“Reducetarian” founder Brian Kateman took issue with the news that famed Eleven Madison Park, a Michelin 3-star restaurant in New York City, announced it was converting its menu to full-on plant-based (well not really as milk and honey will still be on menu) instead of easing into it, the reducetarian way. In his article published in Wired, Kateman warns of the inadvertent backlash that could ensue from what he sees as a risky move that could harm vegan advocacy. His speculations raise many important issues which I address here. I’d like to thank my colleague Benny Malone, author of the new book How To Argue with Vegans, for offering his insights as well.
I must say from the get go that I find it odd and ironic, as Malone points out, that “Kateman often advises vegans on advocacy but hasn’t even convinced himself to become vegan in the course of some eight years. No wonder he thinks it’s hard to persuade others.” He appears to be in a perpetual state of flexitarian ambivalence. “His own reasons for not being vegan are due to taste and convenience and a misguided notion that a ‘middle ground’ in the arena of justice is the more reasonable one,” explains Malone, “while he positions veganism as extreme, absolutist and dogmatic.”
On the shortcomings of current vegan advocacy, Kateman writes, “Environmentalists and animal advocates have been trying for decades, and still only a small percentage of the industrialized world is vegetarian or vegan.”
First, most of the environmental movement has ignored animal agriculture’s impact on the environment. Even now, the most radical environmental groups, such as Extinction Rebellion, do not openly advocate veganism. A majority of the progressive left still dismisses and/or attacks veganism. As for animal advocacy, most of the animal groups also do not openly endorse veganism and some even endorse so-called “humane” animal products and/or certify such products and hold events with animals on the menu. Of the groups that do advocate veganism specifically, many have not until very recently engaged in the political activism needed for transformational change (targeting decision makers and institutions who have the power to influence large populations and systems). That level of strategy we see used successfully in other social movements is still in its infancy in the animal rights and vegan movement. Kateman and his ilk don’t fully understand the power of this form of activism and are quick to disparage it before it even has a chance to show its impact.
On how reducetarianism could lead to an increase in veganism, Kateman writes, “if the vegan label and stigma are removed, and diners know they can eat what they want, they are more likely to go on their own.”
It’s wishful thinking that if people are left to their own devices, they will do the right thing. As far as shedding the stigma, Malone points to the paradox that “Kateman has consistently reinforced negative stereotypes about vegans and veganism rather than challenge them. Instead of normalizing veganism and being vegan himself, he is content to feed into these negative perceptions and not engage in any myth-busting or debunking of anti-vegan positions. It serves his aims of making Reducetarianism seem more appealing to allow these misconceptions to continue and indeed perpetuate and reinforce any stigmas.”
On the potential backlash, Kateman writes, “If Eleven Madison Park, one of the most well-resourced restaurants in the world, fails and winds up reverting back to a typically meat-heavy menu, it’ll signal to other chefs that this can’t be done well and in a profitable way. That’ll set the movement back in ways that will be hard to overcome.”
But I am hard pressed to find an example that demonstrates Kateman’s warning. On the contrary, there are a number of exclusively plant-based food brands that have grown exponentially, despite not offering any animal products. In one recent case, a 50-year-old meat company, NOBLE Jerky, announced an increase in revenues of 70% after ditching meat and introducing a 100% plant-based product line.
More on the backlash from Kateman: “The binary thinking around meat, which institutions like Eleven Madison Park have inadvertently stirred up, could further cement a bifurcation that is harmful in the fight against overconsumption of meat.”
Here Kateman confuses the means with the ends. Vegan restaurants and food brands are more a result of changed values than the catalyst for that change. That change came from the extraordinarily hard and yet uncelebrated work of activists who believe it is possible to change society’s hearts and minds, who have a vision for transformational change, not reform of a broken food system. This activism has pushed open the Overton Window, shifting society’s attitudes toward veganism, allowing others to benefit from and enjoy the fruits of their labor, such as upscale restaurants and even those who disparage such activists as “extremists.”
On advocacy, Kateman writes, “Movements need a diversity of tactics, with some advocates making radical reforms and others taking a more moderate approach.”
A “diversity of tactics” position sounds reasonable, but the truth is the animal rights/vegan movement has produced very few radical groups and a whole lot of moderate groups seeking incremental reform rather than system change. The dismal statistics Kateman cites on the vegan/vegetarian population and the increased consumption of meat have occurred while the moderates have primarily been steering the ship.
More on advocacy, Kateman writes,“…we need a middle path—one that is practically feasible for most people.”
Calling for moderation in these extraordinary times of deadly pandemics, climate crisis, political unrest, floods, forest fires and general ecological collapse provides false comfort at best. “The middle way” which affords the affluent class “flexibility” sounds like the height of privilege, at the expense of those less fortunate paying the price for our decisions.
When Frederick Douglas refers to “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation,” “who want crops without plowing up the ground,” “who want rain without thunder and lightning,” “who want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters,” he is emphasizing the futility and folly of moderation as a response to a deeply entrenched injustice.
And even if we believe that practicality is all that matters, what is practical is what is necessary to avoid the most human and non human suffering and death. What is necessary is a radical transformation of our food system. The sooner we can get people and institutions on board with this reality, the better our chances to save lives and the planet. As activists, we can have the greatest impact by focusing our campaigns on those who have the greatest power over our food system.