In the Philippines, is veganism a privilege?

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In the Philippines, veganism is still viewed as a lifestyle only possible for the rich, given the costlier plant-based and gourmet alternatives to your everyday food choices. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — More than being another health fad, veganism has proven itself to be a growing lifestyle movement in the Philippines over the last decade. The strictest among all forms of vegetarianism, being vegan requires a complete rejection not only of animal meat but also of animal by-products such as milk and eggs. Today, the Facebook page of the Vegetarian Society of the Philippines group alone has more than 6,000 members, aside from the other Pinoy vegan support groups online. The Philippines even has its own page on the international Happy Cow directory, with a current list of 304 vegan and vegetarian restaurants all over the country.

However, the Philippines is still hardly open to veganism, with some people saying that we are one of the worst countries to be vegan. Filipino cuisine is mostly meat-based, such as traditional favorites, adobo and sinigang. Foreign vegans visiting the country have also warned about the difficulty of entering restaurants without being bombarded by meat, and of finding snacks that are free of any animal by-product.

Aside from access, veganism is still viewed as a lifestyle only possible for the rich, given the costlier plant-based and gourmet alternatives to your everyday food choices. Veganism has also been criticized by its opponents as a nutrient-deficient diet, stating that the consumption of meat and animal by-products is necessary in order to receive all the necessary nutrients.

But for the local vegan community, these criticisms are huge misconceptions on the part of the general public. According to Eunicia Mediodia, co-founder of Pinoy Vegans, veganism can be a sustainable lifestyle even for the average Filipino.

“‘Yung mga typical na hinahanap-hanap nating mga Pilipino, [you’ll learn that] ‘Oh, I don’t have to sacrifice my taste in order to be vegan,’” she said, echoing the belief of vegans worldwide that when people learn to recreate delicious meals without the meat, the conversion usually becomes easier.

Mediodia cited alternatives, such as going to the wet market to buy vegetables and preparing home-cooked meals, which she said will even help more Pinoys save money as compared to buying from restaurants. She also said that vegan recipes go beyond salads, citing that their potlucks at Pinoy Vegans have produced recipes such as vegan pizza, vegan lechon kawali, and vegan bacon. These are made with vegan “meats” and meat substitutes such as tofu, tempeh (fermented soybeans), seitan (processed wheat gluten), jackfruit, mushrooms, and legumes, among others.

And to answer the criticism on nutrient-deficiency, she said, “We say that because we don't know how to balance our diet.” Mediodia believes that being vegan even pushes people to be more conscious of their health, now that they are led to expand their knowledge of alternative sources of different nutrients.

For Pinoy vegans, the benefits that veganism bring to the world far outweigh the troubles that come with the shift in lifestyle. For those who have turned vegan for the animals, including Mediodia, they believe that animals should be freed from human use. Veganism is more than what one eats, with some vegans extending this by avoiding clothes made from animal wool, silk, or hide, entertainment that uses animals, and products that test on animals.

Mediodia also shared that there are those who’ve turned vegan for health, to avoid the saturated fat, cholesterol, and cancerous chemicals that come from meat. She also warned against the danger of consuming fish today, with reports of fish worldwide eating plastic and chemicals from our contaminated oceans.

And then there are those she called vegan for the environment, or those who have switched to the vegan lifestyle in order to combat climate change and to reduce their impact on the earth's resources.

But for a country like the Philippines whose gross value of agricultural production in 2017 hit ₱500.4 billion, what happens to our farmers and fishermen if we do attain the vegan utopia?

The agricultural sector in the country is divided into four sub-sectors: crops, livestock, poultry, and fisheries. While crops make up 51.20 percent of our agri production, the other 49.80 percent are anchored on the production of meat. For an archipelago such as ours, this includes thousands of coastal communities and fisherfolk, still the most vulnerable sector in the Philippines.

For Mima Mendoza, graduate student at Columbia University and former advisor to the Philippine Delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, talking about the sustainability of veganism and the agricultural sector demands an all-encompassing lens. This means that people need to understand that veganism is a privilege.

“Veganism implies that people are given a wider variety of choices for food,” she said. “In a country like ours, where a majority of countrymen can't even put food on the table for their family three times a day, veganism is not about culture or cuisine, because you can always inject creativity in your meals, recreate tastes of our favorite dishes using alternative ingredients. Veganism is about food security.”

Before we even talk about food alternatives to make a vegan lifestyle on the consumer level, Mendoza believes that land issues have to play a huge part in the discussion. “Veganism won't erase land use issues that our agricultural system has,” she said.

A pressing land issue we have to tackle includes those done by corporations, and how ancestral lands are being taken from indigenous peoples for mining, even farming. You can see land issues even beyond the Philippines as the global demand for vegan substitutes have devastated natural resources: soy plantations in Latin America damaging the Amazon, avocado shortages in Mexico, Kenya, and Australia as they struggle to export to supply for the global market, quinoa prices rising at exorbitantly high prices that the Andes people who farm these can't afford the fruits of their labor.

One research conducted on the carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land compared different diets and found out that a vegan diet would support less people per farmland than a vegetarian diet, because of the way it wastes the chance to use perennial croplands to feed people.

For Mediodia and her fellow vegans, to help our farmers and fishermen move towards vegan production while maintaining their livelihoods would require a shift to vegan organic farming, one where we wouldn't need to turn animals into livestock. She said that the way the government and the market spends on animal-based production can be changed. “'Yung money, ‘yung budget spent on [livestock], ang dami mo nang mapapakaing tao,” Mediodia said.

But as much as Mendoza hopes that to become a reality one day, she stressed that to talk about sustainability is to talk about fixing structural and systemic problems. This will require investing more in our farmers: subsidizing the profession, modernizing farming practices, and providing them with the necessary technology to do so.

Another important step to take in improving the lives of our farmers is to invest in increasing their resilience against climate change. With every disaster caused by the effects of climate change — the so-called “new normal” — our farmers are always in danger of falling even further below the poverty line as they lose a lot of money and produce every year to these.

So to talk about the sustainability of veganism is to go beyond the individual consumer and the individual farmer. Instead of placing the responsibility of transforming the way we produce and consume food solely on their shoulders, we should instead emphasize putting our institutions to task — our government, our corporations, and the processes we have in place.

"We're talking cradle to grave, a very big life cycle analysis of how our food is produced. It's not just about human behavior," Mendoza said.