Vegans are often caricatured as ascetic zealots, ready to spill paint on the first person they see wearing a fur coat, or ruin the next dinner party they attend by sharing graphic details about how animals are turned into meat.
But as with many social movements, a vocal minority has come to represent the whole, while the data tells a very different story of who is and isn’t a vegan.
For most people who try it, veganism is short-lived. A study in 2014 by animal advocacy group Faunalytics found that 84 percent of self-defined vegetarians and vegans eventually go back to eating meat. One survey of 1,789 vegetarian Brits found that over one-third of them “cheat” when they’re drunk, and only one-fifth said they rarely drop their dietary standards. In fact, Faunalytics’ research found that a leading reason for people quitting vegetarianism and veganism was because it was too hard to maintain a “pure diet.”
In a recently published follow-up study, Faunalytics found that even among those who generally stick with veganism or vegetarianism months into their journey, a little over half still ate a small amount of animal products.
Knowing the average self-defined vegetarian eats meat now and then, and that most vegans quit, the news that New York City Mayor Eric Adams occasionally eats fish while saying he eats a strict plant-based diet came as no surprise to me — nor did the finger-pointing backlash in the media and on Twitter. (Disclosure: Mayor Adams’s senior assistant is a friend of mine.)
Grub Street called allegations over his fish-eating “explosive,” and Eater reported Adams was “under fire” for repeatedly ordering fish. When a Politico reporter asked an Adams spokesperson about the fish allegation on Saturday, the official denied it. When pressed by reporters, days later, Adams replied, “Let me be clear: Changing to a plant-based diet saved my life, and I aspire to be plant-based 100 percent of the time. I want to be a role model for people who are following or aspire to follow a plant-based diet, but as I said, I am perfectly imperfect, and have occasionally eaten fish.”
Adams’s spokesperson shouldn’t have lied in the first place, especially when some suspect the mayor has stretched the truth on other matters. But the initial denial wasn’t surprising: When high-profile vegans bend the rules, the public reaction can get ugly.
Critics are often quick to judge veganism as a strict ideology and lifestyle that demands far too much of its adherents, but when its adherents fail to meet those demands, those critics swiftly brand them as hypocrites. You just can’t win if you’re an imperfect human who is also concerned about animal agriculture’s enormous contribution to any number of problems — from climate change to animal cruelty to personal and public health crises — and wants to adjust their diet accordingly, though maybe not completely.
It’s tempting to chalk up the melee over Adams’s food choices to the cynical Twitter mob and political media set on scoring easy points against a politician unpopular with much of the Democratic Party’s left-of-center contingent (even if that unpopularity isn’t necessarily shared with New York voters as a whole). But I think there’s something bigger to be learned from it: our glaring inability to have a nuanced conversation about food choices and food politics.
The case for loosening the rules of veganism
You could say that Adams just shouldn’t call himself a vegan or strictly plant-based if he eats any amount of animal products, but there’s value to normalizing being an imperfect vegan — which is exactly what many vegans are.
Vox’s Jerusalem Demsas put it well in a tweet: “It’s bad that being 90% vegan or vegetarian means that you’re no longer in the club. Would be a lot more valuable if 50% of people were vegan half the time than if just 2% of the population were vegan 100% of the time.”
This is right and it’s bad that being 90% vegan or vegetarian means that you’re no longer in the club.— Jerusalem (@JerusalemDemsas) February 7, 2022
Would be a lot more valuable if 50% of people were vegan half the time than if just 2% of the population were vegan 100% of the time. https://t.co/ahZFvOr29s
The more purist sect of the vegan movement would disagree with that idea and disapprove of Adams’s occasional fish consumption, arguing that any support of America’s cruel and polluting factory farm system is unjust. But most who advocate for veganism long enough begin to lower their expectations of people and institutions after learning just how difficult it is to influence one person’s diet, let alone the corporate and public policies that shape how people eat.
