Are you a reducetarian? Meat-eating is no longer all or nothing

What this fast-growing trend can teach us about food.

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I’ve eaten a steak and two chicken nuggets since I became a vegetarian. This might seem impressive if you imagine that, when I was six, my life changed for ever when I asked, lips atremble: “Papa, where do sausages come from?” In reality, I became a vegetarian three weeks ago. I am not very good at it.

Since the word was invented in 1839, being a vegetarian has been seen as a cut-and-dry deal. By definition, a vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat – you either are one, or you aren’t. You can’t be “a bit” vegetarian just because you only ate “a bit” of your boyfriend’s 20 McNuggets ShareBox.

It’s for this reason that I didn’t become a vegetarian before. Despite being repeatedly appalled by videos, pictures and articles revealing the meat industry’s grimmest secrets, I simply thought that I couldn’t be a vegetarian. I just didn’t have the willpower. Sure, this video of male baby chicks being pulverised alive in a meat grinder horrifies me – but when I get drunk, I’ll accidentally eat at KFC. Why even try?

“People think of meat consumption as an all-or-nothing premise, but this simply isn’t true,” says Brian Kateman, the founder of the Reducetarian Foundation and the author of The Reducetarian Solution. Although Kateman came up with the concept of reducetarianism in 2015, the publication of his book in April has given the practice a surge in popularity.

But what is it? The name spells it out: reducetarians are committed to reducing their meat intake, as well as consuming fewer dairy and egg products.

“The simplest act a person can take to improve their health, to protect the environment and to spare animals from a lifetime of suffering is to reduce the amount of animal products in their diets,” Kateman tells me.

I didn’t knowingly become a reducetarian. When I made the choice to give up meat last month, I decided to give myself ten exceptions a year. These include Christmas, holidays abroad and my birthday (hence the steak).

Although a rapid rise in Google searches for the term last month might make reducetarianism seem like a fad or a trend, in reality you don’t have to adopt the name or buy Kateman’s book to become one. You can become a reducetarian right now, if you decide to swap your lunchtime steak bake for a cheese and onion pasty.

But does it work? Can cutting out meat here and there “transform your health and the planet”, as Kateman’s book promises? Are reducetarians just lazy, weak-willed cheaters?

According to David Tilman of the University of Minnesota, if everyone in the world were to follow a pescatarian, vegetarian or Mediterranean diet, global greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced significantly, and it would prevent the destruction of tropical forests and savannahs “as large as half of the United States”. In a 2014 study, Tilman found that adopting these diets could also reduce cancer by 10 per cent and heart disease by 20 per cent. But cooked pigs taste good, right?

You could still eat pork and make a difference. Although it is not yet officially a concept, you could be a “beef reducetarian” and have an impact on the planet (as well as, of course, the lives of cows). Tilman and his colleague Michael Clark published a study last month that found that the ruminant meat industry (cattle and sheep) has a hundred times the impact of plant-based agriculture – and between three and ten times greater impact than other animal-based foods.

In popular culture, vegans and vegetarians are seen as sandal-wearing moralisers who care so rabidly about what goes in your mouth that they’re ready to accompany it by jumping down your throat. It’s true that many who give up meat or dairy can be abrasive, and it’s this attitude that makes people reluctant even to try. The most innovative thing about reducetarianism isn’t the concept (after all, “flexitarians” have existed since the 1990s) – it’s the lack of judgement.

“I started the reducetarian movement to unite vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians and anyone else interested in ending factory farming,” Brian Kateman told me. “We can accomplish a lot more together than apart.”

Cynics might say that reducetarianism is too easy, non-committal or weak. In my mind, it’s precisely these factors that make it so great.

“Vegan food isn’t only for vegans – it’s for everyone,” says Kateman. “Enjoy guacamole and margaritas? You enjoy vegan food.”

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania