Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, looks at the issue of whether Reducetarians, those whose identity is based on reducing their consumption of animal products, actually exist.
I have thought about it.
After years of hearing the term, I had plenty of opportunities to meet any, but I don’t think I ever have. I heard the term Reducetarian, I read it in the press and especially in plant-based advocacy literature, and during vegan outreach I certainly heard people claim they behave like they are one of them, but, to be honest, not only I did not believe them, but they did not use the term as an identity. I could see in their faces that when they said they eat less meat or dairy, they might have just said it because that’s the politically correct thing to say, and they wanted to avoid talking to me (which, of course, did not quite work, as I immediately would reply with, “ah, really, how much less?”).
I even wrote about them in my book “Ethical Vegan” in the chapter titled “The Anthropology of the Vegan Kind”, where, in addition to describing the different types of vegans I think there are, I also had a go at classifying the different types of non-vegans. I first split humanity into three groups as far as their general attitude toward the exploitation of other animals is concerned: carnists, omnivorous, and vegetarians. In this context, I defined carnists as those who not only don’t care about such exploitation but think it is important that humans exploit animals in any way they see fit, vegetarians as those who do not like such exploitation and think at the very least we should avoid eating animals killed for food (and one sub-group of these will be the vegans who avoid all forms of animal exploitation), and then omnivorous (not biological omnivores, by the way) as those in between, so people who do care a bit about such exploitation, but not enough to avoid eating animals killed for food. I then went along subdividing these categories, and I subdivided omnivorous into Reducetarians, Pescatarians, and Flexitarians.
So, I have written about Reducetarians as I have written about any other group, assuming that they exist, they used this term to define their identity as opposed to the terms used by any other group, and they are a coherent well-defined group. However, I now have doubts about their existence.
Well, I don’t have doubts that people who use this term to define themselves have existed, but doubts about whether there is such a thing as the Reducetarian Movement, whether reducetarians are indeed a coherent group of people, and even whether they still exist a few years after they defined themselves as Reducetarians. I began to wonder if actual reducetarians ever existed in the first place.
It’s worth looking a bit deeper to see if I can find them.
What is a Reducetarian?
This is what I wrote about them in my book:
“A reducetarian is an omnivorous who may care enough about animal exploitation to commit themselves to reducing their consumption of meat, dairy and eggs, but not enough to avoid the consumption altogether. The Reducetarian Foundation was founded in 2015 by the American Brian Kateman, who stated in an interview with Forbes.com:
‘A reducetarian describes a person who is mindfully eating less meat – red meat, poultry, and seafood, as well as less dairy and fewer eggs – regardless of the degree of reduction or motivation for cutting back. They play around with Meatless Mondays, veggie-heavy lunches, smaller protein portions, vegetarianism, and veganism to see what works best for them. This concept is appealing because not everyone is willing or able to follow an ‘all-ornothing’ diet.’”
There have also been several polls that seem to identify many reducetarians. A 2020 Gallup poll found that nearly one in four Americans (23%) reported eating less meat in the past year than they had previously. A 2021 poll in the UK found that a third of UK adults intended to change their diets in 2022, and while only 6% of those who resolved to change their diet said they intended to go vegetarian, 34% hoped to eat less meat (rising to 43% among men, versus 28% among women).
So, on the face of it, reducetarians do appear to be a well-defined group, they must exist if they show up in polls, there is even an organisation with the term in its name that they can join, and there is a funder who represents them in the media.
But let’s dig deeper. The Reducetarian Foundation was co-founded in 2015. According to its website, Brian Kateman co-founded it after coining the term “reducetarians” to describe people who are deliberately reducing their consumption of meat. He is now the author of several books, and he is an adjunct professor of environmental science and sustainability at Kean University. I wanted to see if the claim that he coined the terms sticks, so I did a Google search for the appearance of the term before 2015. I found that some of the Reducetarian Foundations pages are dated June 2014, and he had already given talks about this concept in December of that year, so he must have become a reducetarian in 2014 and co-founded the foundation a few months later (and he is still its President). Apart from that, I could not see any older reference to the term with the same meaning, so it does seem that he coined the term.
