Veganism, Individual Responsibility, and Institutional Deception (Broc Miller)


Howard Lyman, a fourth-generation family farmer in Montana and activist for family farmers on Capitol Hill, provides no sympathy for the non-vegan environmentalist in the documentary Cowspiracy: “You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products, perod. Kid yourself if you want, if you want to feed your addiction, so be it, but don’t call yourself an environmentalist” (Anderson and Kuhn 1:16.12). Does the statement rely on idealism in a world dependent on animal-based products? If evidence exists for Lyman’s statement, then why does 75% of the United States self-identify as environmentalist (Anderson and Kuhn 1:24.24), when only a fraction of the percentage embraces a plant-based diet? Clearly, our values and our actions lack consistency in a world where climate change leaves many vulnerable groups without food security. As a non-vegan who self-identifies as an environmentalist, I plan to analyze why the majority of people in the United States, in addition to the world, have not quickly adopted a vegan lifestyles, when the claims in favor of veganism contain evidence backed by scientific research. Through analyzing (1) individual blame, (2) rhetoric, (3) nutritional science, (4) education (5) access and (6) perception of cost, I provide evidence to suggest that institutional power holds significant influence over the eating habits of the people, ultimately preventing the populace from embracing a vegan lifestyle.

(1) Individual Blame

First, one of the pitfalls of groups that advocate environmentalism through plant-based diets is that blame is often placed on the individual, when lack of veganism in society is largely the result of institutional intervention. Throughout my research, I will introduce a variety of institutions holding such responsibility. For instance, “Climate Ethics: Individual vs. Collective Responsibility and the Problem of Corruption” emphasizes the power of the individual: “Thus, an individual’s identity is a conglomeration of all the social interactions and relationships that individual holds. If an individual can be interpreted in this manner, then any or all unilateral actions made by an individual can influence others within a shared social contact” (Chi 65). Chi argues within a social contract, the actions of individuals hold significant influential power. While there is truth to this statement, discussing influence without mentioning institutional power and media presence is misleading.

To draw a parallel, in “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies”, Julie Guthman notes the responsibility of the “epidemic” of obesity should not be placed on obese individuals. Notions of simplifying “eating less” lead to the removal institutional responsibility: “I am sympathetic to a project that aims to understand how high calorie, nutritionally debilitated, and otherwise unhealthy food has been made too available, too cheap, and too profitable […] As explanations for “obesity”, however, they are highly problematic […] The argument still places responsibility on the individual, as evidenced in Nestle’s pervasive “eat less” message in Food Politics” (Guthman 189). In other words when the cause for obesity is reduced to overconsumption of food by individuals, the institutions responsible can continue to generate revenue without making significant changes to the corrupt business plan. This is directly relatable to veganism, because placing the blame on individuals for eating too much meat leaves particular institutions without blame.

For instance, the US Department of Agriculture compiled twenty-one recipes in a cookbook titled “Meeting Your MyPlate Goals on a Budget”, in an attempt to provide inexpensive and healthy recipes to its readers. Interestingly, while no descriptors were given to the vegan recipes (Lentil Stew or Lemon Spinach), descriptors were added to recipes containing meat products to elicit a sense-inducing response (Manly Meat Loaf and Mouth-Watering Oven Baked Fish) (US Dept. Agriculture 18-20, 23). The use of such descriptors for the meat containing recipes is not by accident, as the US Department of Agriculture is fiscally motivated. By presenting “healthy” and inexpensive recipes with some vegan options, the department is essentially “double-dipping”, since it can continue to please the meat industry by encouraging continued meat consumption by the populace, while still appearing inclusive and progressive by posing some alternatives. In addition, the alternatives presented are almost comical: “lemon spinach” is exactly that, cooked spinach flavored with lemon juice and some black pepper. Thus, how can the individual be held responsible for choosing not to be a vegan, when a supposed “unbiased” institution like the US Department of Agriculture juxtaposes “mouthwatering” fish and “manly” meatloaf with lemon spinach? Thus, embracing a plant-based diet is a shared responsibility between institutional power and the populace, and information provided by such institutional powers must be read with a critical lens.

