Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Economics of Going Vegan: A Personal Look at Why It's Easier Said than Done



Disclaimer: Next to religion, politics, and sex it seems to me that the next touchiest subject is probably dietary concerns--what we eat and don't eat. What is contained in this essay are my own personal struggles and experiences with my own diet. The opinions here are my own. If you have any comments or questions feel free to leave them in the comment's section down below. Thank you.

I have been considering going vegan for a while now. 

I've given it a lot of thought, and I even went two months on a vegan diet. The problem is that in the area I live it's just not yet economical enough to sustain indefinitely.

A vegan I know online said I should have no problem doing it, as long as there is a supermarket within distance of my home. 

And there are three. But it's not the distance or even the availability of the produce that is the problem. It's the cost. A 2007 study by Adam Drewnowski found that buying healthy food costs 10 times more on average than your typical McDonald's hamburger

A head of lettuce, you ask? It's nearly three times the amount you would pay in your own local supermarket across the pond, or even your smaller ma' and pa' owned grocers, for that matter. I make a meager living as a teacher and work two jobs just to support my family, so we're strapped as it is. Budget always comes to the forefront of any big decisions.

My vegan friend then said that wasn't a valid excuse. If it comes down to murdering someone (his words, not mine) or paying a little extra for a salad, well, the choice should be obvious, right?

Not so fast.

Apart from the fact that I don't like equating animals to people, since we're more than a little different, if I was single and living alone then, yes, I think I would be willing to pay a little extra  for a vegan meal instead of implicitly killing animals for my food consumption. But the fact of the matter is that it's not just me I have to feed. It's a family of seven, soon to be eight, plus two dogs, and soon to be cat.

That's a lot of mouths to feed. It's a ton of lettuce. And it takes lettuce to by lettuce, if you know what I mean? Let's not forget that a head of lettuce is practically three times more expensive where I live. Same with tomatoes. Soy beans. Broccoli. Spinach. Watermelons. Kiwis. Bananas. Etc. See my problem?

My vegan friend said I should grow my own garden. And on what limited land we have we certainly do. 

My wife's garden is small but quite generous. We have home grown organic tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli. We do strawberries in the off-season. We tried for some corn this year too, but our little patch of land is too narrow and dim. It's only as wide as your average sidewalk and only about three meters long at that. And, well, that's the entirety of our whole yard (one of the problems of living in the middle of a Japanese city--the lack of land). 

The good news is that there are community gardens where you can rent out a plot of land and grow whatever you'd like. But then there are land rental fees, maintenance fees, and you have to transport your own produce from some far off garden area to your home. The cost skyrockets fast. I calculated the cost of renting one for a couple of years and found that it would probably be cheaper to simply buy the land, considering I could afford to do so, which I currently cannot (currently, as of 2014 in Japan, in the Tokyo area it cost over $4,000 USD per squared meter. Not acre ... per meter! for land. I don't live in Tokyo, but I do happen to live in a metropolitan city, so you can grasp my situation).

My vegan friend said that I should move to a more affordable area. 

Since when has moving ever been affordable?

The last move I did cost me $2K--and we had to move in with my wife's family, because, well, Japan ain't cheap... especially for a lowly paid teacher.

Moving would be ideal, but I don't think he was getting the picture. It's not a realistic consideration.

I live in a metropolitan city of over a million people, and a super high population density (Japanese cities are super dense population wise). If I could live out of town a ways and be wealthy enough to have a small plot of land, then yeah, I could see veganism as sustainable for a family of seven, soon to be eight, plus two dogs, and soon to be cat. But as it is, it simply isn't economically viable. 

But don't mistake me, I'm not writing off the possibility.

This year I made the choice to cut my meat consumption by 90%. What does that mean? Well, it means I try *not to eat meat and that I've switched over to a mostly vegetarian diet. I ask for soy milk in my Star Buck lattes and frapuccino's and I try to avoid eating meat as much as possible.  

But why not go the full 100%, you ask? Besides the high cost and not having any land to till, that is. Well, it's mainly because I can't digest rice well. 

Bear with me, the explanation becomes clear in a moment.

