At brunch this past weekend, a friend explained that he would attempt to keep “kosher for Passover,” wherein he would abstain from eating leavened grains for the entire week. He gave us the Sparknotes version of the Torah story: When the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they couldn’t wait for their bread to rise and had to subsist on unleavened bread instead. This weeklong dietary restriction serves as a way to commemorate the event.

He lamented the thought of going the entire week without bread, jealous of his Jewish friends that were not going to practice the ritual of keeping kosher, even though they knew the backstory. We tend to refer to this non-observant, latter half to be only “culturally Jewish.” They understand the meaning behind the ritual, even if they don’t practice it themselves.

In defining how we eat more generally, I think we can borrow from this discourse of being “observant” or “culturally” something. People eat certain ways for all sorts of reasons. We eat for nourishment, but sometimes we are guided by other reasons like health, religion, taste, convenience or concern for the environment.

Rarely is the way we eat limited to one or just a few rules. It’s important to recognize that it can be hard for our food choices to match up seamlessly with the principles that inform our eating.

Case in point: I eat meat and I love cheese, but I’m acutely aware of the impact animal products have on the environment. Vegans and vegetarians are often quick to point the finger at meat as a significant drain on water and energy, and their eating reflects a desire to mitigate the effects climate change. Even the government is catching on. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released a report this month claiming that “the organically grown vegan diet also had the lowest estimated impact on resources and ecosystem quality.”

But even if I did eat an entirely vegan diet all of the time, would it have any measurable effect on the environment? No — not unless everyone ate that way. This is a problem of collective action: Nothing would change unless everyone did something. And the chances of everyone becoming vegan are slim. Animal products are ubiquitous in the American diet, and choosing what to eat is a privilege that not everyone is afforded. The anxieties that come with strictly eating vegan might not be worth it.

“That’s stupid, Austin,” I can hear you say. “If you think the environment is so important, then why don’t you eat a strict vegan diet? Why don’t you practice what you preach?”

I think it’s okay not to radically change my diet, so long as I think reflexively and critically about what I do eat. Keeping kosher for Passover is a nice example of practical, reflexive eating, because it’s only one week of the year; the event serves as an opportunity to answer the question, “Why do we eat like this, again?”

In the same vein, it’s easier for die-hard carnivores to hop on the vegetarian or vegan bandwagon if they only have to “practice” vegetarianism once in a while. That’s why I like to describe myself as “culturally vegan.” It encompasses my values on food, but frees me of the strictures of a vegan diet.

If I’m not “observing” veganism, so to speak, at least I’m aware of the implications, the backstory, of the way I eat. It’s a way to explain that I’m not eating meat in ignorance, and in some ways. The didactic nature of eating — when what we eat teaches us a lesson — is something that everyone benefits from, whether or not a certain eating ritual is observed.

That’s why campaigns like “Meatless Mondays” in dining halls across the country have been so popular, or why Mark Bittman’s “Vegan Before 6” series, which suggests observing a vegan diet, but only until 6 p.m., has been successful. At the surface, they seem like weak attempts to practice vegan values. But the cultural veganism they espouse serves as an introduction for those unfamiliar with the fossil fuels that spew from their fork.

By no means does my contribution to the way we talk about our food choices solve the problem, but it’s a starting point. Even if you only practice what you preach some of the time, the preaching is unequivocally important. From there, larger conversations about food can begin.

Austin Bryniarski is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at austin.bryniarski@yale.edu .

  • Lisa Slovin

    Environmentally, halfway measures can make sense. When it’s about the animals, killing a few animals is no solution. Where do you stand on the ethics of breeding, confining and killing animals for our pleasure?

    • jamesdakrn

      I stand that meat is tasty, that animals aren’t human, that while their suffering sucks, I’d still rather have meat on the table and not have the entire world go hungry. Let it be known that the fact that we can even talk about veganism is entirely a post industrialized world phenomenon. I was born in Korea, and my grandparents, during the war, ate fucking tree barks. Tell them that meat is animals suffering and they’ll laugh at you.