(2) Masculine and Sensual Rhetoric

In addition, the use of rhetoric to convince the populace to eat more meat is often crafted in such a manner to elicit feelings of masculinity and sexuality. First, the portrayal of meatloaf as “manly” is consistent with Carol Adams description of meat as a symbol for masculinity in The Sexual Politics of Meat: “The sexism in meat eating recapitulates the class distinctions with an added twist: a mythology permeates all classes that meat is a masculine food and meat eating a male activity […] According to the mythology of patriarchal culture, meat promotes strength; the attributes of masculinity are achieved through eating these masculine foods” (Adams 48). In patriarchal culture, the discourse of masculinity develops through the consumption of meat. Further, neoliberal feminism may characterize the consumption of meat by women as empowering and defying the patriarchy, when in reality meat consumption, regardless of gender, continues to encourage environmental degradation while leading to a public health crisis in terms of both heart disease and cancer prevalence.

Second, the portrayal of fish as “mouthwatering” is pseudo-pornographic, relying on the sexual desires of the reader. In Food Media, Signe Rousseau characterizes how enjoyment of food often requires help of auditory and visual cues associated with feelings of indulgence: “Food literature ‘commanding’ readers to eat […] underline how unnatural “direct and actual enjoyment” has apparently become without the help of writing and images to temper the guilt increasingly associated with ‘indulgence’” (Rousseau 78). Rousseau notes preluding consumption with descriptors such as “mouth-watering” allows consumers to feel as if they are indulging. However, in the situation where the recipe is labeled as “healthy” by the US Department of Agriculture, consumers can indulge without having conflicting feelings of guilt. This characterization of meat can leave readers with the wrong impression, since consuming the “lentil stew” or “lemon-spinach”, a proxy for a vegan diet, must lack the sensuality, and therefore taste, associated with the animal-based recipe. Thus, strategic use of masculine and sensual rhetoric by institutional powers in descriptions of meat can deter the populace from veganism, further encouraging consumption of meat.

(3) Nutritionalism

Furthermore, although well-intended, nutritional science often gives people the wrong impression regarding vegan lifestyles. In many cases, such entities fail to properly define veganism. For instance, “A Scientific Review of the Reported Effects of Vegan Nutrition on the Occurrence and Prevalence of Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease” was an epidemiologic cohort study intended to provide evidence for the benefits of veganism on human health, but the much of the paper portrayed veganism as a diet of omission that leads to nutrient deficiencies: “Vegan diets, however, are not defined by what they incorporate, but rather what they omit. Whereby any diet can increase protective dietary components and limit detrimental ones, on a molecular level the difference between ‘limiting’ and ‘removing’ food groups is significant. Vegans omit meat, fish and dairy, lending conjecture toward protein, calcium and B12 deficiencies and variations in essential fatty acid levels” (O’Neil et al 198). The title of the article notes it is presenting the “reported” beneficial effects of vegan nutrition, immediately removing credibility before the reader has a chance to read the abstract. Defining a vegan diet as a diet of “omission” rather than “incorporation” implies the vegan diet is not complete. In reality, a plant-based diet, as displayed throughout O’Neil et. al, provides societal benefits with regards to both cardiovascular disease, and many cancers. While utilizing the phrase, “on a molecular level” implies the paper is taking a scientific approach to the issue, the phrase itself provides no additional meaning to this paper, and can skew the opinion of the reader. In addition, the quote implies “limiting” meat intake is a healthier option than “removing” meat from the diet, as “protective dietary components” found in meat cannot be replaced entirely by a plant-based diet. There is nothing inherently wrong with this claim, if the paper were to provide evidence that the plant-based diet fails to provide significant “protein, calcium, B12, and essential fatty acids”. While the study does show a significant proportion of vegan people questioned lack the nutrients in question, the study does not show that this is due to the plant-based characteristic of the diets of the people questioned. Alternatively, such nutrient deficiencies can be due to education or access, as will be discussed later in this paper.

