Should Vegans Promote Reducetarianism?

Key points

  • Many vegans support reducetarianism (reduced meat consumption) however, is it consistent with veganism?
  • A reducetarian approach would be unacceptable in the human and companion animal contexts so supporting it in the farm animal context is speciesist
  • Supporters suggest reducetarianism is a ‘pragmatic’ approach for vegan advocates though there is no credible evidence to support this claim
  • It seems more likely that reducetarianism encourages people to only make small changes and in good conscience go no further
  • By legitimising continued animal exploitation reducetarianism further entrenches the current paradigm of commodifying animals and treating them as property
  • Animal exploitation will continue unless vegans unite to promote justice for all sentient beings: this begins, not ends, with veganism.

‘Reducetarianism’ is a movement that promotes the reduction of meat consumption to decrease our impact on the environment, improve our health and reduce the suffering of farm animals. Many vegans support this concept. However, is promoting reducetarianism consistent with veganism?

Reducetarianism

The concept of reducetarianism is controversial, especially amongst vegans. The President of the Reducetarian Foundation is not vegan and the Foundation does not promote veganism or animal rights. However, many high profile vegans such as Victoria Moran (author of Main Street Vegan), Melanie Joy (President of Beyond Carnism) and Matthew Glover (co-founder of Veganuary), support reducetarianism. Many organisations generally thought to promote veganism also support the concept. These supporters view reducetarianism as a ‘pragmatic’ strategy to engage more people, especially those who will not ‘go vegan overnight’ or respond to ‘all or nothing’ approaches.

However vegans are divided about reducetarianism as an advocacy strategy. Some view it as a transition phase to veganism. Others, especially abolitionist vegans who believe veganism is a moral baseline, see it as promoting the continued exploitation of animals. At face value both viewpoints appear compelling. However, given that veganism is an ethical position which rejects all animal use, is promoting reducetarianism consistent with veganism?

Would a reducetarian approach be acceptable in other contexts?

If an ‘all or nothing approach’ is acceptable for issues such as rape, paedophilia, racism, sexism and murder, why is it not a universally acceptable approach for vegans when promoting animal rights? We would never support a reducetarian approach in the context of human rights. For example, we would never ask people not to engage in racist behaviour before 6pm because ‘people won’t stop being racist overnight’. We would never ask people to stop racism towards Africans but not to Arabs as an ‘all or nothing’ approach won’t work. Similarly, we would never ask abusers of companion animals to reduce their abuse by one day a week and then celebrate their contribution to reducing the suffering of dogs and cats. No one outraged by the killing of dogs at the Yulin dog-meat festival in China demanded the reduction rather than the end of these killings.

If reducetarianism is unacceptable in these contexts, isn’t supporting it in the farm animal context speciesist* ? Isn’t speciesism a root cause of animal exploitation and something vegans reject?

(*Speciesism is a bias in favour of the interests of one species against those of other species.)

Is this a ‘pragmatic’ approach for vegan advocates to follow?

One reason vegans might consider promoting reducetarianism would be if it would lead to an end to animal exploitation faster than if all vegans promoted veganism. Firstly, there is no credible evidence to support this hypothesis. Secondly, it seems illogical to expect that promoting reduced but nonetheless continued animal exploitation will lead to an end to animal exploitation. It seems more likely that encouraging those who may have been convinced by the arguments for veganism to go no further than reducing their meat consumption will rather increase the time it takes to end animal exploitation. Even the Reducetarian Foundation does not aim to end animal exploitation.

Alternatively, vegans might support reducetarianism if it were to lead to a larger overall reduction in animal suffering by engaging more people than would the promotion of veganism. Again, there is no credible evidence to support this. Even if this were the case, can a possible larger reduction in overall suffering be an acceptable trade-off for further entrenching the current paradigm of animals as property and making it even harder to achieve justice for nonhumans? Such a trade-off would be unacceptable in the human context so shouldn’t it be unacceptable in the animal context?

Is there any evidence that promoting reducetarianism will lead to veganism?

