A quick google image search of the word "vegans" reveals pictures of colorful fruits and vegetables and not-so-colorful people. According to the internet, the face of veganism is young, middle-class, and mostly white. But this image is inaccurate and distorts the origins and much of the non-GMO innovation taking place in the plant-based space.
According to a 2018 Gallup poll, BIPOC eaters are far more likely to adopt a plant-based diet than their white contemporaries. Flexitarian diets with reduced meat intake are more prevalent among nonwhite communities. Also, some plant-based protein sources that have recently gained visibility in the U.S. (think: tofu, tempeh and quinoa) aren't new at all. People of color all over the world have consumed these foods for centuries.
At the end of the day, plant-based foods are another realm where BIPOC communities have been active and trail-blazing for ages, only to have the media representation of the movement virtually erase their contributions.
If you're wondering why plant-based foods are so important in some communities of color, here is a brief overview of some key driving forces. We encourage you to explore the excellent resources listed below for some examples of first-hand content.
Food apartheid and local resistance
In the 70s and 80s, the term "food desert" emerged to describe lower-income communities where access to nutritious food was limited or non-existent. Food deserts were areas where gas stations or convenience stores might sell products that were technically food, but there weren't any grocery stores for residents, who were often racialized minorities.
Since then, "food desert" has been replaced by the more accurate term "food apartheid." Food apartheid better reflects racism's role in the emergence of underserved racialized communities and recognizes the resilience at work when residents grow and share good food.
Better living through veganism
Decades of discriminatory policies rooted in white supremacy, including zoning, development and lending practices, have led to ongoing food apartheid. Food apartheid has, in turn, contributed to diet-related chronic health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and cancer — all of which disproportionately impact people of color. For those who live and raise families in underserved communities, a plant-based diet can be a radical act of self-care and empowerment.
Lactose intolerance is another common health issue among people of color. The physiological ability to digest the sugar in cow's milk is far from universal. It’s actually quite the opposite. Lactose intolerance impacts an estimated 68% of people in the world, predominantly with Asian, Indigenous or African heritage. That means that for ⅔ of the global population, access to plant-based milk, cheese, yogurt, or other lactose-free foods is crucial.
Vegetarianism and veganism are commonly practiced among social justice activists, historically and currently. Civil rights activists such as Rosa Parks and Dick Gregory followed plant-based diets. Gregory wrote about his personal, political and dietary evolution in his book, Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin' With Mother Nature, describing the shared ethical foundations of social justice work and veganism, including an enduring dedication to non-violence, upholding the rights of all living beings, and dismantling systems of oppression, exploitation and commodification.
Social justice works to defeat systems of oppression in the food system and beyond — systems that are fundamental in GMOs' development and commodification.
In his article Decolonizing the GMO Debate, Benjamin Cohen describes the "unqualified acceptance of technology" as a form of colonialism. Embracing GMOs without question relies on and perpetuates the logic of conquest. "It puts nature in the position of an 'Other,' a separate sphere to be fixed or improved not just by humans but by Western, market-oriented humans. We are not part of ecosystems; we are in charge of them. Scientists are 'designing' nature."
Food is more than just a fuel that keeps a body going. It is embedded in traditions, intertwined with religious practices, social norms, and the very fabric of culture. Where food comes from, how it is produced, and what is accessible by whom are essential questions in the debate over food sovereignty.
To learn more about the intersection of plant-based foods and social justice, be sure to explore these resources:
- Instagram:Radical Veganism, original content by @radicalempath
- Instagram: White Supremacy and Veganism, original content by @sisoyvegan
- How Veganism Is Rooted in Black Activism, and Why It Isn't Just For White People, Ralinda Watts for PopSugar, October 1, 2021
- Karen Washington: It's Not a Food Desert, It's Food Apartheid, Anna Brones for Guernica, May 7, 2018