Research institutions hold significant power of the opinions of the public, and thus research should be presented in a manner such that the public can interpret the data, without making false assumptions. Similarly, such institutions have the ability to manipulate the current discursive structure regarding food and nutrition. Sara Mills, in an attempt to summarize John Frow’s understanding of power in Discourse, noted, “Power is dispersed throughout social relations, that it produces possible forms of behaviour as well as restricting behaviour” (Mills 20). In other words, power, a characteristic of discourse, has the ability to both restrict and enable particular behaviors, which can be applied to vegan and non-vegan lifestyles. While the intent of O’Neil et. al was to provide evidence that the vegan diet decreases prevalence of heart disease and certain cancers, the ambiguous language present can inhibit the reader from reaching this conclusion. The paper characterizes veganism as a more of a trade-off than an inherent benefit: if you want to decrease your chances of disease, you are going to have to live with a nutrient deficiency.

In reality, plant-based diets, like meat-based diets, have the ability of obtaining all essential nutrients the body cannot produce on its own. For instance, “Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts” demonstrates that the plant-based component of vegan diets is not to blame for the nutrient deficiency present in many vegans: “Vegans may have a greater challenge in meeting the nutritional adequacy for vitamin B12, protein, and calcium compared to lacto-ovo-vegetarians and meat-eaters. Thus, the potential adverse effects of vegan diets deserve consideration […] Vegans had 30% higher fracture rates than meat-eaters. However, when adjusted for calcium intake, vegans no longer had higher fracture rate” (Le et. al 2141). To summarize, when vegans with an adequate calcium intake were compared to non-vegans, there was no significant difference in fracture rate. This is an important finding, because it shows veganism, if done correctly, provides no additional risks when comparing to non-veganism. More importantly, it shows diets containing animal products do not contain any particular nutrient that cannot be obtained through a vegan diet. As predicted by Michel Foucault in Discourse, “All of the knowledge we have is the result or the effect of power struggles” (Mills 21). In other words, knowledge originates from the holders of power, and the discourse that vegans are putting their bodies at risk for choosing not to consume animal products, is a product of power placed in the hands of those set to benefit from an economy dependent on meat products. Thus, the current discourse of nutritionalism, developed by institutional powers fiscally invested in meat consumption, portrays vegan diets as diets of “risk” rather than “precaution” and diets of “omission” rather than “incorporation”, which can lead the populace to consume more meat-based products than plant-based products.

(4) Food Education

Now that is has been established that the distinction of a diet as “vegan” does not inherently add risk, it is relevant to analyze why vegans often have nutrient deficiencies, through examination of both food education and food access. To begin, vegans are often put at a disadvantage with regard food education, because the choice to not consume animal products places vegans outside the normalizes discursive structure. To draw a parallel, in a discussion regarding the publication of academic journals, Mills notes that publication is dependent on consistency with the accepted discourse: “The article will only be published if it submits to the formal rules of the discourse governing the structures contained within academic papers (Mills 14). In other words, when only the accepted discourse if given a voice, all other parties are silenced, and what is presented as “truth” may be presented in such a manner to benefit the parties providing funding for the paper.

An example of a biased educational portrayal of veganism can be found in Michelle Obama’s MyPlate program. Although the intent was to help children and adults learn how to develop healthier lifestyles, the program is quick to isolate vegans: “Vitamin B12 is naturally found only in animal products. Vegetarians should choose fortified foods such as cereals or soy products, or take a vitamin B12 supplement if they do not consume any animal products” (US Dept. Agriculture 9). Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this statement, if it is indeed factual. However, as expressed in “Microbial Production of Vitamin B12: A Review and Future Perspectives”, “Vitamin B12 biosynthesis is confined to few bacteria […] and as such its production relies on microbial fermentation” (Fang et. al 1). In comparing the information presented by the US Department of Agriculture and the scientific literature, the evidence of inconsistency becomes obvious. How can vitamin B12 be naturally only found in animal products when it is only produced by a select few bacterial species? Clearly, the US Department of Agriculture utilizes its power to convince the populace avoiding meat products is impossible, when in reality, animal products are not required to obtain a healthy source of Vitamin B12. Rather than isolating vegans, the US Department of Agriculture could easily include recipes in its “Eating Healthy on a Budget Cookbook” utilizing fermentation to provide a plant and microbe-based source of Vitamin B12. Thus, a higher prevalence of nutritional deficiencies in vegans can partially be attributed to education, since institutionally-defined “knowledge” of nutrients can isolate vegans, preventing societal embrace of a plant-based diet.