But think about this for a moment. If he became reducetarian in 2014, and he is still one, why has he not become vegan by now — at the end of 2023, when I am writing this article? If he has been reducing animal products for about ten years now, how it is possible that he is still using animal products? How small would his average daily reduction have to be if he still consumes animal products in food today?
I can calculate this. Let’s say that next year, in 2024, he reaches veganhood, and therefore he will have reduced 100% his consumption of animal products after he started such a reduction ten years prior. That would mean he would have been reducing animal products at an average of 10% per year. In other words, 0.03% per day. As in the US the average meat consumption in 2014 was 235 pounds per person, this means that he had only been reducing an average of an equivalent of 0.07 pounds of meat per day (which is about 1.1 ounces, or 32.2 grams) — essentially, about one bite. This is if he becomes vegan in 2024 (assuming that he is not vegan but reducetarian), because if he does not (he might have to leave the Foundation if he does), this amount gets even smaller, and this is if he consistently keeps reducing his intake because if he stops reducing he would no longer be a reducetarian (according to his definition, not mine).
What does this tiny amount of daily reduction tell us? Either that it is not really meaningful to have a significant impact (a reducetarian eating 0.07 pounds a day less meat would take 17,295 days, or 47 years, to spare the life of a cow bred for meat, who weighs an average of 1,210 pounds), or that actual reducetarians do not exist, and if they reduced animal products initially, they stopped reducing them after a while, ceasing to be reducetarians. From these two options, I think the latter is more likely, as I found it hard to believe that any so-called reducetarians keep a tally of how much animal products are reducing and keep measuring all the food to ensure a continuation of the reduction instead of a spontaneous increase after a while.
In other words, I think that if the founders of the Reducetarian Foundation, and anyone who joined them when it was founded, are not vegan by now, that kind of proves that actual reducetarians no longer exist (because if the founders stopped being reducetarians, what are the chances that the newies would stick to it?).
Alternatively, if the original reducetarians followed their definition in a significant way and have indeed become vegan now, then this also suggests that the identity of a reducetarian does not really exist beyond what could be classed as a transitional pre-vegan. Being on the way to something does not qualify as an identity on its own. For instance, there is no such thing as a goingtothedoctorarian as opposed to being a patient, as once you get to the doctor, you either become a patient or not. So, once people defined themselves as reducetarians, they either would become vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian or return to being a traditional carnist). There may be ex-reducetarians, but if they truly did what they say they did, they should be vegan by now.
What about those polls? Well, they did not find people who said they were reducetarians, did they? They only found people who claimed they reduced their meat intake (or only want to do it), regardless of whether they did it or not, and even if they did it, regardless of whether they will continue doing it and identify from then on as reducetarians. Even if there were a poll that specifically asked about the identity of reducetarian, how would the respondents who claim to be one know they reduced their animal product intake? Did they measure it before they became reducetarian? Perhaps they reduced eating red meat and replaced it with chicken, in higher amounts. Perhaps they increased cheese consumption when they reduced meat consumption, so they just swapped an animal product for another. Perhaps they just reduced animal products the first week, and then, gradually, the amounts kept increasing without them realising it. Who is checking all these things? Has there been any research trying to find out if people who claim to be reducetarian actually are, or whether they keep reducing their intake of animal products, or just did it once (and only a little bit)?
However, if someone identifies as reducetarian, who I am to deny such identity? But this does not mean I have to believe that they do what they say they do. Everyone can belong to a “club” and use any label to define that membership. For instance, belonging to a club called the Penguin may allow you to say you are a pinguinerian, but this does not make you a penguin. I don’t think reducetarians as people imagine them (someone constantly reducing animal products, quantifying what they consume and making specific changes in their consumption backed up by such quantification) ever existed as such. In the same way that those who use less plastic, smoke less, drink less alcohol or are on a diet are not called reducetarians, those who reduce the consumption of animal products should not be called reducetarians either, because an intention to reduce is not enough for an identity. And without any monitoring that proves those who claim to be reducetarians are indeed constantly reducing their intake of animal products, their identity claims feel a bit hollow.