A 2014 study by the Humane Research Council (HRC) of current and former vegetarians and vegans is often cited as evidence that reducetarianism is an effective vegan advocacy strategy. Over 11,000 respondents were surveyed to assess the factors associated with long-term adoption of vegetarianism and veganism. The study found over five times the number of former vegetarians/vegans than current ones suggesting low retention rates. The authors concluded we should be advocating reducetarianism rather than promoting veganism.

However, as Casey Taft discusses in a Vegan Publishers blog post the study lacks scientific rigour and its results must be viewed with caution. Amongst the many methodological issues, the study defined veganism as a diet rather than an ethical position and grouped vegans and vegetarians together. These issues significantly affect the accuracy of the results. If veganism was correctly defined and vegetarians and vegans were analysed separately, it is likely that vegans would have very high rates of retention compared to vegetarians. Casey Taft states the authors’ conclusions contradict the data which indicate we should be promoting veganism not reducetarianism.

In a post on ‘Pseudoscience in the Animal Rights Movement’ Casey Taft discusses another study conducted by Humane League Labs in 2015, which concluded we should be promoting reducetarianism not veganism. Again Casey Taft highlights the study’s theoretical and methodological problems and his concern that, as with the HRC and other studies ‘the data were misinterpreted in a manner consistent with the worldview of this group’ to support a reducetarian approach to advocacy rather than a vegan message.

Aside from these non peer-reviewed studies, supporters of reducetarianism often refer to sociological studies on behaviour change showing the effectiveness of the ‘foot in the door’ persuasion technique: ask for something small and when you get a yes ask for something bigger. However, such a technique does not seem relevant to vegan advocacy. While veganism may seem like any other kind of behaviour change requiring persuasion and self-discipline, at its core it is an ethical position. Becoming and staying vegan is usually preceded by an internal shift in awareness, consciousness, perception and attitude towards nonhumans, humans and the planet. The behaviour change that vegan advocates seek to inspire in others is the external manifestation of an internal ‘waking up’. Is a ‘foot in the door’ technique an appropriate tool to bring about this internal shift?

It is hard to see how reducetarianism will bring about such an internal shift on a grand scale when it seems its popularity is due precisely to the fact that people don’t have to make significant changes or leave their comfort zones. Reducetarianism does not inspire or require people to ‘wake up’ or open their hearts and minds to the injustices against nonhumans in which they are complicit. It seems more likely that reducetarianism encourages people to make small changes and in good conscience go no further as their choice to continue participating in animal exploitation is validated.

Can reducetarianism bring about the paradigm shift we need to end injustice for animals?

In order to end all animal exploitation we need to shift the paradigm from treating animals as property to treating them as persons. Reducetarianism does nothing to challenge the property status of animals and by focusing on reducing meat consumption it promotes confusion by drawing an arbitrary distinction between meat and dairy.

By promoting the idea that veganism is hard and suitable only for ‘purists’ or ‘fundamentalists’ reducetarianism seems counterproductive as a vegan advocacy strategy and is unlikely to bring about the paradigm shift needed to end animal exploitation. In reality, veganism is as hard or easy as you believe it to be. Many ethical vegans profess veganism to be a joy and are relieved to finally be living in line with their values of justice and compassion, values most of us hold. The oft repeated regret of most vegans is that they did not become vegan sooner.

Supporters of reducetarianism often say the ‘all or nothing’ approach of vegan advocacy is condescending and elitist. However, isn’t the idea that people do not have the capacity to understand the moral arguments and make the connections that vegans did prior to going vegan condescending and elitist? Could it be that just as reducetarianism allows non vegans to stay within their comfort zones, advocating for reducetarianism allows vegans to stay within theirs? Such a position is not seen as ‘extreme’, ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘judgemental’ and allows some respite from the hard discussions, defensive responses and ridicule that often come with vegan advocacy.
 
Whatever the reason, promoting and condoning reduced but nonetheless continued animal exploitation legitimises and further entrenches the current paradigm of commodifying and exploiting millions of sentient and vulnerable non-human animals every day. This exploitation will continue unless vegans come together to be a strong, clear, united and unwavering voice promoting justice for all sentient beings. This begins, not ends, with veganism.

~ By Laila Kassam for Veterinary Vegan Network.