(5) Food Access

In terms of access, vegans are also put at a disadvantage. Vegan food is often marketed as a  “substitutes” for food, rather than food. Notably, the notorious “tofurky”, or tofu made to taste like turkey, is easily found in supermarkets. “Veganism, Identity and the Quest for Authenticity”, describes some additional shortcomings of the vegan presence in grocery stores: ”Vegan food is not necessarily the healthier option. There are many vegan substitutes for meat, cheese and dairy and most of it is all processed. Therefore, a person who eats meat in moderation can still be healthy, while a vegan who eats a diet full of junk food can be unhealthy” (Greenebaum 136). The distinction of a diet as “vegan” or “non-vegan” cannot be the sole determinant as to whether the diet is “healthy” or “not healthy”. Thus, when food access is limited to “food substitutes”, vegans can suffer from nutrient deficiencies, because such products lack the nutrients found naturally in plant-based foods. As described in “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies”, Guthman identifies this as a purchasable solution: “Neoliberalism’s other fix is to create purchasable solutions to the problems that it generates” (Guthman 191). In relation to “food substitutes”, neoliberalism created a meat-dependent society. When the members of the populace want to become vegan in such a society, a smooth transition from meat-based to plant-based food requires the plant-based food to resemble meat, or other animal products like milk and cheese, further separating people from food. This can lead vegans relying on such substitutes to falsely believe they are living a healthy lifestyle and are exempt from the health issues found more commonly in meat eaters. Thus, a higher prevalence of nutritional deficiencies in vegans can to an extent be ascribed to access, since neoliberal institutions provide purchasable solutions in the form of “food substitutes” to meat eaters wanting to become vegan without giving up the need for meat-tasting food.

(6) Perception of Cost

Practically, one of the biggest barriers preventing society from adopting a vegan lifestyle is the cost, particularly in communities of low income. However, evidence suggest that the high “cost” keeping consumers away from veganism may be just a high “perceived cost”. As demonstrated in “Contribution of Food Prices and Diet Cost to Socioeconomic Disparities in Diet Quality and Health”, assumptions about food prices can describe how people eat in communities. Particularly, for areas of low socioeconomic status, there appears to be a widely-held misunderstanding regarding the prices of fruits and vegetables: “There is an implicit assumption that the higher cost of vegetables and fruit may be a potential barrier to the adoption of healthier diets” (Darmon et. al 656). Such assumptions can have significant societal costs, as communities lack the information to make informed purchases in grocery stores. For instance, price per kilocalorie often takes precedence over price per kilogram: “Potato chips, sweets, and biscuits (cookies) were more expensive in terms of euros per kilogram than were low-energy-density apples, tomatoes, and carrots but were cheaper in terms of euros per 100 kcal […] Given the economic importance of obtaining 2000 kcal per day at an affordable cost, the preferred method of comparing food prices has been per calorie, as opposed to per serving or per unit weight” (Darmon et. al 647). Foods high in nutrient content but low in energy density, like fruits and vegetables, are often consumed infrequently in areas of low income, due to the false assumption that calories must always takes precedence over nutrients content.

In general, the United States and other developed countries are unique in that the poorest people are more likely to be nutrient deficient, rather than calorie deficient. While it would be erroneous to generalize the entire population of the United States struggling with poverty, prevalence of obesity is higher in areas of low socioeconomic status than areas of high socioeconomic status: “Studies on the social gradient in obesity rates also concluded that “the association between poverty and obesity may be mediated, in part, by the low cost of energy-dense foods and may be reinforced by the high palatability of sugar and fat” (Darmon et. al 644). There is a direct correlation between obesity and poverty, and such a correlation can be attributed to a variety of causes. One of the greatest reasons for such a correlation is the immense targeting of low-income communities by fast food companies, that rarely advertise the few plant-based options found on the menu. In “The fast food chains, like the tobacco companies, are now aggressively targeting African Americans, Latinos, and the poor. America’s low-income communities now boast the highest proportion of fast food restaurants— as well as the highest obesity rates and the highest rates of diabetes” (Schlosser 272). Clearly, the targeted influence of institutional powers like fast food companies can alter the eating patterns of a significant proportion of a community.

