Robbins also refutes the claim that our Neolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors ate lots of meat. "Most anthropologists say it would be more accurate to call them gatherer-hunters," he says. "With the exception of Nordic cultures, the diet of our ancestors was for the most part gathered." And Robbins isn’t worried at all about losing our Midwestern grain belts. "If we stopped producing animal feed, it would free up land for generating alternative energy, like solar and wind power," he says.
Given the international outbreak of serious meat diseases, meat’s known human health deficits and the newfound availability of organic and natural foods, why aren’t more environmentally aware people becoming vegetarians? The answer can perhaps be found in the political organization of the opposition to meat.
In Europe, the response to the emerging human health threats has been stark and immediate. Great Britain doubled the number of its vegetarians in the last year. Germany now has eight million vegetarians, up from five million last year. Italy added one million vegetarians in the past 12 months. PETA’s European offices, overwhelmed by public interest, have largely become vegan information centers. No similar pattern is visible in the U.S., where a direct threat to personal safety is not a motivating factor.
It’s unlikely that ethical concern for animal welfare is behind the anti-meat explosion in Europe. The same concerns about human health threats could probably motivate a huge upswing in America’s vegetarian population, but because the visible effects are still largely confined overseas, it would take a vigorous, well-coordinated public education campaign to accomplish that goal. Unfortunately, the American vegetarian movement is divided into special-interest groups that rarely work together.
According to Jim Mason, co-author of Animal Factories, a ground-breaking book about the miserable conditions on factory farms, "The vegetarian movement takes a scattershot approach to the issues: every group has its own logo and pet slogan. There’s brand-name identification instead of a coalition that can make a broad-spectrum appeal."
Mason notes that some animal rights groups, like PETA and Farm Sanctuary, concentrate on turning their supporters into vegans, a harder step for many Americans raised on hamburgers, steak, Jello and ice cream. John Robbins says that there may be more to be gained by simply convincing Americans to slow down their meat consumption. "I don’t think we should have a purity patch for people to sign," he says. "If everyone ate 10 percent less meat, the reduction would be much more than if a handful of people became vegans. I shy away from telling people that they should be vegetarians, instead urging them to make informed choices. Divisive thinking is not how we build coalitions."
PETA maintains that it needs to be provocative to get attention in the media, but it’s an open question if all the publicity it does get serves the vegetarian cause. In 2000, the organization was forced to withdraw an ad showing then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (who had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer) wearing a milk moustache. The tagline was "Got Prostate Cancer?" PETA was trying to make a link between high-fat, meat-intensive diets and incidence of prostate cancer, but the more immediate response was outrage that the group was exploiting someone’s illness. Fears about mad cow and other meat diseases no doubt encourage many new vegetarians. "We should be able to utilize the reality of the food production system to educate people to wake up and smell the tofu," says Joseph Connelly, editor of the activist-oriented magazine Veg News. But will these fair-weather vegetarians be committed to the cause? "The ethical issues are a very hard sell," he adds. "We won’t convince people without a very slow evolution of the human heart. But my personal belief is that the only real reason to become a vegetarian is for ethical reasons. It’s a bittersweet, temporary victory for ethical vegans if we basically shock people into becomin
g vegetarians because they’re worried about cancer, heart disease or mad cow. Even if 50 percent of people stop eating beef in France, that doesn’t mean they won’t go right back to it when mad cow is eradicated."
Connelly’s attitude is common in an animal rights movement where ethical concerns dominate all other considerations. Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s head vegan campaigner, says the group sent out 100,000 vegetarian starter kits that stress veganism last year. He thinks ethical concerns can spark a mass movement. "The people who become vegetarians after reading reports of hoof-and-mouth disease animal pyres are making ethical decisions," he says. "Their senses are being assaulted. I think animal suffering is turning people vegetarian in droves, and a window is open to complete disdain for the way these so-called farmers treat their livestock."
Friedrich says the question for him and other animal rights activists is, "When we sit down to eat, do we support animal cruelty or don’t we? When we go vegan, we choose not to support animal abuse."
