Whether we’re looking for the best way to freeze summer vegetables or how to navigate dining out with an over-orderer, writer Molly Watson brings a lot to the table. She has worked for decades as a food writer and editor, has a Ph.D. in history, and she looks at everything through the sensible, practical lens of somebody raised in the Midwest.
Her recent book, Should We All Be Vegan? A Primer for the 21st Century, breaks down the complex and polarizing topic with a straightforward analysis of veganism that arms readers with a fact-based understanding of issues to guide them in their dietary decisions. This is a book that’s sure to prompt discussion — especially in light of how the world is changing since Watson wrote it. Molly and I have been friends for nearly 30 years, and after reading the book, I still had questions, including if what we eat during a pandemic even matters. Read on for more.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Juliet Glass: You wrote and researched the book when the question could be framed as a purely theoretical one. In the past few months, coronavirus has laid bare many of the deep flaws in our food system, in particular with our meat supply chain, and the cost — animal and human — of cheap meat processed on a large scale by low-paid workers. Looking at the question in this particular moment, should we all be vegan now, is your answer the same?
Molly Watson: My answer is the same. Probably we should, for our health and for the health of the planet, but it’s not an all-or-nothing situation. Little changes make a difference. In light of the pandemic, and now in light of the protest for justice in this country, food choices might not seem so important. But a sustainable and equitable food system is part of justice — having access to affordable, healthful food is part of true justice. Having all workers — including migrant labor and service-sector employees — treated fairly and with respect is part of a just system. How our food is made, if it is grown and created ethically and sustainably, is a key question. Sustainability, as I discuss a bit in Should We All Be Vegan?, isn’t just about the environment. For a system to be sustainable, it must be economically and socially viable for all participants. A completely environmentally sustainable farm isn’t sustainable if the farmer can’t support themself.
Given the state of the world (and our supply chain) what changes, if any, have you made or been forced to make around your food choices?
Because of the pandemic? Like many people, I’ve doubled down on the support of local producers and sellers, partly out of choice and partly out of necessity. I’m in San Francisco and we’re still on a stay-at-home order and there have been long lines at grocery stores and the stores aren’t as well-stocked as one might like. I live near Tartine Manufactory and they are selling their bread flour, so I’ve been getting flour there — it’s higher quality than what I can get. And like so many people, I’m doing more baking because I am home.
While I am not vegan, my diet is very plant-forward, but I do eat animal products. I re-upped my CSF (Community Supported Fishery) — -they were supplying lots of restaurants and lost their accounts. Similarly, I’ve been buying most of our veggies in CSA-style boxes from farms that lost restaurant accounts. So in a weird way, we are eating better than ever — higher-quality foods that are more sustainably grown, produced, and harvested.
Another thing that’s a big difference from pre-pandemic: We live in a walkable neighborhood near lots of great markets, so we would shop for food pretty much every day. But now, because of the lines at stores and CSF and veggies boxes, we are doing more meal planning, so the cupboards and fridge are very full.
For people who have been forced to think about meat differently because of the coronavirus, in particular, the human price tag attached to producing cheap meat, are there actionable items that you think can make a lasting difference in the food system?
I will say I am all for ethical consumerism, but I do not think it is what will solve most of these problems. I think if you want to fix an industry that doesn’t take into account labor practices and producing a quality product, you are going to need government action to effect change. Mass-produced meat is so entrenched in our food system and economy that to have sweeping change, you need enforcement. Where ethical consumerism comes is that it shows alternative models that are viable and can create demand. Eggs are a great example. If you’ve never had an egg from a chicken that eats what a chicken wants to eat, plants and bugs and slugs, well, the difference is remarkable. So yes, ethical consumerism can make a difference, but we’re gonna need a bigger hammer to make real change.
….The vast majority of Americans eat twice the amount of protein we need on a daily basis. The idea of the complete protein — at least needing to eat them all at the same time — is false. Our bodies can recombine proteins over time to meet our nutritional needs.
‘Ethical consumerism can make a difference, but we’re gonna need a bigger hammer to make real change.’
I totally thought that was true until I read your book.
We all thought it was true! So even if there are meat shortages, there are plenty of things to eat and plenty of ways to get protein. The idea of what we need versus what we can consume without harm — there’s a big window for most things. As an omnivorous species, we have lots of flexibility, and it has served us very well. We can live on a wide variety of diets.
Around the question of potential meat shortages and changes to our diets, one thing that doesn’t get discussed is the emotional and psychological importance of diet. So if people are forced to give up meat, as opposed to giving it up from a place of curiosity or desire, that’s a different order. For many people, a meal doesn’t feel like a meal without meat.
I think for a small group of people who might be forced to decrease their meat intake due to shortages, they will find delicious ways to do that, discover that they feel better, and stick with it after the pandemic. But for most people who have this choice forced on them, when meat is more available, I think the natural move would be to double down on meat consumption, because they will have felt deprived.
Has the pandemic made you think about other areas of the food system differently?
On the farm-labor front, that’s a big question that is still unanswered. I don’t know how we plant and harvest the food we need without migrant labor, and the people who do that labor need to be paid better and treated better. The other thing the pandemic has exposed, the same way it exposed perils of cheap meat, is the complete unsustainability of the restaurant business model. That restaurants can’t be closed even for a week or two — they are operating on too much of the edge and are built on the backs of cheap food, which are built on the backs of cheap agriculture labor and cheap restaurant labor. The pandemic has laid bare that this system isn’t super sustainable.
In the end, Americans aren’t used to paying the true cost of their food. We pay much less for our food than other countries with similar economic profiles.
Do you think Americans will return to examining what can be done to fix the broken food system or was that a blip in the news cycle?
The pandemic doesn’t help food security and access to healthy and good foods and neither does civil unrest. I’ve thought for a long time that the only way that the food system is going to be fixed — so that we have a sustainable system that produces healthful foods and treats the people who produce those foods well — is if there is a real crisis. We’ll see. The small-scale changes we see happening could make a difference. This is not the full answer, but when you have stronger local foodways, and if you know where your food comes from, you are more food secure. You know if an E. coli outbreak affects you, for example. If things are less centralized, when one thing goes down — an outbreak at a meat-packing plant or at a salad processing facility — we aren’t facing a nationwide shortage.
The good news is, we don’t need all this meat! We will be fine. Historically, nothing causes a riot quite like a food shortage. I am hoping that if we indeed face any shortage, it isn’t so systemic. When none of us could find flour in the store for a few weeks, that was one thing, but if we couldn’t find rice or quinoa or other starchy things for months on end, that would be a different problem.
What makes the demonstration and widespread unrest happening now different from riots around food shortages?
Revolutions happen because people have less to lose than they have to gain. The American Revolution wasn’t about food shortages. And despite Marie-Antoinette’s supposed comments about cake, the French Revolution wasn’t about food shortages either.