This is a short article that takes a critical look at flexitarianism from an animal rights perspective; examining the five points of flexitarian philosophy as described by the Flexitarian Bristol campaign. The group itself aims to raise awareness of the potential benefits in reducing our reliance on meat based meals, with the primary motivation to bring about a change in lifestyle based on consideration for our health and the environment.
The following are the five points of flexitarian philosophy, with additional comments:
This is a movement underpinned by a love of life, a wish to live fully without harming the ability of others to do the same. Food is an important part of this – good, well-produced food puts a spring in our step and helps us tread lightly on the world.’
These are good intentions.
Moving from eating meat 100% of meals to 50% makes just as much difference as moving from 50% of meals to none. You don’t need strict categories – if you don’t eat meat at every meal you’re flexitarian. We’re all starting from different levels of consumption but we can all be part of the same process, approaching reduction in a way and at the speed that’s right for us.’
It certainly is inclusive, as it can be argued that pretty much everyone fits into this category, as it is a basic reflection of current society. That is, no one eats meat at every meal time, and we almost all consume a variety of plant based foods on any given day. It is certainly also a flexible approach, as would be expected, and approaching reduction in a way that suits us is a very relaxed approach to the issue of animal exploitation. Yet it does appear as if continual reduction is the aim, until at some point we stop the consumption of meat, and presumably all animal products.
We want to focus on celebrating good food, promote choice and recognise the eateries that are leading the way for modern sustainable eating. There is incredible diversity in vegetables, fruits and pulses and we want to demonstrate their huge potential for creating meals which are tasty and exciting as well as healthy.’
The focus on vegetables, fruits and pulses is encouraging, as many venues do not cater particularly well for people consuming a plant based diet; so there is certainly a need to focus on this area within flexitarianism. If people are going to feel able to order a vegan dish alongside their regular choices then the food has to be of an equal or better standard. People still predominantly view the consumption of animal flesh as a ‘treat’ when it is a special occasion, or perhaps as an opportunity to consume a more ‘select’ piece of flesh, so the alternatives would have to rate highly in order for them to have equal appeal.
The evidence base suggests that eating less meat and dairy will, as a rule of thumb, have positive health and environmental outcomes. But we understand that everyone has real lives, different priorities and diverse commitments. Flexitarian diets can be just that: flexible. Instead of following dogmatic rules you can balance your current situation with future benefits for yourself and the planet.’
From the pragmatic point of view people are really let off the hook regarding a fundamental change to their lifestyle, especially when we include the perspective of animal sentience. As outlined earlier in the section entitled ‘Thriving’:
‘This is a movement underpinned by a love of life, a wish to live fully without harming the ability of others to do the same.’
This statement automatically excludes non-human animals from the position of ‘others’, as it is the very consumption of animals, driven by the ideology behind that consumption, that causes suffering, where the systems that are created prevent animals from thriving as a matter of course. For instance, most people view cows as commodities, and we can identify the suffering that takes place when we merely regard cows as having extrinsic value (that is, value from our own perspective). However, when we refuse to view animals as property, we can recognise animals as being subjects of a life, who have an intrinsic right not to suffer at the hands of humanity.
Further, the ‘dogmatic rules’ of veganism, are not dogmatic at all. The vegan philosophy and practice are laid out to help people understand the principles of veganism and how they can be practiced ‘as far as is possible and practicable’ and with the necessary intent (‘seeking’) that is vital to the process. So when we recognise that we don’t want animals to suffer unnecessarily, we can take action to put the vegan philosophy into practice.
Healthy, sustainable food is a huge strength of Bristol. We work together with forward-thinking organisations and individuals to ensure less and better meat is included on the agenda and gets the attention it deserves.’
This is a situation where there is an intent to encourage establishments to provide ‘humane’ meat; though in reality it merely represents industry propaganda that distracts from the fact animals suffer throughout their brief existence, and on into the slaughterhouse. Whilst it can be argued there is the possibility of less suffering, there is still suffering, and if we don’t want to become an integral part of that suffering then we need to seek out those plant based alternatives to animal based meals. This does not mean we cannot ‘collaborate’ with restaurants to provide vegan dishes. Where restaurants have vegetarian dishes we can help them to veganise those dishes so they are suitable for omnivores, vegetarians and vegans. This is merely best practice for most businesses that have little concern for the ethics of eating, as it helps them appeal to a larger market.
In conclusion, I believe there are good intentions within flexitarianism regarding non-human animals, the environment and health, as evident in the philosophy, but there is room for criticism in regard to the perception of non-human animals as property, because when we adopt an animal rights perspective flexitarianism falls at the first hurdle (1). Flexitarianism instead seems to present a softly softly approach to increasing plant based foods for people to eat, yet it does little to examine the uncomfortable truths surrounding the lives of those that are taken for ‘food’. Whilst mainstream society continues to believe that animal exploitation is an integral part of human existence, it is reasonable to believe that people will not give up consuming animals for pleasure (and not just for food). Yet, when we are vegan, and promote veganism, it is likely there will be a gradual shift toward veganism. Just so when we promote animal rights, there will likely be a shift in welfare standards because of the efficacy of the rights based argument. So we can present a challenge to animal consumption, because we rightly feel uncomfortable with the continued exploitation and suffering inflicted upon non-human animals, when we are capable of seeking out the alternatives.
(1) It is fair to say that someone could consume a plant based diet and call themselves flexitarian. Some people might find this to be a more helpful ‘label’ (at least temporarily) as it doesn’t present a direct challenge to other people.