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Like many people, I’ve been wanting, and struggling, to change my eating habits for years. In 2016, I decided to decrease my meat intake after watching “Before the Flood”, a documentary in which actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio meets with scientists around the world to discuss the disastrous consequences of climate change. Within a few months, I’d stopped eating red meat.
Since then, I’ve been wanting to do more, to eliminate all meat or even all animal products out of my diet entirely, yet have struggled against some of the obstacles to healthy vegan and vegetarian eating, including accessibility barriers and a history of eating disorders. I know that environmental destruction, environmental racism, and animal abuse must take place in order to put most animal products on grocery store shelves, and I want my actions to reflect my values. Still, it can feel very overwhelming to make such a big lifestyle transition.
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Instead of simply giving up, however, I’ve decided to find a middle ground: flexitarian.
Flexitarianism entails a diet that is somewhere in-between the typical American diet, one that includes dairy and meat products, and vegetarianism or veganism. Instead of pressuring myself to go all or nothing, I do what I can on a daily basis to limit my intake of animal products while still consuming some dairy and meat.
While it is undoubtedly better for all affected parties — farm animals, factory workers, and mother Earth herself — to devote yourself to a fully vegan or vegetarian diet, flexitarianism is a practical way to take some action for those who cannot commit to eliminating all meat or animal products from their diet.
“Going vegan” means to follow a vegan diet that is characterized by consuming only plant-based foods and products such as vegetables, grains, nuts, and fruits. In contrast, a vegetarian diet is characterized by abstaining from meat, yet still consuming all other animal products such as eggs, milk, and cheese. There are different types of vegetarian diets as well, including lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, and pescatarian.
There are many reasons why an individual would choose a vegan or vegetarian diet. One of the primary motives is in protest of factory farming, an industry in which millions of animals are systematically birthed, managed, and then killed for profit. Nearly all of our animal products originate within this industry, including eggs, cheese, and — of course — meat.
There are many problematic elements of factory farming that call for an immediate and swift end to the industrial practice: negative environmental impacts, animal abuse, environmental racism, human abuse, and human health issues. By abstaining from animal products and transitioning towards plant-based foods, we as consumers have the power to shift production, as decreases in consumer demand means decreases in meat production.
Climate change has been transforming our planet for decades. Human activities that release tremendous amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, such as the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and deforestation for livestock management, give rise to global shifts in temperature and weather patterns that kill our planet at a rapid pace. Given that one of the greatest contributing factors to climate change is factory farming — being responsible for roughly 15.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — it is sensible that many are taking some action to lessen the impacts of factory farming.
Factory farming is further problematic for its treatment of animals. Concentrated animal feeding operations — or CAFOS — are designed to maximize profits while minimizing resource use. In doing so, CAFOs necessitate the confinement, torture, and murder of millions of animals each year. This abuse, coupled with detrimental environmental impacts, has encouraged many to transition away from meat and, instead, towards plant-based food options.
The factory farming industry is reliant, as well, on racist practices that target marginalized communities. In “The Industrialization of Agriculture and Environmental Racism,” author and environmentalist David H. Harris, Jr. describes how environmental racism takes place in three central ways: “the construction and operation of intensive livestock operations in or near people of color communities; labor practices dangerous to workers (including factory workers and farmworkers); and the placement of landfills, incinerators, and other noxious production and waste facilities in or near people of color communities and low-income communities.”
CAFOs are placed in rural areas in order to mitigate the toxic impacts of their waste treatment methods. Waste, in the form of animal manure, is often treated and contained in waste lagoons that allow poisonous chemicals to seep through the soil and into the regions’ groundwater, as is illustrated in many North Carolina communities. Because of these dangerous and abusive environmental impacts, large-scale hog and poultry farmers purposefully place these CAFOs nearby marginalized and low-income communities.
In his article “Racism is Killing the Planet: The ideology of white supremacy leads the way toward disposable people and a disposable natural world,” Hop Hopkins — Director of Organizational Transformation for the Sierra Club — describes communities impacted by CAFOs as “sacrifice zones,” implying the idea of sacrificing people for the sake of profit. He writes that “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can't have disposable people without racism.” In order for factory farms to function in the economical, systematic manner that they do today, meat corporations must choose disadvantaged, rural communities to take the punch for their profit.