I may be wrong, but I don’t think that actual reducetarians exist — they do only in name — which explains why I have never met a convincing one, but there may be more to this than just an issue of identity politics.
Is Reducetarianism a Social Movement?
Perhaps the issue is not whether reducetarians exist because, despite the Reducetarian Foundation’s claims that they do, what may actually exist is Reducetarianism as an ideology, which may be in alignment with those who claim to be reducetarians, even if they do not fully put such ideology into practice after a few initial attempts.
Having thought about it, I concluded that I don’t think it even qualifies as an ideology. It does not feel cogent and complete enough to be a fully fletched ideology. I think it lacks ethical foundations and it is too much based on not wanting to commit to meaningful change. It feels like more of a side corruption of a proper philosophy (veganism) caused by ideological pragmatism, or even worse, created by carnism to weaken the vegan movement — in an opportunistic organic way, not a conspiracy theory way.
It seems that people join the reducetarian club not because they follow any of its “principles” and axioms but because they don’t want to become vegans, even when they think they should. If they were genuinely transitioning to veganism they would not identify themselves as reducetarians but as pre-vegans, so if they do is because they want to settle on this alternative identity. So, they define themselves based on what they are not (vegans) but they publicly kind of accept they should be (but not really). That’s not cogent enough. That’s not a good foundation for an ideology. On the contrary, it feels like an excuse not to have an ideology or follow any radical principle.
It’s true that we, vegans, also define ourselves by saying that we are not carnist and we do not do what carnists do, which is exploit animals, but we are defined by more than that. We have built an ideology around it based on what we believe (the five axioms of veganism) and what we do (consume a 100% plant-fungus-based diet, reject all animal products and products tested on animals by consuming their alternatives, engage in activism to spread the vegan message, vegan outreach, and build the vegan world by fighting carnism and replacing carnists systems and products by vegan alternatives), and we have rooted it in millennial-old concepts (such as ahimsa) and centenarian-old social movements (such as the animal rights movement and vegetarianism).
On the other side, people who claim to be reducetarians only try not to be vegans by not rejecting animal exploitation as vegans do, but just loosely and not consistently reducing their participation in it without rejecting it. They are, in some ways, as anti-vegans as vegan sceptics (a type of carnist who is less anti-vegan than a veganphobe). They are vegan sceptics in the closet, if you will. They do not dare to oppose veganism openly saying that it is wrong or people should not be vegan, but they kind of say “It’s not for me.” As such, I think they are much farther away from vegans than people place them.
Reducetarians are further from vegans than flexitarians are, who could easily become vegan one day as they do not claim that they are reducing animal consumption, only that they mostly eat plant-based food, but do not stop eating animal products. Flexitarians do not use ethics to choose what they eat but just got into a habit of eating mostly plant-based food, without restricting what they consume — but if one day they become more ethical, it would be easier for them to become vegan because of their habits.
Reducetarians, on the other side, claim they do something that they no longer do. They might have reduced meat intake at the beginning when first defined themselves as reducetarians, but most likely they stopped reducing it (otherwise they would be vegan after a year or two at the most). If they keep claiming they are reducetarians after that, it seems that is to support an easier alternative than veganism. It seems as if reducetarians are even uncomfortable with the label flexitarian because this is seen as mostly plant-based. They rather stay in the mostly meat-eating camp than get too close to veganism. That does not feel like a coherent full-fletched ideology to me. It rather feels like a reaction to one that threatens the status quo. A recent reaction driven by the carnist opposition to veganism sprang from the recent popularity of this philosophy.
Reducetarianism does not seem to work as an ethical system either. In the same way there are no people called reducetarian homophobes (those who purposely reduce their homophobia without aiming to stop it), reducetarian misogynists (those who purposely reduce their misogyny without aiming to stop it), or reducetarian racists (those who purposely reduce their racism without aiming to stop it), there is no such thing as a reducetarian speciesist (which is another interpretation of what reducetarian claim to be — if they indeed see there is a need to reduce animal exploitation, at least in diet, for being wrong). If consuming animal products is ethically wrong, it cannot be argued that is better to reduce such consumption than try to stop it altogether.