Now that the influence held by fast food companies is understood, it is important to understand how this related to meat consumption. To begin with an extreme example, let’s start with Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Clean Eating Burger” with “unsweetened almond yoghurt” and topped with an “ice-cube relish”. This satirical commercial intended to mock vegan culture by juxtaposing a plant-based burger with their new “Dirty Louisiana Burger”, noting “Nothing satisfies like the Dirty Louisiana. It’s finger-licking good!” (KFC 1:52-57). The notion that “nothing” can satisfy hunger like meat can further isolate low income communities, convincing them that nutrients present in such plant-based foods is of no match to the high caloric density of the comparative animal-based burger. In addition, the deep masculine voice of the speaker alongside the sensual description of the burger, as discussed through analysis of Adams’s and Rousseau’s works, can further persuade consumers to purchase the meat product. Therefore, institutional powers can influence societal understanding and perception of food cost, leading to an increased consumption of meat through targeted advertisement campaigns.

Analysis of individual blame, masculine and sensual verbiage, nutritional science, food education, food access, and perception of cost demonstrates that institutional powers hold influence over the consumption of animal-based products, leading to the creation of a society dependent on meat. While individuals often carry the blame for choosing not to adopt a vegan lifestyle, the eating habits of communities are clearly defined by the discourse established by institutional powers, like the US Department of Justice, fast food companies, and nutritional science laboratories. When Howard Lyman makes the case that being an environmentalist implies a vegan lifestyle, he clearly is placing the responsibility to be vegan on the individual, leaving said institutions free from blame. Such statements isolate large sectors of the population, most often those of low socioeconomic status, and can thus be counterproductive to the goal of decreasing meat consumption. This argument is not intended to provide an excuse to non-vegans, like myself, because the responsibility to preserve the environment through making sustainable diet choices in one shared between institutions and the individuals present in the communities where such institutions hold their power. Therefore, rather than isolating individuals through the use of unproductive rhetoric, I recommend that people in positions of power like Lyman, and the institutions that support him, provide resources to individuals to allow for greater independence from animal-based food.

Works Cited

“10 Tips: Healthy Eating for Vegetarians.” United States Department of Agriculture, 8 Mar. 2017. Web.

Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc., 2016. Print.

Chi, Vesak. ” Climate Ethics: Individual vs. Collective Responsibility and the Problem of Corruption.” Stance 6 (2013): 63-69. Web.

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. Dir. Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. Prod. Kip

Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. Perf. Howard Lyman, Michael Pollan, Michael Klaper, Will Potter. Cowspiracy. Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, and Rainforest Action Network, 26 June 2014.

Darmon, Nicole, and Adam Drewnowski. “Contribution of Food Prices and Diet Cost to Socioeconomic Disparities in Diet Quality and Health: A Systematic Review and Analysis.” Nutrition Reviews 73.10 (2015): 643-60. Web.

Fang, Huan, Jie Kang, and Dawei Zhang. “Microbial Production of Vitamin B12: A Review and Future Perspectives.” Microbial Cell Factories 16.15 (2017): 1-14. Web.

Greenebaum, Jessica. “Veganism, Identity, and the Quest for Authenticity.” Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research 15.1 (2012): 129-144. Web.

Guthman, Julie. “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies.” The Fat Studies Reader (2009): 187-96. Web.

“Healthy Eating on a Budget: Cookbook.” United States Department of Agriculture, 9 Mar. 2017. Web.

Kentucky Fried Chicken. The KFC Clean Eating Burger, 28 Feb. 2017.

Le, Lap, and Joan Sabaté. “Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts.” Nutrients 6.6 (2014): 2131-147. Web.

Mills, Sara. Discourse. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.

O’neill, B. “A Scientific Review of the Reported Effects of Vegan Nutrition on the Occurrence and Prevalence of Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease.” Bioscience Horizons 3.2 (2010): 197-212. Web.

Rousseau, Signe. Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Barcelona: Debolsillo, 2007. Print.