      • lorax

        Considering the fact that producing meat generally requires significantly more resources (water, feed, money, etc.) than producing vegetables, it seems unlikely (actually, untrue) that convincing many more people to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet would cause “the entire world go hungry.” Not to mention the fact that Americans and Europeans eat significantly more meat than individuals in developing countries, so our going vegetarian or vegan would have a much larger impact. We also happen to be the people with access to a greater variety of foods, so we definitely would not go hungry. Furthermore, the fact that meat is tasty isn’t an issue of ethical concern. Stealing is enjoyable to a lot of people, too, but we punish perpetrators because we by and large don’t let people engage in behaviors that hurt or infringe upon the rights of others. And eating meat, given its environmental impact, is a behavior that will hurt others. Not to mention the fact that “animals aren’t human” does not lessen their ability to feel pain or to exhibit behaviors that indicate that they would in general prefer not to die. So in so far as we think human suffering is bad because we recognize pain as a bad thing, we should think animal suffering is equally bad — at least, in cases of animals with comparable nervous systems. And even if you disagree upon this last point, the detrimental impact of meat-eating habits in developed countries on the environment is a humanitarian concern in a very real and big way. As long as we care about other people, we should care to eat significantly less meat, if not none at all.

        • ShadrachSmith

          Considering the fact that the great apes are lousy hunters and thus have to eat bushes eight hours a day just to maintain body weight, I would call eating meat a good thing for humans.

          The moral distinction is that humans are at the top of the food chain, and cows aren’t. This is simple stuff.

          • lorax

            Being “at the top of the food chain” isn’t morally relevant. That’s like suggesting that people who are stronger/richer/etc. are also morally superior, since they have the biological/social advantage. Not to mention the fact that we are smarter than apes and thus are capable of farming foods that do not require us to eat eight hours a day to maintain body weight. Vegetarians don’t just eat leaves. Plus, if you care about other people, you should eat less meat, since the GHG emissions that stem from meat production contribute significantly to the environmental change that will make many, many groups of people have significantly poorer qualities of life — if the disease/natural disasters/drought/resulting war and terrorism (all things to which climate change contributes) doesn’t kill them off first.

    • ShadrachSmith

      We are the apex predator of known creation. We can morally grow and eat any food we please, except each other. [Shout out to Freud’s Totem and Taboo]

  • yalie2

    It is a mistake to dismiss the impact you have by eating meat. This isn’t like voting where the marginal vote doesn’t impact who actually wins. By consuming meat you areincreasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, pesticides in the water, etc. You certainly could measure the impact in tons of CO2. It is obscured somewhat because it’s mediated by the economics of the situation – your choices have to go through some functIon accounting for supply and demand etc. – but it does create a measurable difference.

  • YaleMeatlessMondays

    Thank you for this article. The choices that we make every day in the dining halls DO have an impact on the environment and on animal welfare. However, a strict vegan diet can be very difficult, maybe impossible for some. If you are “culturally vegan” and want to begin with a small change towards a more socially conscious diet, consider taking the Yale Meatless Mondays pledge at https://yalemeatlessmondayspledge.wordpress.com/.
    400 Yale students (7% of undergrads) have already taken the pledge and we’re growing quickly!

  • Fred Meissner

    I have a bone to pick with your argument. No matter how much people try to turn veganism into an environmental issue, or a health issue, the fact of the matter is that veganism is at it’s very heart the recognition of basic rights in non-human animals. These basic rights are rights that all other rights are built upon, and require. One example would be bodily liberty, i.e. not a end to someone else’ means. I think we can all agree that this is a basic human right, which is why we fight against slavery and human trafficking, in which humans becoming products. We already confer this basic right (more or less) to dogs and cats, so why not to other thinking, feeling beings? This is where your skewed interpretation of veganism falls apart. We would it consider it unconscionable and hypocritical for someone to claim they are an advocate for human rights while supporting human trafficking, knowing full well what the victims are experiencing. Empathy doesn’t mean much without action. Either you care about treating animals with respect and stop taking part in their exploitation, or your virtuous words ring hollow.