With vegan restaurants on the rise, sales of vegan foods outpacing other cuisine, and young adults flocking to plant-based diets, 2019 has been deemed the “year of the vegan,” at least by the media. Forbes, The Economist, and The Guardian all agree that veganism has gone mainstream — and as with most things this year, the political realm is following suit.
Plant-based diets have come up multiple times during the 2020 presidential race, largely because one of the contenders, Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), has been a vegan since 2014, and another, Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), is a vegetarian. For the first time in U.S. history, being a meat-free politician isn’t necessarily a liability.
“That a vegan diet has become a respectable topic is a sign for progress,” said Matthew Liebman, director of litigation for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Most people don’t think it’s something to be concerned about, that it doesn’t make a candidate ineligible to be president. I think 10, 12 years ago, it would have undercut their standing.”
A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 74 percent of registered voters say a candidate’s veganism doesn’t matter to them. And only 12 percent of respondents say they would not consider voting for a vegan president.
While veganism may be playing a new, and newly visible, role in electoral politics, two former presidents — Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — have spent their years out of the White House discussing the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. President Obama urged the public to eat less meat to reduce climate change at the Global Food Innovation Summit in 2017.
“That doesn’t mean that we can’t teach you and me to have a smaller steak, for our own health,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we can’t make progress in educating the advanced world about the need to reduce, just for dietary reasons, the amount of meat that we consume at any given meal.”
Suffering from heart disease, Bill Clinton has been vocal about adopting veganism for nearly a decade. But when both he and Obama campaigned for president — the former in the 1990s and the latter in the 2008 and 2012 races — telling voters to ditch meat might have been a risky undertaking. (Former Vice President Al Gore also identified as vegan shortly thereafter.)
In 1999, when Clinton was serving his second-term in office, 6 percent of the Americans Gallup surveyed were vegetarians, a figure that remains steady today. The polling organization didn’t track how many of its respondents were vegans until 2012 — the year Obama won re-election. Then, 2 percent of Americans identified as vegans. Now that number has climbed to 3 percent and is expected to grow.
The Economist reports that a quarter of 25-to 34-year-olds are vegans or vegetarians and that sales of vegan foods in the U.S. have risen 10 times faster than other foods. According to The Guardian, a record 14,000 people signed up for Veganuary, resolving to go meat-free for at least the first month of the year.
While sometimes reticent about his diet, Booker stands out for framing the fact that he is vegan as an asset. During the October Democratic presidential debate, he said that his diet qualified him to declare President Trump “the most unhealthy person running for the presidency in 2020.” He also brought up his veganism to suggest he’s capable of reaching across the aisle, noting that he dines with meat-eater Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), despite their dietary and ideological differences.
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Eating a plant-based diet may distinguish Booker from his political rivals, but it’s also opened him up to criticism — from fellow vegans. He rankled some when he answered “no” after a moderator at a September debate asked him if all Americans should go vegan. Conversely, he’s taken jabs from conservatives such as "The View" co-host Meghan McCain, who quipped, “What does a vegan eat at the Iowa State Fair?” (Fried PB&J on a stick, it turns out.)
After October’s debate, McCain questioned why Booker bothered to mention his diet at all, suggesting that the lifestyle and those who embrace it are irrelevant. “You got the vegan point locked and loaded. Got it,” she said. “I don’t know what that’s got to do with anything. Thank you.”
Animal welfare advocates point out that, while vegans make up a small percentage of the electorate, voters of all dietary backgrounds are increasingly concerned about animal cruelty and climate change — particularly the large carbon footprint of animal agriculture. Through platforms that discuss the human toll of concentrated livestock farming, candidates can make a compelling case for why animal welfare should matter to Americans — vegan or otherwise.
