For the last decade of my life, I've had elements of my work connected to the food system. As I journeyed on this path of 'waking up' in terms of my relationship to food, I have seen so many systems and approaches to potentially take on. Of course we have seen innumerable 'diets' and super-foods and questions of privilege and beyond. I wanted to focus on a couple approaches that I've seen and been involved with - regenerative agriculture and veganism - which some would say are antagonistic but I'm not so sure. Part of the impetus to reflect on this topic came from being inspired by this post from Dr Bronner (there's a tremendous amount of value there which I won't discuss, highly recommended read). The point of this reflection is to name that both approaches have value in terms of their affect on earth/mind, both can co-exist, and both have a relationship to the journey of inner development. This is not a post about health impacts. In some ways, it is an explanation of the embodied life I have been living.
As context, my own background has been using multiple forms of capital in support of both movements through Armonia and Mobius. In both areas, I have felt like a cross between a foreign substance and a bridge. I find myself engaged in activities that support people in increasing their plant-based food consumption, reducing meat consumption, increasing regenerative meat consumption, and increasing regenerative plant-based food consumption. I am multi-generationally a vegetarian (trending both vegan and regenerative), yet I have also helped with the growth of holistic management of cattle to build soil across the world. It's this unique background that is what had me thinking it might be of value to offer an integrated perspective.
First off, regenerative agriculture and veganism do not strike me as an apples to apples comparison. The former is an approach to producing food, the latter is a dietary/lifestyle choice. That being said, there has been a conflation in recent times of 'regenerative' and 'animal agriculture' - eg regenerative meat, dairy, eggs. Similarly, there has been a conflation in recent times of veganism and processed foods (nut milks with locust bean gum, impossible burger, etc). Both conflations are not crazy in that processed food consumption seems to be rising in the plant-based world and the most well-known regenerative products tend to be animal products. And this whole inquiry gets more confusing with cellular agriculture, creating things like clean meat and cows milk without cows.
The regenerative approach has had plenty written about it, in short the primary question they are asking is 'how can we support nature to have the system as a whole have more life?' On the vegan/plant-based side, the primary question asked is 'how can we minimize the needless suffering of sentient life?' I think both questions would of course resonate with everyone, it's a question of what is primary. Of note that right now, less than 1% of people eat a fully vegan or regenerative diet, but many more folks who are interested in the values behind these approaches and are trending in their direction.
The main point here is that all of this, all of the approaches we're looking at in society, is a manifestation of people waking up. People are realizing they have been eating (and living?) with a limited conscious awareness of what they are eating, its impact on themselves, their community, their ecology. That process happening is what unites all these folks - and important to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of food produced/consumed in USA (and the world) still reflects this lack of conscious awareness. This is not to blame any party (we're all in different stages of waking up in different parts of our lives, with different creative constraints), but rather naming that if this is the case, all the more reason to appreciate and value those who are asking questions of waking up.
While the overlap on intention to grow in conscious awareness may be there, what do to about is not so clear. What I've seen in my work is noticing that plant-based approaches have a pragmatic view in looking to reduce harm in the current system; regenerative approaches are asking how we may be able to transcend the current system. To me, both make sense. The current system is highly entrenched, kills >100 billion land animals/year in gruesome ways, provides cheap/unhealthy food while causing untold imbalance - making even a 2% dent in that seems like a major win. AND, the current food system is degrading the environmental system as a whole, such that its only a matter of time till we have an environmental collapse regardless of slight reductions in consumption; building another approach that works in harmony with environment after the inevitable, even if only 2% take it up right now, seems like a major win. Of course, both approaches have the possibility to shift the entrenched system very quickly also.
These approaches are not either/or. It is possible to be a 'regenerative vegan' - to support nature, have a system with more life, and not contribute to the intentional killing of sentient beings. There are approaches trying this today, not just veganic agriculture but natural farming and lots of other alternatives. Most calories eaten globally, about 75%, are from cereal grains (corn, wheat, rice) - they are mostly not grown in a regenerative way, but could be. The pathway to eating in this way runs straight through the underlying values of capitalism. While it may be biologically possible (and healthy) to eat and live in this way, it is not financially profitable to produce - in our system, this means it is not viable. That raises interesting questions about our collective values - and what happens if those values evolve.
Where Inner Transformation Intersects
Worth noting is the 'shadow' of these approaches. If anyone, in the process of waking up, holds to this idea that 'this is it, i have found the right answer' - we quickly open up our blind side in regards to where we may miss the next level of integrated approach.
