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The Rise of Semitarianism

Can small, largely symbolic changes to our diet, like Paul McCartney's Meat Free Mondays, actually make a difference?

It's not just because vegan food looks like poo or that PETA had tried to rebrand fish as "sea kittens" that I have a hard time embracing veganism. I think foods can show respect and consideration for animals. And this is a food column, after all-the distinct flavors of fresh oysters, spring honey, or a grassy-tasting hamburger are at stake. As Mark Bittman, the New York Times writer and author of Food Matters, told WNYC: When his doctor suggested that he become a vegan, he said, "You know what I do for a living. That's a joke."But my professional obligations aside, full-time veganism remains a lifestyle choice for the few in America-it requires a lot of work and is not without its own ethical ambiguities. Because vegan diets can lack vitamins B-12 and D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids, getting adequate nutrition can be challenging (and has even led to the death of children at the hands of misinformed parents). There are ecological problems, too. Close to 90 percent of soy is genetically modified and the expansion of soy acreage abroad has led to the clear-cutting of fragile ecosystems.The factor of taste has also limited veganism's appeal. The combination of fermented soybeans and fish, common in Asia, doesn't always sit well with Americans. Paul Levy, a former restaurant critic at The Observer in London, writes that Western taste buds may never learn to love the flavor of soy because of its distinct "beaniness." And then there are the social costs. Even without traveling abroad, Jonathan Safran Foer, a vegetarian and author of the forthcoming nonfiction book Eating Meat, told The Young and Hungry, "Veganism is hard. It separates you from a lot of social occasions…. Eating as a vegan would preclude a lot of restaurants and a lot of occasions."Veganism seems destined to remain a marginal lifestyle choice. But at the same time, there's an increasing consensus that dietary decisions-and avoiding meat in particular-can reduce our impact upon the planet, especially when it comes to water use.In this environment, a new trend towards moderate meat-free living could change the stereotypes about conscious eating and make the movement more palatable to the mainstream. The idea is part-time veganism, or vegetarianism. It seems less militant than its forebears and less concerned with abstract conceptions of animal rights. While hard-core vegans who forgo honey may reject any compromise (one PETA spokesperson saidvegan before six o'clock (VB6), forgoing meats and white bread until dinner (and then, apparently, going to town on cheese), because of a U.N. study about industrial meat production showing that 18 percent of greenhouse gases come from livestock production and also because of his doctors' recommendations.The town of Ghent, Belgium, also heeded the U.N.'s call for ordinary citizens to combat climate change by forgoing meat once a week. Officials hope to make Thursdays Veggiedag, a day encouraging vegetarianism with meat-free school lunches and activities.Another once-a-week event is the Paul McCartney-endorsed "Meat Free Mondays," a riff on Meatless Monday run by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. According to the center's math, if everyone in the nation ate tofu instead of beef, we could save the same amount of fuel it would take to make 1,214,773 round-trips to the moon by car.The Atlantic Online calls this trend toward being a sometimes-vegetarian "semitarianism" and says it's different from "flexitarianism," forgoing meat to save money. These semitarian options seem far more palatable than going completely vegan. Moreover, the cumulative effect of semitarianism could be significant in encouraging personal diet changes that-while largely symbolic-can spur broader institutional changes. There's no doubt that we need to find better ways to treat animals, the land, and the ocean. Eating a little less meat every week may only be a small part of the solution to our problematic meat production system, but it's putting a much-needed discussion about ethical eating on the table.

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