CAFOs also take advantage of vulnerable workers, especially those from low-income and immigrant families.Those working in factory farms are subject to harmful working conditions — from rushed assembly line machinery that occasionally crush fingers and limbs to repetitive motions at high speed, without pause, that create lifelong injuries and pain for countless workers. Without having the resources or power to fight for ethical treatment, large corporations continue to target and hire disadvantaged workers in need of an income.
The hazardous conditions inside factory farms also have the potential to create deadly viruses that have the power to create another pandemic. With millions of factory farm animals being kept in closed warehouses, squeezed together without space to turn around, the likelihood that a strong pathogen will jump from animals to people is increasing every year. The industrial scale of today’s animal agriculture is breeding the next pandemic.
There are many benefits to choosing to pursue a flexitarian diet rather than no changes to consumption at all. For one, it is inarguably better to do something rather than nothing in supporting a cause you care about. If you want to start eating a vegan or vegetarian diet but are unable or intimidated, it is still better to decrease your intake in some capacity rather than none at all. Some action — such as substituting a veggie burger for a beef patty whenever you go out to eat or purchasing plant-based milk in place of cow’s milk — makes a bigger difference than choosing to do nothing.
For those who would like to pursue a vegan or vegetarian diet in the future but do not have the resources to commit to this lifestyle now, flexitarianism can get you on the path towards a fully plant-based diet. Simply trying out plant-based options when it's convenient allows consumers to see how they could practically transition all of their consumption habits in the future while simultaneously taking the pressure off of committing to clear-cut dietary restrictions.
In addition, allies are important in any movement. Adopting a flexitarian approach to food consumption gives individuals the chance to be a supporter — rather than a bystander — in dismantling the factory farming industry. Not having the resources or ability to be a full-fledged advocate for environmental justice and animal rights doesn’t mean you should not or cannot create an impact at all. Allies coming from a place of privilege have the ability to influence the attitudes of those external or indifferent to the movement in ways that can encourage more involvement or social change from others.
There are many similar benefits, as well, to going flexitarian as there are to going vegan or vegetarian. For one, you are able to act in protest of factory farming, standing up for environmental justice and animal rights through your dietary choices. You also receive the health benefits from choosing plant-based over animal products. Scientific research through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has proved that appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets “are healthful, nutritionally adequate, an may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases,” including ischemic heart disease, type two diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity.
After learning the impacts of consuming animal products and the benefits of a flexitarian — or vegan and vegetarian — diet, you may be wondering how you can start your transition away from animal products. First, educate yourself on how to eat plant-based foods in place of meat and dairy in a way that is healthy and sustainable. There are many resources linked throughout this article that offer helpful resources and information to start you on this path, including those referenced in this paragraph.
Next, you’ll find it very helpful to find a support system of like-minded individuals who share your goals and who have gone through the same transition you are attempting now. Different organizations such as the Plant Based Nutrition Support Group, the Humane League, and the ASPCA offer plentiful resources to not only learn how to eat plant-based, but to find others to support you through this journey. Many organizations — including FFAC — make this possible by providing easy sign up opportunities for newsletters or to attend community events.
It is further important to recognize that pursuing a plant-based diet doesn’t mean eliminating foods from your diet — rather, it entails substituting these foods for sustainable alternatives. You can change what you purchase from grocery stores or order from restaurants by examining the products you typically eat and considering how they could be replaced with plant-based alternatives. The transition starts with small replacements, such as choosing almond or oat milk over dairy, and learning how you can best enjoy the meals you love with healthier, ethical options.
After learning of the atrocities behind animal agriculture and how you can alleviate the harmful impacts of factory farming, it is time to deliberate on your values and decide your next steps. Do you want to take action or be a bystander? Do you want to self-actualize your values or admit defeat? Do you want to learn more or maintain the mindset that “ignorance is bliss?”
If you have the resources to adopt a flexitarian diet, I suggest you do it. Changing your consumption habits can yield a great impact on your life, the lives of friends and family, and on the factory farming industry as a whole. There is no need to put a label on yourself or on your advocacy as long as you make a conscious effort to take some action, however small. While adopting a fully vegan lifestyle is the most impactful path towards advocacy, simply being “as vegan as possible” offers invaluable support.
SJ Liez is a college advocate with FFAC studying environmental science and public & professional writing at the University of Pittsburgh.