mostly vegetarian,” and “flexitarian” didn’t quite cut it because they were, in Kateman’s words, “static,” and did not propel further efforts to reduce meat, ideally to zero. Worse still, terms like “mostly vegetarian” set too high a bar that most people find it hard to aspire to. Such phrases could mentally fatigue people before they made any changes.

Then, in 2014, Kateman was having his weekly lunch with his friend Tyler Alterman when Alterman, upon seeing that Kateman had brought a chicken salad, asked the now familiar question: “Aren’t you a vegetarian?” Alterman’s tone, however, was neither accusatory nor sarcastic but cautiously inquisitive: Alterman had also been reducing meat but found the existing labels inadequate. After many rounds of brainstorming, the duo came up with a term at once positive and inclusive: reducetarian.

Read More: How China Could Change the World by Taking Meat Off the Menu

What is the reducetarian movement?

As he explains in his 2014 TED talk, Kateman observed that most people find it difficult to go 100% vegan or vegetarian, but their efforts to reduce meat or dairy products aren’t appreciated because existing labels are “all or nothing.” Even those who decide to eat meat very infrequently would be ridiculed for calling themselves a “vegetarian.” As a result, many give up the effort to reduce meat altogether.

One style of eating, the flexitarian diet, allows eating meat and dairy products while eating mostly plant-based meals. So how’s a reducetarian different from a flexitarian? “A flexitarian is someone who primarily eats plant-based foods with the occasional inclusion of animal products. You can think of them as mostly vegan or vegetarian,” Kateman told me. “‘Reducetarian’ is an umbrella term. But it primarily describes someone who eats way too many animal products and made a decision to cut back.” (Kateman, who has degrees in evolutionary biology and conservation biology, does not have a background in medicine or nutrition.)

Let us assume, for example, there is a person who eats 200 pounds of meat every year, which is still below the average annual meat consumption in the U.S. Cutting back meat by 10%—eating 180 pounds a year—makes the person a reducetarian. “Those people have made an incredible step to cut back on the amount of animal products that they consume,” Kateman says. “But they are absolutely not flexitarian, because flexitarians primarily eat plant-based foods.” Under this definition, vegetarians and vegans are reducetarians—they reduced their meat consumption to zero.

To amplify this message, the Reducetarian Foundation, founded in 2015, does advocacy work like fundraising and outreach activities; creates contents spread via various channels, including influential thought leaders and college campus clubs; and organizes an annual conference. The research arm of the foundation conducts publicly available studies on how the message can be effectively delivered.

The essay collection The Reducetarian Solution, published by Kateman in 2017, showed that the idea has attracted an unlikely mix of thinkers. What is notable about the book is not just its impressive roster of contributors and endorsements—Jeffrey Sachs, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins—but their political and philosophical non-alignment. It’s rare to see a marketing guru (Seth Godin), an environmental writer-cum-activist (Bill McKibben), a self-described libertarian (Michael Shermer), and a writer of feminist critical theory (Carol J. Adams) in a single book arguing for the same cause.

Benefits of the reducetarian movement

From a planet perspective, the first order effect is greater when one person, who used to eat 200 pounds of meat, reduces consumption by half—again, still by no means a vegetarian—than when five people eating 10 pounds of meat go fully vegan. It’s simple math, really: 100 pounds are a higher number than 50 pounds.

On an individual level, plant-based diets offer a wealth of health benefits, such as preventing heart diseases, decreasing total cholesterol, and reducing the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. How much time it takes to see salubrious effects of plant-based diets is different from one symptom to another and from person to person. According to Dr. Benjamin P. Ha—a physician based in Southern California who co-authored Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets—some improvements can be seen within days. “If you are truly going with a 100% whole-food, plant-based diet—with no animal protein, no dairy, very little processed foods—you can see tremendous improvement in your cholesterol just in 10 days,” Ha says, taking cholesterol as an example that a lot of patients worry about. “If you do a pre-test of baseline cholesterol, then eat a plant-based diet for 10 days, and do a post-test, often you’ll see a 20%, 30%, 40% reduction in baseline cholesterol.”

Importantly, Ha emphasized that being a vegetarian isn’t synonymous with embracing a plant-based diet. He noticed among his patients that there’s much confusion about what plant-based nutrition means. “People come to me and say, ‘Well, I’m going to start eating soy hotdogs.’ Unfortunately, that’s not going to benefit your health any more than what you’re eating now,” Ha says. “It’s not about being a vegan or vegetarian. It’s really about eating unprocessed, plant-based, whole foods.”

Moreover, curbing animal agriculture can alleviate the water crisis—a pound of beef needs nearly 40 times more water than starchy vegetables—and the prevalent exploitation of factory farm workers. It’s estimated that more than 70 billion land animals are slaughtered every year for food, and some quick math tells us that the number of animals killed every 10 hours equals the total number of deaths from World War II (which happened over six years). Meat consumption also damages biodiversity. All in all, it’s good for you, good for other humans, clearly good for animals being slaughtered for meat, and even good for animals that aren’t being slaughtered for meat.

Read More: Vegan Documentarian Tells the Inside Story of the Lab-Grown Meat Industry

Challenges of the reducetarian movement

Over the years, the vehemency of the opposition was often as strong as the supporting voices. Once, at an animal rights conference, Kateman saw a sign that read, “Brian Kateman speaking at an animal rights conference is like Donald Trump speaking at a women’s rights conference.”

Still, Kateman chooses to avoid coalition-building by choosing one side; rather, he carefully maintains a careful alliance between opposing sides. The unwavering credo of the reducetarian movement may well be “inclusivity” of different philosophical views. Many times during his keynote speeches at the Reducetarian Summit—an annual conference for supporters of the reducetarian movement—Kateman has warned against Freud’s idea of the narcissism of small difference—how similar ideas that strive for the same goal (namely, reducing meat consumption) can lead to the most fierce divisiveness.

While Marion Nestle, a professor emerita of nutrition and food studies at N.Y.U., commends the movement’s inclusivity—encompassing vegan, vegetarian, and just eat-less-meat approaches—she also points to the way in which it could be a pitfall. “Social movements are not famous for inclusivity. Participants with the more extreme ideological positions tend to exclude centrists. So framing this movement as centrist may appear as a strength, but it has an inherent weakness in political non-viability,” Nestle told me. “The reducetarian movement calls for common ground among meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters. That alone is asking for a lot.”

The unusual mix of attendees at the 4th Reducetarian Summit, which took place in San Francisco in May after two years of hiatus, attests to this value. Among them: a registered Republican state senator, card-carrying Democrats, representatives from non-profit organizations, and scientists from multinational corporations like Danone, all rooting for the same cause.

In person, Kateman is neither self-serious nor evangelical. He would be the first to admit that eating less meat is not a new concept; however, Kateman’s nomenclatural recast framed an existing idea into a movement.

There’s no shortage of signs that paint a hopeful cultural seismograph for the plant-based future of food: the public’s interest in plant-based meat is rapidly growing, and sales of plant-based foods are climbing every year. Perhaps those incremental changes distill the heart of the reducetarian movement: small seismic waves of our individual choices can bring about a long overdue earthquake.

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