We're often pitting the plant-based diet versus the non-plant-based diets against each other, forgetting that things are never as simple as "this is better than that." While it would be nice to be able to easily choose one thing over another, we don't live in a world of black and white, and any choice we make comes with its pros and cons.
We also often have a tendency to put things on a pedestal, in this case, diets. People choose plant-based diets for a variety of reasons; ethics, environment, health. But as more people have chosen a plant-based diet, a trend has spiked, and there is no denying that some opt for a plant-based diet simply because it's the "thing to do" or it's simply the thing they see lots of other people doing and they want to get on board as well.
In a world of factory farms, a plant-based diet has many merits. But of course, these diets have their problems too, proof that things are never as simple as they seem.
Take almond milk for example, often a popular alternative to dairy milk. Last year Tom Philpott wrote a Mother Jones column about almond milk with the inflammatory headline: "Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters." He raised some good points, that for one, almonds pack a punch when it comes to nutrition, but in the milk version, it's really just a few almonds mixed with a lot of water. Not to mention how much water it takes to produce almonds in the first place.
Philpott wasn't giving the plant-based milk crowd a slap in the face (and the headline wasn't his idea, either). In fact, he acknowledged that, "I get why people are switching away from dairy milk. Industrial-scale dairy production is a pretty nasty business, and large swaths of adults can't digest lactose, a sugar found in fresh dairy milk." He was simply pointing out that almond milk might not be all that it's cracked up to be, and it's important for us to question why we are buying something; is it because it's a good, sustainable choice, or is it because it's trendy?
Recently Philpott wrote yet again about almond milk, this time specifically focused on the almond harvest in the water thirsty state of California. Almond production is so lucrative in California, to the tune of $4.8 billion in 2012, that hedge funds are coming in, buying up land and planting the water craving crop. It takes a gallon of water to produce one almond after all.
"In the midst of the worst drought in California's history, you might expect almonds' extreme thirst to be a deal breaker. But it's not. In fact, the drought has had hardly any impact at all on the almond boom. The state's farmers bought at least 8.33 million young almond trees between July 2013 and July 2014, a 25 percent increase from the previous year. About a quarter of the saplings went to replace old orchards, but most of the rest were new plantings, some 48,000 acres' worth, an area equal to three Manhattans."
But let's remember that we can't just look at food through one single lens. It's easy to frame the question of food in simple terms, but food can't be compartmentalized into just one category. For a lot of people, food is most often about nutrition. But food is just as much about the environment and ethics as it is about nutrition. A food may have all the nutritional elements that it needs to be considered "good" but if it was produced in a way that negatively harms the environment, or came from the other side of the world, or was produced in questionable conditions, this pretty quickly alters whether or not we can consider it a "good" food.
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Almond milk isn't the only example. The popularity of coconut, for milk, water and oil, has raised the question of how good coconut production really is for farmers. Not that great; one coconut tree will provide a farmer with about $17.50 per year, not to mention all the costs associated with bringing coconut products from one side of the world to the other. And those avocados you are eating out of season? They are depleting someone's water source.
The question of almond milk is a reminder that we cannot choose our food blindly. We have to remember that our foods, not matter what they are, have consequences. This isn't about what's right and wrong, it's about remembering to think beyond the packaging.
Philpott has a point; it has become trendy to choose certain products. And you know what happens when certain products become trendy? People just buy them without giving them a second thought. More and more companies come in to make similar versions of the same product because the market has proved that its of value. Talk to any environmental advocate and no one is going to tell you that it's a good idea to be planting more almond trees in California. There are other crops and other agricultural methods that would make more economic and sustainable sense for us to be investing in.
Diets shouldn't be trendy. As many people pointed out in response to the hipster almond milk article, choosing to drink almond milk isn't necessarily about choosing to be part of a trend. One vegan blogger wrote, "Vegan choices are never about being 'hip.' They are about living in a way that honors values of justice and compassion."
There will always be enough arguments to support whatever side you are on; the important thing is to be educated on them and choose what works right for you. As Tamar Haspel wrote in the Washington Post, "For me, animal welfare is important, and my take on meat is that we should eat less of it, pay more for it, use all of it, and know where it’s from. But that’s not the last word. There isn’t a last word, which means there’s not a lot of room for sanctimony."
Real, ethically produced food should be the norm. Unfortunately, until real, ethical food is normalized and democratized, made available and accessible to everyone, then we're stuck in a world where corporations profit off of trends and we have to carefully read labels and do our homework. Because whether we choose a plant-based or diet or not, we still have to be conscious consumers.
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Image: Mike Mozart