Loosening the rules of veganism, perhaps by elevating the fuzzy term “plant-based,” which Adams is more fond of using to describe himself than “vegan,” is a way to welcome more people into the club — hopefully inspiring more people to eat more vegan food even if not 100 percent of the time. Imagine how much smaller the climate movement would be if, to join, members could never travel by plane or buy new clothes (or eat a burger, for that matter).
From the early 1990s to the early 2000s, the US vegan movement did primarily focus on a 100 percent, all-or-nothing approach to eating. That approach generated more attention for the cause, but didn’t have much of an effect on broader food politics: Meat consumption continued to rise while the share of vegans and vegetarians went largely unchanged.
Even though Americans tell pollsters they don’t want animals abused for food, it’s simply too hard for most people to become and stay vegan in a world not built for veganism. And most people are unwilling to pay a premium for the tiny sliver of animal products produced in higher-welfare conditions — that is, if such animal welfare claims can even be trusted.
So, over the last decade, much of the vegan movement embraced less-meat campaigns like Meatless Monday, Vegan Before 6 pm, Reducetarianism, and Weekday Vegetarianism. One group simply advocates that people stop eating chickens, since they suffer disproportionately compared to cattle and pigs — and make up 95 percent of land animals raised for food. In other words, a no-chicken diet has nearly the same impact on animal welfare as a vegetarian diet.
That fact should call into question the utility of labels like “vegetarian” and “vegan,” since they fail to fully capture the real-world impact of food choices. Rather, thinking more about the animal welfare, environmental, and health effects of different animal products, and the quantity in which they’re consumed, is more useful — though this approach doesn’t slot nicely into a simple label.
Whether this shift to more nuanced less-meat messaging has had a significant effect is also up for debate — Americans continue to eat record amounts of meat, though they’re also eating record amounts of plant-based alternatives (and tofu).
But the “less meat, more plants” messaging certainly helped make the conversation more palatable to Americans, only about 5 percent of whom identify as vegetarian but around a quarter of whom say they are cutting back on meat.
Aside from messaging, there’s no shortage of changes that could be easily made in grocery stores, restaurants, and other places where people eat that would influence them to consume more plant-based food, whether or not they think of themselves as vegetarian or vegan. Those changes include notes on restaurant menus that explain the environmental impact of meat, selling meat and dairy alternatives next to animal products in grocery stores, placing vegetarian dishes next to meat-based dishes on menus, and making plant-based food more affordable.
But to really move the needle on reducing meat consumption — something humanity must do if we’re to get anywhere close to reaching Paris climate agreement targets — we need to focus on politicians’ platforms more than their own food choices. That means implementing policies to modify meat-heavy menus with more plant-based foods, something Adams is bent on accomplishing.
How Adams is trying to change the way New Yorkers eat
Both progressives and animal welfare supporters have serious gripes with some of Adams’s policy proposals, such as bringing back solitary confinement to Rikers Island, rolling back cash bail reform, and installing machines that drown city rats in an alcohol and vinegar solution. (Notably, Adams has spoken more about going vegan for his health and the environment, rather than for animal welfare.)
At the same time, it’s difficult to find another politician who’s as willing to challenge America’s unsustainable meat habit that other politicians, including many of his fellow Democrats, help perpetuate.
As Brooklyn borough president, Adams advocated for Meatless Monday in 15 Brooklyn public schools (which was implemented), and worked with then-Mayor de Blasio to bring it to all 1,700 New York City public schools.
He also advocated for Meatless Monday at 11 public hospitals, a plant-based nutrition program at Bellevue Hospital (which was also implemented and is now expanding city-wide), and committed $1 million to urban agriculture. Now as mayor he’s phasing in “Vegan Fridays” for the city’s school lunch program.
Of course, Vegan Fridays was criticized, too. Some noted that meals weren’t totally vegan, or they weren’t sufficiently healthy. Implementing city-wide changes to how citizens eat can be just as tough as change at the individual level, but I hope more of us give it a try — even if we do it imperfectly.