“The relationship between factory farming and climate change has really changed the conversation; it’s been a great gateway to discuss how issues of animal agriculture aren’t just about animals but also the people who work in factory farms or food processing plants — they’re more likely to have injuries — and the contract farmers who are very heavily in debt,” said Diane May, director of communications for the advocacy group Mercy for Animals. “There is a way to talk about these issues really holistically in a way that allows people to care about them, whether they are vegan, vegetarian, or eat meat.”
Case in point: Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a bill making certain types of animal cruelty a federal felony, following the House of Representatives’ unanimous support of a similar bill last month.
A candidate’s policies matter most
Although 7 percent of registered voters included in the recent HuffPost/YouGov poll said they are more likely to support a vegan candidate over the alternative, most animal advocates said that the candidates’ policies matter more to them than their diets.
“What’s really important is what those candidates are going to do toward animal welfare legislation,” May said. “One thing we’d like to see is more government action on research and development for cell-based and plant-based meat. We’d like to see an increase of plant-based meals in public schools and candidates who are fighting back against the conditions animals raised for meat are living in. It really matters what candidates are going to do.”
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is neither vegan nor vegetarian, but in August, he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to release an animal welfare plan. His Protecting Animals and Wildlife (PAW) policy would strengthen the Endangered Species Act, make animal cruelty a federal crime, reform the factory farming system, and stop animal shelters from euthanizing healthy pets, among other measures.
“The president does not care about animals and his cruel actions prove it,” Castro said. “He has put corporate profits over living creatures and individual fortunes over our future. This groundbreaking plan will improve the treatment of animals around the country and the world, and undo Donald Trump’s damage.”
Animal rights groups applauded Castro’s plan and encouraged other presidential candidates to develop similar platforms. Booker followed suit about a week later with a plan that would shut down puppy mills, ban cruel animal traps on federal lands, expand animal wildlife habitat, and more. He also mentioned how he included new limits on animal testing in his update of the federal chemical safety law.
Brad Pyle, political director for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said that this year, animal welfare has played a prominent role in the presidential race.
“It’s exciting to see so many candidates with animal welfare policies,” he said. “It started with Castro, and I definitely encourage more candidates to do the same.” He is hopeful that more welfare plans will be made public before the Iowa caucus on February 3.
To date, vegetarian Tulsi Gabbard includes no such policy on her campaign website, while Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), an omnivore, has already cosponsored a number of pieces of animal rights legislation, including the Egg Products Inspection Act, which improves conditions for egg-laying chickens, and the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, which opposes horse slaughter for meat. Sanders may not be vegan, but he has a following in that community, including the Vegans for Bernie Facebook group, likely because he has been outspoken about sustainable meat and factory farming.
“Factory farms are responsible for 1.4 trillion pounds of animal waste in America,” Sanders said on Twitter in May. “They are a threat to the water we drink and the air we breathe, and it is unbelievable to me that Republicans in Congress have been working overtime to exempt factory farms from environmental laws.”
A vegan voting bloc?
Vegans don’t yet have the focused attention of politicians in the same way that, say, African Americans or evangelical Christians do. But as more voters embrace veganism, reduce their meat consumption, or take an interest in animal welfare, it’s highly plausible that the number of politicians who adopt platforms around these issues could grow.
“I would love to see a vegan voting bloc that candidates are courting,” Mercy for Animals’ Diane May said. “It’s definitely something that could happen in the next couple of election cycles.”
The fact that the Humane Party, a political party for vegans and animal rights advocates, exists may be the best indicator that such a voting bloc could emerge in the not-so-distant future. Formed in 2009, the Humane Party has hundreds of members, mostly active in California and New York. The party only supports candidates who have committed to “humane” values personally and politically.
“The party is still largely an ideal, a group of likeminded people,” said Robert Mason, a Humane Party presidential primary candidate. He would like to see vegan politicians in major parties speak more openly about their beliefs.
“Have some conviction; be honest,” he said. “As a vegan, I have an outlook toward improving the quality of life for Americans, and I would like to institute new laws that drive us toward sustainability and improve our lifestyle.”
