The modern animal rights movement is closely tied to vegetarianism and veganism. For many people, changing one’s diet appears the most natural and sensible way to benefit animals. Often, this is where action begins and ends—switching chicken for tofu, bullying friends and family about their meat consumption and basking in moral superiority. PETA, perhaps the most famous animal charity in the world, is largely known for its (often controversial) vegan advocacy.
How effective is such advocacy? The US provides a telling example. Despite many years of campaigning, only 5% of Americans are vegetarian and even fewer (3%) are vegan. These numbers have changed little in recent years, even with increased media attention and mainstream acceptance. They might also be inflated—60% of Americans who say they’re vegetarian on surveys also say that they’ve eaten meat in the past 24 hours. Is this all that those PR campaigns, guilt-inducing documentaries and publicity stunts have amounted to?
Vegetarianism and veganism are bold commitments. Changing your diet is difficult—especially for the millions of Americans who have uncompromising families or simply cannot afford the time and energy it takes to avoid meat products completely. This already limits the mass appeal of such diets: it is unreasonable to assume that a significant proportion of omnivores will quit meat anytime soon.
More troublingly, however, it is not clear that vegetarianism makes a significant impact in the overall reduction in animal suffering. Most vegetarians still eat eggs—and egg farming is crueller than many other forms of industrial farming. Veganism avoids this dilemma, but is obviously a more difficult commitment. But the main problem is that both diets rely on individual action to address a large-scale issue. Whether or not a specific individual eats meat will make almost no difference to total US meat production (totalling 52 billion lbs (23.5 billion kg) in 2017). Given how few people are vegetarians or vegans, factory farming will probably continue to exist on a similar scale in the near future.
One might argue that changing one’s diet might not have a large impact in itself, but could inspire others to join the cause, thus creating a larger change. And it is true that occasionally, a vegetarian or vegan might convince a friend, family member or colleague to adopt her diet. But this is a rare outcome. As Kelsey Piper has shown, studies have found that “leafleting, online ads, undercover investigations of farms, [and] street protests” have no detectable effects. A meta-analysis by Animal Charity Evaluators, for instance, found that leafleting is “about as likely—or perhaps even more likely—to actually cause increases in animal product consumption.”
Vegetarians and vegans are among the most hated groups in America—behind only drug addicts—according to a recent study. The annoying vegan trope is pervasive throughout pop culture. Attempting to convince others to adopt these diets risks playing into the stereotypes and backfiring. Advocacy through persuasion is an arduous, time-intensive, largely ineffective and potentially counterproductive task.
The issue also risks becoming polarized. In the US, there is a partisan asymmetry: 11% of self-described liberals identify as vegetarian, while only 2% of conservatives do. If vegetarianism is associated with progressivism, half the country might reject the philosophy simply because of its political connotations. If America can politicize masks and vaccines, it can definitely politicize meat consumption. Activists must make choices in how they spend their time, money and energy. Should they devote their scarce resources to promoting an action that is meaningless on the individual level, difficult to spread and limited in its ultimate scope?
Luckily, better options exist. Despite few identifying as vegetarian, most people still care about animal suffering. In recent polls, 70% of Americans expressed discomfort with how animals are treated by the food industry, while 49% supported an outright ban on factory farming. In 2018, California passed Proposition 12, which establishes a 62.66% increase in the minimum space requirements for veal calves, pigs and egg-laying hens. Given the economic importance and size of California, this law no doubt affected animal welfare nationwide. In Florida, Amendment 10, banning the confinement of pregnant pigs, passed with 54.8% of the vote in 2002. Similar bans on gestation crates have passed in other states, including Arizona, California and Massachusetts.
All the aforementioned laws were passed as a result of ballot initiatives, directly voted on and initiated by the people. Instead of performing the Sisyphean task of preaching veganism to an unappreciative crowd, why don’t more animal activists work to pass similar, or more ambitious, laws in the twenty-six states that allow such initiatives? Given the pre-existing levels of support, this would be far easier and more effective than convincing even a thousand more people to become vegetarians.
Animal charities like The Humane League have also found success in targeting corporations. Thanks in part to their advocacy, over 400 US companies have committed to transitioning to cage-free eggs. For the average person, donating to an organization like the Humane League might prove vastly more impactful than going vegetarian for a year.
As Diana Fleischman argues in a recent essay, new technologies will probably offer the biggest boon to animal rights. Plant-based substitutes are becoming cheaper and healthier. Clean meat, which involves the production of animal tissue without rearing and killing animals, is on the verge of market viability. Adopting these alternatives is far easier than abandoning meat entirely. The Japanese government recently announced a $2.7 million investment in clean meat companies. Animal rights advocates could encourage the US government to fund alternative meat technology and research or raise funds for such research themselves.
This is not an argument against vegetarianism or veganism. Many people embrace such diets because they find meat-eating immoral, regardless of its consequences—this is completely valid. Nor are being a vegetarian or vegan and pursuing the changes outlined in this article mutually exclusive choices. However, anyone who cares about animal suffering should be aware that more good could come about by donating to effective charities and advocating for effective laws than by encouraging others to stop eating meat.
Some people might think it hypocritical to be an advocate for animal rights if you are not a vegetarian. If you care about animal rights advocacy, it may make sense to adopt a vegetarian diet simply to increase your credibility. However, it may sometimes be easier to convince omnivores to vote for animal rights legislation if you are an omnivore yourself. This might dispel the view that one can only advocate for animals if one is a vegetarian. In conservative circles especially, there is a need for animal rights activists who don’t conform to the traditional, left-associated mould. Context, message and audience matter.
Animal rights activists and organizations face resource constraints and should be concerned with what actually benefits animals, not what feels like it should. Technological, political and corporate transformations are far more effective than individual dietary changes. It is far easier to convince someone to vote for a specific measure than to upend their entire diet. Animal rights advocates should largely abandon the vegetarian project and embrace large-scale, institutional change instead.