Rethinking the accessibility of veganism

I encountered quite a few road bumps when I decided to go vegan last April. Aside from a 10-day attempt to go vegetarian after watching Cowspiracy at the Bright Lights theater a few weeks earlier and giving up ice cream once for Lent, I had never made such a drastic change to my diet.

But after learning that the animal agricultural industry accounts for 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, I felt determined to make the switch to more sustainable foods. According to Global Citizen, studies show that adopting a vegan diet is one of the best ways to combat climate change. If the entire world stopped consuming meat and animal products, we could reduce carbon emissions by 70.3% by 2050. In recent years, many people, especially college students like those at Emerson, have adopted plant-based diets to eat more environmentally-friendly.

Yet while switching to an animal-free diet may be the most effective, it’s not feasible for everyone. I don’t want to downplay veganism and its benefits to the environment, but it’s important to understand there is privilege in the ability to switch up your diet, without thinking of the potential financial or health consequences. No one should feel ashamed or pressured to commit to something beyond their economic or physical means.

Although the growing number of plant-based food alternatives and other resources have made the switch to veganism a lot less difficult, there are obstacles in the way of some people who want to commit to an animal-free diet. Sure, anyone can stop eating meat and fish—there are plenty of vegetarians around the world who have been eating that way for centuries, and scientific research shows vegetarianism significantly reduces your carbon footprint.

However, not everyone can choose to stop consuming dairy and eggs, foods that many people need to survive; for them, not eating animal products isn’t a choice, but rather a direct result of circumstance and food insecurity. In the United States, 41.2 million people live in households without sufficient access to affordable, nutritious foods. In these cases, living off of beans and lentils because they can’t afford to buy milk and eggs is not an environmentally-conscious dietary change.

And only eating plant-based meals can be time-consuming. When I switched to a vegan diet, I needed to plan a lot of my meals to make sure I was still getting all of the nutrients otherwise provided through animal products. So for a parent working twelve-hour shifts on minimum wage or a student working late hours to pay off college loans, going vegan is not always the first priority.

That being said, given Emerson’s lack of financial diversity, most of its students are capable of switching to an animal-free diet. According to a study published in The New York Times, 64 percent of the college’s student body come from families that make at least $110,000 annually—the highest family income quintile. However, regardless of socio-economic background, many people face potential health challenges that come from such a drastic change in eating habits.

For those with severe allergies, adopting a plant-based diet limits food options. And while eating vegan provides many health benefits, dietary changes affect every individual’s body differently and could pose possible health issues. As someone who is already underweight, I struggle with maintaining a healthy weight after cutting out eating meat and dairy.

We need to prioritize making environmentally-friendly eating feasible for everyone. We could promote the adoption of vegetarian or Mediterranean diets. Eliminating food waste or cutting back on foods with large carbon footprints, like red meat, also has a huge positive impact on the environment.

Let’s dismantle obstacles that prevent people from prioritizing eco-friendly eating habits, like income inequality. For example, Emerson’s tuition raises places more stress on students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. And how can we make veganism more inclusive of nut-free, gluten-free, and soy-free diets?

One of the most powerful ways to combat climate change begins with what’s on our plates. Climate change is far too dire an issue for anyone to feel like they can’t make a significant impact because they can’t commit to a certain diet. We need to look at solutions that are within everyone’s means because no matter what change we each make, every effort makes a difference.

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