Is eating vegan a privilege?

Before we even begin, full disclosure – I’m a meat eater. I have started reducing my weekly meat intake though. Growing up in a Ghanian household, the idea of a meal without some sort of meat or fish on the plate seemed ridiculous. However, I’ve since learned the delights of widening your palette – who knew there was more to life than rice, stew and chicken? 

Vegan food can be great, tasty, and now, pretty affordable too. I’ve got a lot of respect for people who, oftentimes, choose their values over convenience. Although it’s becoming ever more available, consistently eating vegan can be a challenge. And while I applaud those who take a stand against the harmful impact of the meat industry on the climate, I also wonder whether it’s a western privilege to even do so?

Food for thought

Earlier this year I remember seeing a video doing the rounds online of a British tourist trying to free caged chickens in a Moroccan market. She was insulting and violent to the point of even biting the market trader’s hands. Pretty extreme, right? Thankfully the vegans I know are nowhere near as intense. But that video, as much of an abnormality as it is, did make me think about the wider context of our meat problem.

When we make lifestyle choices with a hope of building a more just world, it can be easy to fall into the trap of seeing those who don’t as lazy, ignorant or even villainous. But not only does that make us proud and judgmental, it also lacks critical thought. Outside of the health and moral questions of eating animals themselves (which are valid questions), eating meat is not inherently the problem. It is the high demand of meat, which leads to the over-farming of animals (often in terrible conditions) that is the problem. This over farming leads to the emission of more greenhouse gasses like methane, contributing to climate change, which in turn affects people living in poverty the most. We have a systematic problem.

Looking back to look forward

When you look back in history (and even today), indigenous communities around the world didn’t have a problem with eating too much meat. There’s much we can learn from these different communities in how they lived as part of a balanced ecosystem. Many of them foraged what they could and hunted only what was necessary in the most humane way possible. Our meat problem really begun at the boom of the meat industry. As the meat industry has grown it has corroded balanced ecosystems around the world, starting in the west and being forced elsewhere through colonialism. Instead of using what we need, our consumerism and greed has become unsustainable.

This is a far cry from the original design God intended for us. Throughout the Bible, we see how God calls us to live simply and according to our needs, not wants. In Exodus 16, through Moses, God commands the Israelites not to store any extra manna. Instead, they are to eat what they need and wait for more manna to follow the next day. But because of their greed they went against God’s word, resulting in rotting food full of maggots. And we are seeing the same thing today. Food itself isn’t the issue, but our greed is poisoning our world.

Correcting course

So when considering a vegan diet, we must remember what that choice is. Veganism should be a statement against the narrative of greed the meat industry has reinforced. And in making that statement, we must remember that greed is inherently an issue of a consumerist culture predominantly perpetuated by the west. Ironically, it’s only because western markets can now profit from veganism, that it’s an option available to us. So for that tourist to take a moral high ground on an entire culture, that most likely has a better understanding of producing food ethically, it is truly infuriating. Perhaps with some humility she could have learnt something from them.

What can we learn from all this? Firstly, we must remember that our lifestyle changes aren’t about looking better than others. Looking down your nose at someone because they live differently reveals pride where there should be a yearning for justice. Secondly, our efforts to see a more just world must predominantly aim at the unjust systems in place, not people. Yes we can influence other people to join us, but our goal should be in dismantling the systems that normalise injustice. Remember, we ‘wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against a spiritual wickedness in high places’ (Ephesians 6:12).

The final takeaway

So please, by all means eat vegan. I’m aiming to continue decreasing my meat intake myself. But as I do, I’ll be reminding myself of the context that underpins that decision. When we say no to the meat industry, we are saying no to a culture of greed that is helping to destroy the planet, and as a result, push more people into poverty. The fact that we even have the choice to say no, is a privilege in itself. Those who don’t have that choice, whether because of finances, culture, availability or otherwise, shouldn’t be judged because of that. So let’s be accountable to the convictions God has given each of us, instead of imposing them on others in judgement and ignorance. Change is created when we live by those convictions and force the system to bend to them.

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