Quantcast

Why People Become Vegans: The History, Sex and Science of a Meatless Existence

Food
Do vegans have more fun? gilaxia / Getty Images

By Joshua T. Beck

At the age of 14, a young Donald Watson watched as a terrified pig was slaughtered on his family farm. In the British boy's eyes, the screaming pig was being murdered. Watson stopped eating meat and eventually gave up dairy as well.

Later, as an adult in 1944, Watson realized that other people shared his interest in a plant-only diet. And thus veganism—a term he coined—was born.


Flash-forward to today, and Watson's legacy ripples through our culture. Even though only 3 percent of Americans actually identify as vegan, most people seem to have an unusually strong opinion about these fringe foodies—one way or the other.

As a behavioral scientist with a strong interest in consumer food movements, I thought November—World Vegan Month—would be a good time to explore why people become vegans, why they can inspire so much irritation and why many of us meat-eaters may soon join their ranks.

It's an Ideology, Not a Choice

Like other alternative food movements such as locavorism, veganism arises from a belief structure that guides daily eating decisions.

They aren't simply moral high-grounders. Vegans do believe it's moral to avoid animal products, but they also believe it's healthier and better for the environment.

Also, just like Donald Watson's story, veganism is rooted in early life experiences.

Psychologists recently discovered that having a larger variety of pets as a child increases tendencies to avoid eating meat as an adult. Growing up with different sorts of pets increases concern for how animals are treated more generally.

Thus, when a friend opts for Tofurky this holiday season, rather than one of the 45 million turkeys consumed for Thanksgiving, his decision isn't just a high-minded choice. It arises from beliefs that are deeply held and hard to change.

Veganism as a Symbolic Threat

That doesn't mean your faux-turkey loving friend won't seem annoying if you're a meat-eater.

The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain famously quipped that meat avoiders "are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit."

Why do some people find vegans so irritating? In fact, it might be more about "us" than them.

Most Americans think meat is an important part of a healthy diet. The government recommends eating 2-3 portions (5-6 ounces) per day of everything from bison to sea bass. As tribal humans, we naturally form biases against individuals who challenge our way of life, and because veganism runs counter to how we typically approach food, vegans feel threatening.

Humans respond to feelings of threat by derogating outgroups. Two out of 3 vegans experience discrimination daily, 1 in 4 report losing friends after "coming out" as vegan and 1 in 10 believe being vegan cost them a job.

Veganism can be hard on a person's sex life, too. Recent research finds that the more someone enjoys eating meat, the less likely they are to swipe right on a vegan. Also, women find men who are vegan less attractive than those who eat meat, as meat-eating seems masculine.

Crossing the Vegan Divide

It may be no surprise that being a vegan is tough, but meat-eaters and meat-abstainers probably have more in common than they might think.

Vegans are foremost focused on healthy eating. Six out of 10 Americans want their meals to be healthier, and research shows that plant-based diets are associated with reduced risk for heart disease, certain cancers and Type 2 diabetes.

It may not be surprising, then, that 1 in 10 Americans are pursuing a mostly veggie diet. That number is higher among younger generations, suggesting that the long-term trend might be moving away from meat consumption.

In addition, several factors will make meat more costly in the near future.

Meat production accounts for as much as 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and clear-cutting for pasture land destroys 6.7 million acres of tropical forest per year. While some debate exists on the actual figures, it is clear that meat emits more than plants, and population growth is increasing demand for quality protein.

Seizing the opportunity, scientists have innovated new forms of plant-based meats that have proven to be appealing even to meat-eaters. The distributor of Beyond Meat's plant-based patties says 86 percent of its customers are meat-eaters. It is rumored that this California-based vegan company will soon be publicly traded on Wall Street.

Even more astonishing, the science behind lab-grown, "cultured tissue" meat is improving. It used to cost more than $250,000 to produce a single lab-grown hamburger patty. Technological improvements by Dutch company Mosa Meat have reduced the cost to $10 per burger.

Watson's Legacy

Even during the holiday season, when meats like turkey and ham take center stage at family feasts, there's a growing push to promote meatless eating.

London, for example, will host its first-ever "zero waste" Christmas market this year featuring vegan food vendors. Donald Watson, who was born just four hours north of London, would be proud.

Watson, who died in 2006 at the ripe old age of 95, outlived most of his critics. This may give quiet resolve to vegans as they brave our meat-loving world.

Joshua T. Beck is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Oregon.

Disclosure statement: Joshua T. Beck does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

Pexels
  • Mice exposed to nicotine-containing e-cigarette vapor developed lung cancer within a year.
  • More research is needed to know what this means for people who vape.
  • Other research has shown that vaping can cause damage to lung tissue.

A new study found that long-term exposure to nicotine-containing e-cigarette vapor increases the risk of cancer in mice.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Demonstrators with The Animal Welfare Institute hold a rally to save the vaquita, the world's smallest and most endangered porpoise, outside the Mexican Embassy in DC on July 5, 2018. SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images

By John R. Platt

Six months: That's how much time Mexico now has to report on its progress to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) from extinction.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

It may seem innocuous to flush a Q-tip down the toilet, but those bits of plastic have been washing up on beaches and pose a threat to the birds, turtles and marine life that call those beaches home. The scourge of plastic "nurdles," as they are called, has pushed Scotland to implement a complete ban on the sale and manufacture of plastic-stemmed cotton swabs, as the BBC reported.

Read More Show Less
Air conditioners, like these in a residential and restaurant area of Singapore city, could put a massive strain on electricity grids during more intense heatwaves. Taro Hama @ e-kamakura / Moment / Getty Images

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the U.S. have added a new dimension to the growing hazard of extreme heat. As global average temperatures rise, so do the frequency, duration and intensity of heatwaves.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Actress Jane Fonda is arrested on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on Oct. 11. Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Oscar-award winning actress and long-time political activist Jane Fonda was arrested on the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Friday for peacefully protesting the U.S. government's inaction in combating the climate crisis, according to the AP.

Read More Show Less
sam thomas / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Caroline Hickman

I'm up late at night worrying that my baby brothers may die from global warming and other threats to humanity – please can you put my mind at rest? – Sophie, aged 17, East Sussex, UK

Read More Show Less
Sheriff officials work the scene at Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park in Calimesa on Oct. 13. Jennifer Cappuccio Maher / MediaNews Group / Inland Valley Daily Bulletin / Getty Images

Three people have died in incidents related to two major wildfires in Southern California, The Los Angeles Times Reported Sunday.

Read More Show Less