5 Surprising Foods That Make It Hard to Be an Ethical Vegetarian

July 7th 2015

Attend a vegetarian (or vegan for that matter) potluck and you are bound sooner or later to discuss the parameters of how and when you gained your meat-free card. Maybe it started after your college’s screening of “Food, Inc.” or from working with animals or even after reading “Charlotte’s Web.”

Whatever the reason, people come to vegetarianism from a number of paths. The choice to forgo steak, chicken and bacon can be one rooted (pun intended) in weight-loss, cancer prevention and longitudinal good health. 

Beyond the physical body, the decision to be a “veg-head” is commonly one of a moral reasoning; it could be one of belief in a religious decree, ecological conservation, sustainable food production, the yogic principle of ahimsa or cruelty-free food.

A number of public figures swear by a vegetarian diet, including Sir Paul McCartney, who was quoted explaining, "If anyone wants to save the planet, all they have to do is just stop eating meat. That's the single most important thing you could do. It's staggering when you think about it. Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty." That’s a lot of global issues knocked out with one (peaceful) stone. Even Leo Tolstoy was on the veggie wagon when he said, “Vegetarianism is the taproot of humanitarianism.”

Now an increasingly commonplace dietary choice, vegetarianism is essentially a choice of ethics. It is an attempt to say 'no' through purchasing dollars to an industry of preservatives, antibiotics and genetic modifications.

So, if vegetarianism is largely a diet based in ethics, why is it so damn hard to eat truly ethically as a vegetarian or vegan? Here are five protein-packed vegetarian products that come with some real fair trade questions.  

1. Quinoa

Victim of many Western mispronunciations, quinoa is a staple grain in vegetarian and vegan cooking. Its popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, and in 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization dubbed it the ‘International Year of Quinoa.’ Branded as a “superfood” and “miracle grain” the edible seed is high in protein (one cup of cooked quinoa equates to 24 grams of protein) and includes essential amino acids; pure quinoa is even gluten-free.

There are more than 100 varieties of quinoa ranging in flavor to add range to vegetarian dishes. Sounds supreme right? Unfortunately, the increase in demand globally for quinoa has economically impacted the stewards of the food in Bolivia (supplier of about half the world’s quinoa) and Peru. Once a traditional staple of these South Americans’ diet, the price has tripled (from 2006 to 2011) leaving the poorer population hungry for the very food they export. Now, it is more common for quinoa farmers to trade for the less nutritious and cheaper imported pasta and rice. Since people are often not consuming the healthy product they farm in lieu of increased profit margins, it means continued malnutrition for the Andean area population; the Bolivian government stated that quinoa consumption, as of the past five years preceding 2011, decreased 34%. With increased demand, social and land disputes are now more common than ever, as are the sale of llamas to make room for more quinoa fields.

2. Soy

A staple in vegetarian-friendly Asian dishes, as well as dairy-free milk, ice cream is soy (or soya) in shape-shifting forms that range from tofu to soy milk. Because soy is used in an increasing number of food products--commercially produced meat, cheese, yogurt--as well as livestock feed, the soy demand for human and animal consumption is growing faster than the soya grows. Consider that 32 million acres (the size of Germany, France and the UK combined) was required to grow the global supply from 2013 to 2014.

The majority of this comes from South America where production has tripled over the past two decades destroying forests, a place where rare plants and endangered animals call home, at a rate of 9 million acres annually. In countries such as Argentina, where soy takes up more space than all other crops, Monsanto plays a heavy hand after entering the field during the country’s economic crisis. With modern agrospraying and genetically modified “Roundup Ready" soybeans are the norm after they were introduced in 1996, as the country is increasing production but decreasing food security for the region. Widespread spraying of pesticides near schools and homes is a major health concern of Argentineans, as a government study found high levels of agrochemical contamination in soil and drinking water in some regions.  

3. Nuts

Whether it’s cashews, almonds, or walnuts, tossing a handful of nuts into a salad or stir fry can increase taste and pack a powerful protein punch (and debatably healthy fat). They also come with a fistful of humanitarian and ecological issues. Nuts with a brand slapped on the package are purchased from the producers before heading to market, meaning food companies are removed from labor standards involved. For instance, workers who are employed in Indian-run factories process nuts for about $0.59 daily while they are exposed to damaging corrosive oils and roasting smokes.

Almonds and walnuts are both water hogs, and in fact, one almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to produce, respectively. California, the largest producer of the U.S.’ supply of these nuts, is currently in a debilitating drought. Thirsty crops do not facilitate the easing of water usage in the barren state, especially when land—as in 44% more land—in the West Coast state is used for almond farming than it was in 2004.

4. Coconut

Now a standard at the juice bar, in its own packaged juice box and found in your favorite vegan cookies, coconut is having a heyday—an overpriced, exaggerated one, but still. The sweet meat, juice and oil (you’ve tried oil pulling right?) are popular healthy products that many people (carnivores and herbivores alike) swear by. The issue arises when you compare the price of a 12-ounce glass of coconut water and the payment farmers receive. Indonesia and the Philippines are the largest and second-largest coconut producers, respectively. Approximately 60 percent of Philippine small-scale coconut farmers live in poverty, and despite the hazards of tall tree pesticide-treated trees, they make about $3 a day during peak harvest. Won’t consider your favorite root veggie recipe without coconut oil? The best solution is to buy Fair Trade Certified coconut products as well as Fair for Life certified products from Harmless Harvest that guarantee fair wages.

5. Maca

Billed as a health enhancer, potential cancer inhibitor, energy booster, and a super smoothie add-on, maca is a simple mustardy-smelling root. Farmed in the Andes mountains in Peru (like quinoa) maca is globally growing as a popular product. Global demand—particularly in China where it is adored as a sexual-stimulant—has led to theft of 2,600 pounds from a storehouse and seed smuggling across the ocean to be cultivated in China. Prices have spiked in recent years up to $11 a pound for the most wanted varieties of maca but daily wages have remained low for field hands who brave high winds, bumpy truck transportation.

Navigating Vegetarian Eating

You still have to eat no matter your dietary choices. However, if you are going to hold yourself to a standard of ethics regarding meat, you can sidestep hypocrisy and buy fresh and as local as possible to avoid contributing to human rights issues, energy sucking and excessive greenhouse gas emissions to transport exotic produce, lacking labor standards and supporting unsustainable ecological impacts from fad agriculture growth.

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