Therefore, if actual reducetarians do not really exist, and Reducetarianism is not a fully fletched ideology, there cannot be a Reducetarian Social Movement either — even if the media believes there is. Ideological pragmatists may refer to it in their narratives, but I don’t think there is anything substantial behind the term.
Is Reducetarianism a Vegan Tactic?
Perhaps Reducetarianism is just a tactic used by some vegans to achieve the vegan world in a “stealth” way hoping that this will lead to less resistance. Perhaps reducetarianism has little to do with what the so-called reducetarians do (or claim to do) but with what some vegans say. This is what I wrote in my book about this:
“Some theoretically vegan organisations are now using reducetarian messaging, possibly because they believe reducing the consumption of animal products is a more realistic goal. I am not sure this is a good tactic, as ‘reduction’ is an elusive concept to quantify, and because I think persuading someone young to become an ethical vegan for life is bound to be more feasible – and they are predisposed to learn new things, have endured fewer years of carnist indoctrination and they may have their natural empathy towards animals still quite intact – and help many more animals. However, I can see the merit in persuading public bodies or institutions to reduce their use of animal products in their catering and food production for a particular amount by a particular date, as long as when the target is achieved the campaign continues until those institutions are persuaded to reduce it 100 per cent. Tobias Leenaert writes in his book How to Create a Vegan World:
‘I see a reducetarian call to action as complementary to a vegan call to action. I’m not suggesting we never ask people to ‘Go Vegan’. Nor am I claiming we should never use the word vegan, as it is useful and becoming more widely known. What I do suggest is we use both ‘Go Vegan’ and reducetarian messages and select which one to use depending on our audience.’”
Tobias Leenaert is supposed to be a vegan, and so is Dr Melany Joy (both co-founders of the organisation Pro Veg International), who coined the term carnism. This is what she said about reducing the consumption of animal products:
“Carnism — the invisible belief system that conditions us to eat certain animals — blocks our awareness and empathy, so that we act against our deeper values without realizing what we are doing. Reducing our consumption of animals to the greatest extent possible reduces carnism’s influence on us, so that we can make food choices that reflect what we authentically think and feel, rather than what we have been taught to think and feel.”
If Reducetarianism is indeed a vegan tactic, if it is a narrative of the most utilitarian pragmatical side of veganism, I don’t think it is a good tactic — or even an honest one. It feels to me that is a pleasing narrative in a carnist world that would allow some “exhausted” vegans to feel more mainstream, but it is not an effective tactic to build the vegan world of the future, as I think it will delay it. Reducetarianism is moving people away from veganism giving them an easier option to choose, one that does not require any commitment, one that you can’t be caught saying one thing and doing another because there is no way to know if someone is consuming fewer animal products by just seeing what they are consuming now. One that can be easily said you will choose instead of carnism but nobody would check that you do. One that is sold as an alternative to carnism but it is just another form of it, not really changing the status quo as it keeps animal exploitation intact. Quite conveniently, reducetarianism gives people a way out from veganism, an easy way to reject veganism whereby they don’t have to do anything differently as nobody can check whether they are telling the truth. It really looks like an anti-vegan tactic to me.
There is no denying that there is a reducetarian narrative out there, perhaps short of an ideology, definitively short of a social movement, but a narrative nonetheless. One that has got a lot of traction among the mainstream media (which rather talks about reducing than abstaining, as animal agriculture advertises in it), among several prominent non-governmental organisations (both animal welfare of plant-based food oriented), among pollsters who inflate the numbers as they count those who say are reducing meat consumption as reducetarians (even if they may just say it as it is more politically correct) and, unfortunately, also among politicians and governmental bodies that are always keener on gradual compromising half-measures than on commitment to significant transformative policy changes (even if the current environmental crisis pushes for urgency).
Perhaps reducetarians do not exist, but the reducetarian message does, and I do not think that it helps us, ethical vegans. We are trying hard to build the vegan world while handicapped with all sorts of carnist obstacles on the way, but, unfortunately, Reducetarianism has become just another obstacle for us to overcome.
Being vegan is not that difficult, and veganism does not need to be watered down. The reducetarian narrative is a seductive lazy message backed by a hyped-up phantom movement that is doing more harm than good.
I have thought about it.