It's time to rethink the divide between omnivore and herbivore.
Screengrab via YouTube user TEDx Talks
You might think the world has enough -isms as it is—particularly in the food world, where people divide up into an endless array of self-defining camps that include vegetarianism, veganism, pescetarianism, flexitarianism, and, of course, carnivorism. But Brian Kateman thinks we need another -ism: reducetarianism.
Never heard of it? That's because Kateman and his friend Tyler Alterman coined the phrase. The two are the co-founders of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to improve human health, protect the environment, and spare farm animals from cruelty with this simple idea: We all need to stop fighting about which category we fall into, and simply agree to reduce the amount of meat we consume. Kateman edited a recently published book called The Reducetarian Solution and is now preparing to host the world's first Reducetarian Summit, scheduled to be held this month in New York City. We wanted to learn more, so we recently spoke with Kateman about the argument for reducetarianism and what he hopes to accomplish through his organization.
MUNCHIES: Can you explain how reducetarianism started, what it is, and how it differs from vegetarianism, veganism, and flexitarianism?
Brian Kateman: I grew up in Staten Island, NY, which is not known as one of the most progressive places. My family would go to Applebee's, I'd get a hamburger; we'd go to Chili's, I'd get Buffalo wings. One part I really did like about growing up on Staten Island, though, was that there were a lot of parks, a lot of green trails. I quickly fell in love with nature and the animals living in the wild.
In college, I was your typical environmentalist until a friend of mine handed me a book called The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer, and I was pretty shocked. I learned that factory farming was responsible not only for the environmental issues I cared about, [but also for] seven billion land animals being slaughtered annually in the US, and 70 billion worldwide. My mind was blown.
I became a vegetarian, but the problem was, I wasn't always perfect about it. One Thanksgiving, I grabbed a piece of turkey at the dinner table, and my sister called me out. I explained in that moment, "Look, it's not about being perfect. It's about making choices as often as we can that are good for us and good for the planet." I thought, I've gotta look this up and see if there's a term that describes who I am. I came across flexitarian, semi-vegetarian, mostly vegetarian—and I think those words are great, but the problem is that there are a lot of people in the world who are not interested in only or mostly eating plant-based foods. It seemed to me that what we should be concerned about is the average person and we should encourage them to make incremental changes. All of this idea of perfection and purity is silly. What we really should be focusing on is reducing societal consumption of animal products. And so a friend and I came up with the term "reducetarian." Ever since then, I've been on a mission to spread the idea.
People tend to drift toward black-and-white solutions, but you're advocating for a "gray" solution to several massive problems. I would imagine you are attacked by both hardcore vegans and omnivores alike. What are the challenges to making people understand and adopt a neither-here-nor-there solution?
The truth is, there's going to be different messaging that is going to persuade different people to change their attitude. So I think of my parents: They're in their 60s and they're mostly persuaded by health messaging. When I speak to my friends, who are Millennials, they're really frightened about climate change, or they're thinking about philosophy and morality, so they're persuaded by the messaging that animals deserve ethical treatment. But, you're right, it's easy to fall for the black-and-white thing.
In your view, how detrimental is the hard-line vegan mindset that seems to put ideological purity above the outreach that you are focused on?
When I have that dialogue with vegans or vegetarians who say our message is too watered down, I always try and share that I'm on the same team. Freud called it the narcissism of small differences. Some psychologists call it horizontal hostilities. But it's the idea that people who share common values or common views sometimes will pick apart these tiny differences that they have, rather than focusing on someone who has nothing in common with them at all.
What I'm trying to do is unite the movement and get environmentalists, animal advocates, human health experts, vegans, and vegetarians to realize that they have so much in common. They share 99 percent of the same views, that factory farming sucks and that we're all going to live in a better world if people eat less meat—and omnivores are typically very amenable to that idea. We have to be pragmatic.
I do think there are a small minority of vegans or animal advocates who are unwilling to recognize that there is mixed messaging that is going to resonate with different people and we have to do whatever is best for the animals and the planet, even if that means making compromises or modifying the message that we'd like to see promoted in the world. For me, it comes down to impact. Most vegans and vegetarians don't fall into that category, but, unfortunately, there are some who are very loud and will scream at someone and tell them that meat is murder and will put them off. I do think we need to place emphasis not only on compassion for animals but for humans, too, in understanding the limitations of people's ability to make choices that are not only in the interest of the planet. Understand that people choose food primarily based on price, on convenience, on taste, and social norms—what others are eating around them. Sometimes it comes down to access.
READ MORE: Why Men Are Afraid of Going Vegan
How does identity politics play into the idea of reducetarianism?
I think identity issues are really important. We know from many cognitive science studies that people whose actions are in line with their identity are more likely to perform those actions. Evidence suggests that for people who volunteer at a young age, their identity becomes "a person who volunteers," so then they're more likely to volunteer [more in the future].
One reason I like the world reducetarian is that it does provide an identity on a personal level and a community level. It allows people to not only make the action one time, but to make it fixed to their sense of self, and that in turn helps them to be more consistent with their identity. At the same time, I don't care if certain people don't want to identify as reducetarian or vegan. I sort of fall into that camp myself a little. I don't like the word "vegan," personally for me, because it doesn't perfectly describe who I am. I'm not perfect about it, so I reject that label for myself. Often, when I speak with vegans and describe myself, they say, "You are totally vegan, Brian. What you described makes you a vegan," but that identity just doesn't work for me. At the same time, I'm extremely happy that it works for so many people, because I think veganism is great and I wish more people were vegan.
Reducetarian describes who I am and is consistent with how I feel. I receive messages all the time who say to me, "I've been eating less meat for years and have always wanted a word to describe who I am. Now I can tell people I'm a reducetarian." It helps to spread the word.
People who abstain from eating meat, especially vegans, are often ridiculed or vilified by meat eaters. Generally speaking, do you think that comes from a lack of understanding? Or is it some form of shame that these other people are "taking a moral high ground" or "think they are better than me"?
Imagine a scenario where a vegan and an omnivore go out to dinner for the first time and they're discussing the menu, and the omnivore says "This chicken looks really good" and the vegan says, "Oh, I'm actually a vegan." That creates tension because there's suddenly morality at play in the interaction. There's inherently some tension that results when we talk about something as morally charged as meat. We tend to put a wall up between ourselves and our actions, and that plays out in the perception between vegans and omnivores.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming summit?
The idea of the summit it to bring together all of the leaders of the reducetarian movement in the hopes of thinking strategically about how to reduce societal meat consumption. We're not going to spend very much time on the "why?," because we're all generally in agreement on that. The pressing question is how we are going to further our goals, which are the same goals of all vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, animal advocates, environmentalists, and health advocates. At the end of the day, it all comes back to unity. This is a space where everyone in room can say, "We all have some small differences, but we agree on 99 percent and that's enough to get us where we need to be."
Thanks for speaking with us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.