By now, it's news to no one that minimizing meat consumption can vastly improve our health and the health of the planet. But encouraging carnivores to go that route is a complicated challenge. "People automatically assume you're asking them to go vegan and forget everything they love, all their fondest food memories," says Brian Kateman, founder of the Reducetarian Foundation. "Meat is so ingrained in our culture, there is a tendency to get defensive and feel threatened when you think you have to give it up."
The reducetarian movement seeks to gather people from across the meat-eating spectrum -- from meat-and-potato junkies to meatless Monday devotees to hard-core seed and berry eaters -- to encourage a productive conversation. Whether motivated by ethics, economics, physical well-being, concerns about water waste and deforestation or animal rights, reducetarians are on the same team, Kateman argues, and they are making the incremental steps that our society should be making on a larger scale.
Giving up animal products can be tough. For all but the most militant few, the total-abstinence approach is not realistic. In fact, many self-professed vegetarians and vegans feel enormous guilt and shame if anyone witnesses them fall prey to the occasional temptation of a burger. Yet the self-flagellation is counterproductive -- these people are still making meaningful changes that have a positive impact.
Kateman knows this firsthand. "When I first became a vegetarian, I felt really happy that my actions were in line with my values, but I wasn't always perfect. I would eat a piece of turkey at Thanksgiving or bacon when I was out to breakfast with friends. I remember telling people it wasn't about being perfect -- it was about eating as many foods that are as good for us and the planet as possible."
Our conflicted relationship with meatless eating begins with the value-laden language used to categorize diets and the identities of the people who espouse them. Words like flexitarian, semi-vegetarian, and ovo-lacto vegetarian get at the idea that one hundred percent plant-based diets are an ideal, but they also connote that anything less is a failure of commitment. Kateman and foundation cofounder Tyler Alterman sought a term that would more accurately convey the experience of being a real person with good intentions in our meat-saturated culture, a term that was more embracing and less judgmental. With reducetarianism, the idea is that reducing meat eating by any percentage is a worthy goal.
The foundation supports online advertising, content, and resources to help spread the message. Last month, Kateman published a book called The Reducetarian Solution (Tarcher/Perigree Books), a collection of essays from leaders across the fields of nutrition, environmental science, psychology, marketing, ethics, philosophy, biology, and technology, all reflecting on the unsustainability of the Western approach to eating.
The book offers a hard look at the ubiquitous and cheap fast-food burger, whose discount shows up as a defrayed health-care cost, the toxic waste on pig farms, the vast amount of resources needed to feed animals when their grain and plant diets could simply go directly to feeding people.
Kateman found Anastacia Marx de Salcedo's essay on how the military shaped meat consumption in America especially enlightening. "The military basically needed to figure out a way to send a pound of meat for each soldier every day, and the most efficient way to do that was to reconstitute meat using the cheaper parts, which were lighter and easier to ship. That idea became the model for fast-food restaurants and so much of the meat we eat today," he says.
The book also gets at some of the myths that have enabled meat-eating in modern times, such as the idea that the paleo diet -- consisting largely of animal protein -- is a "natural" way to eat. "People think that meat was abundant, like it was a safari buffet, but it's just not true," he says. "Mostly, it was plant-based."
But there are also some intriguing looks at the future here -- what we might eat on Mars and other planets we may inhabit. (Hint: It's not filet mignon!) How technologies are enabling better meat and milk substitutes and even cultured meat created by cellular agriculture, as opposed to factory farming. How crickets and other insects may provide a more sustainable protein source in the face of climate change.
At the first Reducetarian Summit to be held in New York City on May 20-21, the foundation will host 450 attendees from both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors to look at strategies for promoting plant-based diets. "I'm hoping to see new marketing initiatives, new technologies and products, new ways to influence policy, and also ways we can encourage younger people to think about careers in this space," he says.
For the typical person, embracing reducetarianism is about creating a realistic new habit. It's maybe eating meat only in restaurants, or cutting out all red meat first. Kateman himself is a fan of ordering a guacamole burrito from Chipotle. The book's small sampling of recipes, like spiced buffalo cauliflower, mushroom toasts, and cottage cheese apple pancakes, are meant to support the idea that plant-based food can be accessible, delicious, and sustaining.
Kateman says that if people reduced their meat consumption by just five percent, the impact could be substantial. "In a way, we set up consumers to fail, because meat is so artificially cheap and it tastes good and people are always going to eat based on convenience and taste," he says. "The game is rigged. But if we can educate people more about how all these outside forces impact what they eat every day, we can gently support them in rethinking those choices."