I’m Thankful For… Access to Plant-based Foods
A Thanksgiving series from the Center for Biological Diversity (Part 2 of 3)
For many, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect and give thanks, and this series highlights a few of the things that make the Center’s Population and Sustainability team thankful. However, while we are giving thanks, we should not forget that this holiday is rooted in colonialism and oppression which is still being fought today. We stand with indigenous people in their fight.
One of my favorite holiday traditions has always been the opportunity to reflect on gratitude at Thanksgiving. As a kid, I would’ve said that I was thankful for my family, friends, animals and the delicious vegetarian food I was about to eat — especially the pumpkin pie. Not much has changed on that front, but I appreciate more and more each year the privilege that goes along with being able to skip the turkey while still feeling satisfied at Thanksgiving, and every meal for that matter.
We all know diet is a very personal issue. In my experience, when I say I don’t eat meat, sometimes people get defensive. And believe it or not, I think I understand. Being a vegetarian has always felt foundational to my belief system. If I ever felt criticized or if I felt my option to eat a vegetarian diet was threatened, I’d get defensive as well.
Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with too much of that. Although certain figures in my life (for example my Midwestern-raised grandmother) might have been convinced that chicken and fish counted as “vegetarian,” in general my family has always supported my decision to not eat animals. I was lucky to never face any real hardship as a vegetarian and always had access to easy alternatives such as peanut butter sandwiches if it came down to it.
As an adult who has lived almost exclusively in progressive and well-off communities, I’ve been able to take my decision even further and eat a primarily vegan diet — something that I realize doesn’t feel like an option to many people, particularly around the holidays.
Concerns about being able to pass up the turkey or gravy at the expense of offending family, not knowing what a viable plant-based alternative might be, or simply not having the resources to serve both traditional and plant-based dishes are all real barriers to eating sustainably. And in some places it’s a challenge to find fresh and nutritious plant-based foods that aren’t significantly more expensive, despite the fact that they use fewer resources and are better for the our health and the planet.
The more I learn about the environmental impacts of meat and dairy, and the more concerned I become about climate change, the more acute my gratitude becomes for my access to plant-based foods.
Consumption of animal products alone accounts for approximately a quarter of our global water footprint. And according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 14.5 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed directly to animal agriculture. At this point, climate and environmental experts worldwide agree on the need for a more plant-based global food system.
But, as with any sustainability issue, the impetus can’t be entirely on individuals to make change. It’s not enough for individuals to care about animal welfare, want to fight climate change or have concern for their personal health — they have to have access, knowledge and support. Cultural, societal and physical barriers to cutting meat in one’s diet are real. This is where systems and institutions come in: Low-cost, convenient and healthy plant-based food options should be available for everyone.
So while many of us can be thankful for our vegan stuffing this year, I’m also going to express thanks to the people working to ensure everyone makes a living wage so that they can afford healthy plant-based foods, fighting disproportionate subsidies for animal agriculture, and making diverse and affordable plant-based proteins available in local stores and school lunch programs. These changes are helping to lay the foundation for a much larger shift to a more sustainable, plant-based food system.
For more information on what the Center for Biological Diversity is doing to promote wildlife-friendly diets and for some helpful plant-based holiday recipes, check out our Take Extinction off Your Plate campaign.
Greer Ryan is the Sustainability Research Associate for the Center for Biological Diversity.