This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
Vegetarians get a lot of shit. From Australia Day ads featuring flamethrowers destroying a vegan hipster’s kale to politicians hijacking vegetarian campaigns, people who eschew meat in their diet have to put up with a fair amount of mockery for their choices.
This needs to change.
We should start recognising vegetarians for what they really are: trailblazers standing up for their principles, questioning popular assumptions and bravely changing the world for the better. Their tough choices and ideals demand not just our respect but our support and admiration.
Sure, a lot of this ribbing is light-hearted, but it speaks to an irrational distaste for vegetarianism that it’s time we got over. “But I’m not vegetarian,” my friend stressed recently after informing us that he would be ordering a dish of greens with his noodles. It was as though the very idea would have made me disown him on the spot.
Now, before you get ahead of yourself, I’m not a vegetarian either (although I have recently started to reduce my meat intake). I’m not here to get on my high horse and I’m not here to tell you to give up meat.
But it seems we to need to start reducing our meat intake because, in Australia and the developed world, we eat too much. Australia has one of the highest rates of meat consumption in the world. In fact, on average we eat 111kg a year, more than four times the recommended 26kg a year.
While the debate about the exact amount of carbon emissions created by meat and dairy consumption continues (anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent in Australia) it seems clear that reducing our meat intake will reduce carbon emissions. (In fact, eating less of everything would really help reduce our carbon footprints.)
Then, of course, there are the animal welfare impacts of factory farming and live transport of livestock that put animal products on our tables but are often far too easily swept under a tasty, 24-hour, slow-cooked, pulled-pork rug.
This is why vegetarians are pretty cool. Almost all of us grow up eating meat and loving it. It’s such an ingrained part of our diet and culture that it’s hard to change.
But vegetarians and vegans have been persistently paving the way, leading to vegetarian meal options at more and more restaurants, developing and introducing us to vegetarian cuisine and making it easier and increasingly normal to eat less or no meat.
They’re also opening up discussions about the impacts of our diets. Campaigns like Meat Free Monday and Meat Free Week as well as diet alternatives like ‘flexitarian’ are emerging, encouraging people to reduce their meat-eating in a flexible way.
And it seems people are catching on.
While The Simpsons convinced us that “You don’t win friends with salad” it seems that, increasingly, in Australia you do. From 2009 to 2013, the number of Australians who identified as fully or mostly vegetarian increased from 1,608,000 to 1,935,000, or 10 percent of the population. That’s one in 10 of us. And New Zealand saw a nearly 30 percent increase.
We love it so much that Ben and Jerry’s recently launched four vegan ice-cream flavours.
Even former Mr Universe and The Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger is now encouraging people to give up or reduce their meat intake in order to reduce our impact on the planet.
And in case you were thinking that settling on a meat-free diet is the preserve of white, latte sipping, inner-city types, 2013 research from Roy Morgan found that it’s actually quite common among people from ethnic backgrounds.
“But hang on,” I can hear you saying. “Some vegetarians can be too much to take.”
Sure, when dealing with people with strong beliefs some can be quite forceful and they can suffer from the same biases and emotional responses that meat eaters can.
But reducing our meat intake is important for our health and our planet, and vegetarians and vegans alike have, through their choices, fearlessly promoted alternative diets and cuisines (often in the face of much ridicule) and opened up important and necessary debates about the impacts of what we eat.
As a meat-free or reduced-meat diet becomes increasingly appealing as we look for ways to reduce our impact on the planet and the animals who inhabit it, it’s our plant-embracing friends we need to thank and support more.
So throw another eggplant on the barbie and let’s salute our pioneering vegos.