Eating rice makes me horribly constipated not to mention horribly fat (too much information, I know). I can do one bowl a day, and even that's a struggle. My Japanese family can down four or five bowls of rice per day, and I don't know how they do it (actually, I do--Japanese people, as with many Asians, have an additional enzymes [CAZymes] and bacteria [Bacterioides plebeius] that assists with breaking down rice and seafood, such as seaweed, that are lacking in most Caucasians).

So, unable to eat large quantities of rice, I am stuck mainly with vegetables. Which is fine. But remember, they're overly expensive where I live (10 times on average, making it roughly 20 times more costly here where I live).

So I still eat wheat products and things made with eggs (pastas and breads). Which is why I say I've adopted a mostly vegetarian diet and not raw vegetarian or vegan diet.

Another factor in this economic pickle of mine is that my time is extremely limited. I am a guy with two full time jobs. I teach full time as a private ESL teacher in three different public schools and I am a full time writer with deadlines set by either my publisher or by me, and on top of all this I am raising a daughter (and soon a boy), two dogs and a soon to be cat, and with everything else I hardly have time for myself. 

I'm not complaining though. I'm just mentioning it so that my excuses don't come off as invalid rationalizations. They are very real concerns. 

Sure, I could drastically uproot my lifestyle, move back to America, and drag my family along with me just to be vegan, but that's rather selfish. I can't think just about myself here, and although it bothers me (and there is some considerable cognitive dissonance) with respect to animal's dying and suffering, my daughter, son, and family is still more important than my cat or dog. If they weren't, then there would be something seriously wrong with my psychology, and quite likely my biology, as we are naturally more nurturing of our own offspring. 

Needless to say, my daughter and I eat a lot of fruit. She's never liked meat or dairy all that much, although she loves ice cream as much as I do, which uses dairy in it (although soy based ice creams are just as delicious and far more nutritious--so we eat that whenever possible). 

So in a typical week we usually sustain ourselves on large mangoes, grapes, a watermelon, peaches, cherries, and plums, boiled soybeans which are lightly salted (known as edamame), broccoli, tomatoes, and miso soup with seaweed. A handful of nuts here and there. And that's normal for us.

Of course, I realize that out of site out of mind doesn't help fix the problem of killing animals for food consumption, which is the main concern of most vegan advocates, I feel. 

Although I agree with their concern, their vitriol for anyone who happens to consume meat is out of place because their concerns, although well meaning from a moral standpoint, are not wholly realistic (as they nearly always neglect the case by case economics that go into making a vegan diet sustainable) nor entirely logical (for the same reasons but also because they let their emotions cloud their thinking about potential ways to limit meat consumption instead of cutting it out entirely--which is a more reasonable first step). 

If the vegan community could find a way to give my entire school district a sustainable vegan meal plan for the same cost as the current one, then I'd definitely like to go in that direction. But I really don't think that's economically viable. Otherwise, I'm sure someone, somewhere, would have tried it by now. This just goes to illustrate that telling people to knock off the meat eating isn't reasonable because it neglects all the real world considerations one must factor into such a massive dietary restructuring, and then the economics of it all comes raging back for serious consideration.

My vegan friend asked me, "What's the matter, you can't pack a salad and take that as your lunch instead?"

I've considered making my own salads and packing them the night before work, but even that gets pretty outrageously expensive. I can't be spending $14 per salad everyday, which is technically what it would cost to buy the produce and make it myself for every meal (let alone my entire family which would more than double the cost--have you ever eaten a $28 salad? Daily?)--even if I mix it up with tofu and what not--there is always a cost to consider. 

But everyone is different. Some might be able to make the switch faster. But talking down to those who haven't, as so many vegan advocates seem to do, is just bad form. You have to have a better method than screaming at people that they're wrong, otherwise you just come off sounding like a raging fundamentalist. 

All considered, I've made deliberate advances toward a vegetarian diet and am eating healthier and improving my food choices considerably. I even started eating vegetarian (meatless) chili this year and found it just as tasty as regular chili. I am now looking for recipes I can use to cook my own vegetarian chili (if you know of any drop it in the comments section below, thanks in advance).

I will continue to limit my meat intake as much as possible in the foreseeable future, and if it should become economically viable for me (and my family) to cut meat out entirely from out diets, I'd be certainly willing to make the switch.

My vegan friend once stated that eating meat is a cultural habit just like drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. 