The Humane Party may be a fringe political group, but more Americans are adopting “humane” values. In 2015, Gallup found that 32 percent of Americans believe animals should have the same rights as people (up from 25 percent in 2008), and 62 percent believe they deserve some protection while still being used for the public’s benefit.
“While being vegan might be extreme for some people, the majority of the population doesn’t want to force animals raised for food to suffer,” May said.
Survey respondents weren’t directly asked about veganism, but 26 percent said they were very concerned about livestock and animals raised for food, while 54 percent said they were somewhat worried about this issue. Gallup attributed the rise of Americans troubled by the treatment of livestock to documentaries such as Food, Inc., which have sounded the alarm about corporate control of the food chain. Liebman gave the animal rights movement credit for this trend.
“The animal rights movement dates to the 1970s, and it raised the public consciousness about these issues through leafleting, undercover investigations, and documentaries,” he said. “Ten or 12 years ago, the conversation might not have been as developed, but the Ringling Bros. Circus brought attention to animal suffering, and now there’s a greater availability of plant-based alternatives to meat. There’s a dynamic of social change, and having it play out on the national stage during the presidential debates is progress.”
Last year, Booker wrote about his transition from “junk food vegan” to “focusing on eating unprocessed food with simple ingredients.” Over the last year, however, he has been fairly reserved about his diet. (Booker’s campaign was one of a number of organizations Civil Eats asked to comment on the rise of veganism in politics; Booker’s campaign, the North American Meat Institute, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association all declined to comment for this story.) At the Democratic presidential debate in October, Booker suggested his veganism made him health conscious, but during the September debate, he only discussed his dietary habits after being asked to do so.
Even if a presidential candidate became a vegan evangelist of sorts, promoting the lifestyle to the public, Mason said that the vegan community may not rally behind one particular political figure.
“The vegan community is so disjointed; it’s hard to pull everyone together,” Mason said. What unites the community, however, is the concept of “non-harming,” he added.
“It’s not just about animal equality and animal rights,” he explained. “It’s about creating a positive society. I think a move towards veganism as an ideal forces people to be a lot more forward-thinking.”
Cities and states are influencing discourse
Major presidential candidates may not be ready to make veganism and animal welfare key parts of their platforms, but cities and states are rapidly enacting legislation related to these issues. New York City, for example, just passed a foie gras ban that goes into effect in 2022. The legislation was part of a bundle of animal welfare bills that included proposals to bar the declawing of healthy cats, prohibit horse-drawn carriage rides in some circumstances, and recognize “Meatless Mondays” in the city. Just last month, California approved a statewide fur ban, a move that came after San Francisco and Los Angeles passed their own such bans. Last year, Californians backed Prop. 12 to improve living conditions for animals raised for food, including hens, sows, and veal calves.
While it’s tempting to write off the newly passed animal welfare laws in New York and California as the activism of “coastal elites,” swing or red states such as Florida, Ohio, and Arizona have also passed legislation to end extreme confinement of egg-laying hens. Iowa took measures this year to reduce animal cruelty, with its House of Representatives passing HF737, a bill that would raise the penalties for such abuse. The legislation will head to the Iowa Senate next year.
The animal welfare legislation passed at the city and state levels shapes the political discourse at the national level, animal advocates say.
“Absolutely, municipalities are the first stepping stone that can lead to a lot of positive change at the state and national level,” Pyle said. “We’re always encouraging members to reach out to elected officials and not just in Congress.”
The animal welfare agenda is multilayered, Liebman said, with advocates not only pushing for stronger animal cruelty laws and the elimination of subsidies for factory farms but also for the elimination of cosmetic testing on animals and bans on importing the remains of “trophy” animals that belonged to endangered species. Implementing such laws has little to do with whether a particular politician is vegan, Liebman said.
“There’s a lot of room for everyone to support the well-being of animals and even to recognize their rights without making it about individual choices,” he said.