Unlike drinking, exercise and home cooking, being vegetarian is seen as a black-and-white deal. You either are or you aren’t. Go meat free all year and you’re a vegetarian; eat one chicken burger on New Year’s Eve and you’ve failed.
According to the Vegan Society, there were three and a half times as many vegans in 2016 as 10 years earlier. The NHS states that more than 1.2 million people in the UK are vegetarian. And a YouGov survey found that 25% of people in Britain have cut back how much meat they eat. Despite this, too many of us still hold on to the idea that to eat less meat means nothing unless you can manage to eat no meat at all.
The Vegan Society’s formal definition may be that “veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose,” but what we hear is “veganism is a way of life that ruthlessly excludes anyone who enjoys milk in their tea and will joylessly judge every element of your life until you give in and start wearing hemp.”
“But we know that’s not true,” says Brian Kateman, the co-founder of the Reducetarian movement, a group committed simply to eating less meat. “We know we make choices about food every day. When a friend gave me a copy of The Ethics of What We Eat [by Peter Singer and Jim Mason], I was eating a hamburger at the time. But I read the book and I just couldn’t believe that factory farming was responsible for climate change and biodiversity loss, the poor treatment of 70m land animals worldwide, as well as the increase in heart disease, cancer, heart disease and obesity. If people were to cut back by just 10% that would be a huge win in terms of all these issues.”
Kateman is a self-described pragmatist. He grew up eating steaks and buffalo wings, but as a student decided to go vegetarian. When his sister called him out for eating a small piece of turkey at Thanksgiving, he explained his decision wasn’t about being “perfect”; it was just about trying to eat as many foods as possible that were good for his body and good for the planet.
“I’m a utilitarian,” he says. “I’m more interested in outcomes than processes. The reason people eat less meat isn’t for some badge, some public status, it’s because it has a meaningful impact on the world.”
Kateman’s philosophy certainly seems appealing. But can you really consider yourself a principled, ethical eater and still eat a piece of pork pie? “The central premise of reducetarians is that vegans and vegetarians – who have reduced their animal intake so successfully that they’re not eating any at all – are part of the same spectrum as people who are dissatisfied with factory farming and so have decided to, say, only eat meat once in a while,” says Kateman. “It’s about moderation for everyday omnivores. Every time we sit down to eat, we make a vote for the issues we care about.”
As well as publishing a book, The Reducetarian Solution, the Reducetarian Foundation has hosted its own summit in New York. The website is full of videos, recipes and a place where fans can “pledge” to reduce how much meat they eat. Kateman has held his own Ted talk on the subject and they even have their own “Reducetarian Lab” where they conduct behavioural studies into how best to reduce meat consumption.
Since the rise in “neo hippies” with their Instagram-friendly vegan breakfast bowls, being vegetarian or vegan has become fashionable, rather than simply well-meaning. “There’s a very small percentage of people who are loud and annoying,” says Kateman. “But most vegans and vegetarians are wonderful people who understand we should be pragmatic about this. Making meaningful changes to our diet seems to be the way to go. Part of what we do is explain that plant-based foods can be delicious, affordable and easy to find. We celebrate anyone who decides to reduce the number of animal products they eat – and the motivation doesn’t matter.”
According to the reducetarians, to eat less meat is an accomplishment; but to eat meat occasionally isn’t a failure. You cannot “fail” at trying to eat better; and you’re not a hypocrite if you do your best. Are reducetarians just vegans without the willpower? Or, are they simply doing what they can do without the resolution-snapping burden of guilt? Let they who hath not buttered a crumpet cast the first stone.