As it relates to plant-based eating, this could include:
-contributing to a degrading system, thus contributing to the extinction of countless life going forward. 'not as bad' does not equal 'good'
-shaming-based approaches and the ramifications of being seen as fringe in society because of it
-contributing to the needless death of countless non sentient life (eg soil microbes)
as it relates to regenerative approaches, this could include:
-contributing to the killing of sentient beings, usually relatively early in their life
-contributing to the maintaining of dominion over sentient beings
-engaging in what has been called psychological refuge, where we feel good if 10% of our consumption is regen/humane, even if 90% is not
-difficulty to compete in current mass-market on price (eg getting into big drivers of CAFOs like McDonald's)
and of course there are some across the board:
-contributing to loss of jobs in conventional paradigm
-contributing to the continuation of financialization of life as the default approach
And it is this shadow that leads to an uneasy coexistence. Everyone's looking at the missing pieces of the other, and the places where the worldview doesn't overlap (eg, 'but killing is natural!' ... 'one bad day of slaughter is one too many!'). There are 2 different worldviews here - one is that natural ecology is supreme and reverse engineering that is folly; the other is that the level of suffering in the conventional system is so obscene that any approach is worthwhile to take on in addressing it. And so we have solutions like mom-and-pop farms and genetically-modified burgers, all interested in addressing the tremendous disharmony externalized by the current system.
The point here is that its a long journey and we all may have a ways to go as we walk each other home. My dietary choices (and beyond) do not reflect any sort of purity either, nor am I advocating for it. I am, however, interested in walking towards the collective of values that seem present in these approaches. The pathway there may not be straight-line - there are ways to reduce animal suffering that are not regenerative; there are ways to regenerate the whole that involve suffering along the way; there are ways for the system to shift that follow an emergent path. By supporting people to walk the path of their own development, I've seen people who manage animals shift their relationship to slaughter; i've also seen advocates of plant-based living start to inquire about how to make sure those plants come from the wisdom of nature; i've even seen folks developing cellular agriculture asking about organic growth medium.
Again and again, those who walk the path of inquiry and growth continually develop and shift in their thought, speech, and action as it relates to this broader topic. I won't share specific people as this is continual and in-process, but it includes leaders in both movements. The pathway there seems to be strongly related to relationship and love, which creates the psychological safety and trust to continue the growth journey (as opposed to 'fight, flight, freeze'). I have to be willing to die to my need to be right, to die to my need to think I see the full picture, to die to my assumption that the 'others' myopia doesn't exist in me as well. If you're interested in this path and work in this space, i'm part of a team that hosts bi-annual farm animal advocate meditation retreats in the spirit of gift culture, happy to share more with you.
To me, the key question is 'are we continuing to grow in our cultivation and understanding?' There's plenty of human development models that break down what it means to not get stuck in a way of thinking. Forcing a person to think in a way they are not ready for doesn't seem to produce harmonious results - seems more skillful to support the journey of waking up and help folks keep growing in their upward cycle of wisdom rather than get stuck (which might manifest as 'i am right!' or 'they are wrong!' vs 'how could it be that there is an integrated approach here that speaks to all?')
That's the path I've been on. Even as a person who has never (consciously) eaten meat, I couldn't avoid that 97% percent of humanity does on most days, and the details of it are tough to swallow. I also couldn't avoid that my dietary choices were ensuring we'd have no viable topsoil in less than a generation. Each day is another attempt to dive deeper into how to integrate these and more perspectives into compassion and wisdom. I've included below the end of the Dr Bronner's post with his suggestions on taking next steps on that path, along with continuing to ask nuanced questions.
Wishing you a continually unfolding food experience that supports your inner journey!
1. Regenetarian omnivores and vegetarians are willing to spend more for, and eat less of, meat, dairy and eggs, sourced only from correctly pastured and fed animals.
2. A boycott of “bad meat” is a hallmark of the regenetarian ethos. Animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) fed conventional carbon/water-intensive grain are an environmental and ethical disaster, inefficiently converting plant into animal protein and calories, especially in the case of feedlot (vs grassfed) beef.
3. Regenetarian vegans are committed to eating regenerative organic grains, legumes, and vegetables, and modelling the discipline for their regen omnivore comrades to just say no to bad meat. The scale of death that attends overuse of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on non-target wildlife in conventional cropping systems makes eating regeneratively a vegan imperative.
For everyone who believes in the power of regenerative agriculture to restore soil and rebalance the earth, I recommend you become a regenetarian. To start, I suggest you go vegan for 21 days to learn how to live life easily on a regenerative organic plant-based diet, and then:
1. Reintroduce a lower level of meat, dairy and/or eggs. Eating only meat, dairy and eggs certified by the Global Animal Partnership 4 or 5 (pasture based); Animal Welfare Approved; and make sure that it is cross certified to USDA organic standards as far as feed; OR
2. You know your local farmer inside out and they are raising animals humanely on pasture as well as using organic feed/grass only, and you eat only meat, dairy and/or eggs sourced from them OR
3. Stay vegan entirely.