The corollary to all this is that people who are not ready to become vegans have no friendly haven. Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, points out that most of the 80 percent of Americans who self-identify as environmentalists are not vegetarians. Environmentalists have not found an ally in the animal rights movement—despite their agreement on many issues—because they deplore what they characterize as an emotional approach to scientific issues. But environmentalists can certainly see the important land-resource issues arising from meat production. At least in private, environmentalists frequently disparage ethical concerns. And some environmentalists believe that organic, free-range animal husbandry can be ethically justified.
Stahler sees progress in the growing corporatization of the natural foods business, which tends to put it on a more level playing field with big players like McDonald’s and Burger King. "Those fast food companies constantly advertise and get their messages out to schools," he says. "But now, because Worthington and Garden Burger are owned by corporations too, we’re seeing more TV commercials for them and space devoted to their products in supermarkets."
That’s to be celebrated, but wouldn’t that availability be more fully realized in conjunction with a broad coalition promoting the same message? Stahler compares the animal rights/environment axis to the civil rights movement, which had every tendency from nonviolence to the Black Panthers. "We need every piece of it to be successful," he says.
Just as many civil rights leaders point to the desegregation of the South as a goal in itself, Stahler is pleased with the vegetarian movement’s progress. "Frankly, I never thought we would see as many vegetarians as we have now. In 1975, when I became a vegetarian, animal rights barely existed, and nobody knew the word "vegan.""
Since then, animal rights has become a significant force. But Gene Bauston, co-director of Farm Sanctuary, which promotes efforts to ease livestock suffering, points out that the vegetarian and vegan banners cannot always be waved with impunity. "Some animal groups have been a little slow to publicly embrace vegetarianism because it can be challenging politically," he says. "If some of the legislators we work with on farm issues learn we promote vegetarianism and veganism, it tends to discredit us in their eyes."
But Bauston still wants to convert as many meat eaters to vegetarianism as possible, even if health is their primary motivation, because "once they’ve switched their diets, they become much more receptive to the ethical message. When they hear about animal cruelty, they’re no longer supporting it, so they lose their defensiveness."
Wayne Pacelle, a vice president at the Humane Society of the U.S., is wary that the movement not be seen as taking advantage of the current fears about meat. "It might seem like we were piggy-backing on the news coverage," says Pacelle. "But changing one’s dietary habits is a process, not an event. We may want people to change overnight, but it’s probably harder to change your diet than it is to change your religion."
Forward in All Directions
Both the environmental and animal rights communities make convincing arguments about the best way to proceed toward a bright future, but they have vastly different ways of looking at the world. And rather than a unifying force, vegetarianism has become something of a litmus test that some animal activists use to exclude would-be allies. On the environmental side, there seems to be a great deal of denial about the impact of animal agriculture and a reluctance to examine personal habits in light of that.
But if the disparate movements galvanized around a single, easy-to-understand message of vegetarianism for health and concern for the planet, it could leverage an unprecedented historical opportunity and double or triple the ranks of American vegetarians. Instead of playing "gotcha" with whale lovers, PETA and other groups could form far-reaching coalitions that would advance healthier diets for the Earth’s sake. These diets wouldn’t necessarily be vegan, or even wholly vegetarian, but if the coalition were mainstream enough, it could single-handedly slash meat consumption.
Davy Davidson, the San Francisco-based owner of Vegtime, an organic and vegan food company, is certainly "walking the walk" for animal rights. She even serves as a board member for Animals Agenda, the movement journal. But Davidson is also an environmentalist, and she’d like to see more collaboration between the two communities. "Working together is the goal, not shaking the shameful finger," she says.
Of course, Davidson would be happy if every environmentalist became a vegan, but she realizes that isn’t likely to happen soon. "Environmental people will go to such lengths to try and prove, for example, that beef can be raised in a sustainable way. I think, unfortunately, that they’re as loathe to give up their meat-eating habits as the average American."