Sorry, but I strongly disagree with this analogy. Mainly because it's a bad analogy. People don't need to eat cigarettes and smoke in order to live, but eating is an entirely other matter. We eat to live, not live to eat. And although alcohol and cigarettes are certainly recreational, eating food wasn't traditionally strictly a recreational activity. 

Additionally, it seems that culture plays a large role in the types of food certain communities do or do not consume. Island cultures, such as Japan and any of the Mediterranean islands, consume seafood far more readily than landlocked areas. 

I would go as far to say that even if the analogy was sound, which it's not, that smoking and drinking are cultural habits, and that if meat eating is a cultural habit now, it certainly didn't begin as one. Which is an important distinction, because it demonstrates that the analogy is strained at best.

Until quite recently, Native Americans all across the Great Plains of North America are hunter gathers which survived on meat products to get them through the long, harsh North American winters when there was little in the way of farming that could be done. This was life for thousands of years, until white settlers came and disrupted everything. Eskimo societies, in Alaska for example, rely mainly on fish and seafood diets because there is not much you can grow on the tundra and in the cold. So it seems eating meat arose out of a cultural necessity for may societies, not merely a cultural recreational activity. It's only in today's modern world that going out for a bite has become a recreational activity of sorts.

As it is, I cannot afford to go all out vegan due to bad economics of the otherwise super healthy vegan lifestyle. But since a sustainable vegan diet must both be affordable and time efficient, I am stuck with the affordability of meat products, made cheap by the over-consumption of animal products and animal farming, regrettably, it seems I will continue to be part of the problem a little while longer.

It's a shame too, because I would love to switch over entirely if it was cost efficient and sustainable for my whole family (because they need to eat too, after all).

Now this brings me to my vegan friends criticism that eating animals is morally wrong in any situation, no matter what, period.

It seems that such idealism is only viable when we can afford to stop eating meat as a society in its entirety and when the vegan diet finally becomes sustainable for all people everywhere regardless of the economics, then that consideration will be one to take seriously. 

Until that time however, we have to remain realistic. 

Humans have adaptable diets, and meat has been a part of hunting and gathering cultures within human societies for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years (humans have been eating meat for approximately 2.5 million years to be exact)

When vegans say that humans are *not suited for eating meat and that we have not sufficiently adapted to meat eating they are not being entirely truthful and may be forgetting about things like meat adaptive genes, lactose tolerance, and the aforementioned Bacterioides plebeius (gained from eating sea foods, particularity fish) which are all part of our evolutionary journey involving meat consumption.  

It's only recently, with the advent of irrigation and farming technologies that we have been able to grow enough food to sustain ourselves as a species, especially as a rapidly growing species in danger or overpopulating. Stopping meat cold turkey, if you'll pardon the pun, is most assuredly easier said than done.

I think it boils down to how do we make such a change happen on a large scale, and, well, that requires better information, better planning, more affordable cost, and more economic access to vegan foods. It requires better patience and understanding on the part of vegan advocates who use the moral concern as an excuse to try and blackmail people who have been raised on meat eating diets. Even if eating meat was purely a psychological issue, which it certainly isn't, but even if it was it stems to reason that you cannot de-program an entire culture in a decade, probably not even a century, probably not even several centuries. Thus vegans must continue to be ambassadors of peace, good reason, and diplomacy--they have a case and I feel they should certainly make it, but with the caveat that the moment they make unrealistic demands their demands become unreasonable. 

Don't mistake me, it's not that the moral consideration here that is misguided, vegans have a genuine moral concern, but it's not compelling to most because, as I have tried to illustrate, it simply isn't realistic. It's idealistic. 

I'd like to go the whole nine yards someday, but until it becomes economically viable I am afraid I am stuck at this 90% grey area. It's not ideal, but it's the best I can do right now. 

In the future I might write a more detailed essay using real statistics which show why economic considerations really do impact whether or not a vegan diet is truly sustainable (if not me, hopefully someone else--it would be beneficial for vegans for targeting economic areas that can be most easily adapted to more sustainable and cost efficient means regarding vegan foods while showing them other areas where serious works needs to be done). 

Veganism may be sustainable and economically viable for some, but not for others, and that's my whole point. I for one am willing to work with vegans to make it truly sustainable so that their concerns will become realistic for all of us instead of simply the idealism of the vegan advocate.

Peace!

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist