On Thursday March 22, the SSMU Environment Committee hosted a discussion titled “Food Security, Veganism, and Accessibility,” as part of its annual Sustainable Eating Week. The event series, organized in partnership with student organizations such as ECOLE and the Herbivore Society, aimed to raise awareness about food security, and encourage students to eat sustainably. The discussion was facilitated by Gel Gibson, who is studying Global Food Security at McGill and currently finalizing their research on the interactions between food security and migration. Gibson spoke about food security addressing three main topics: the role of veganism in mitigating world food security issues; the accessibility of veganism in light of financial, geographical, and health-related factors; and the ways in which one can act on these issues.
A personal journey
“The idea was to have a facilitated discussion that brought these questions to light,” said Caroline Lou, one of the SSMU sustainability commissioners and organizers of the event. “A lot of the time, when we talk about veganism or sustainable eating, we don’t recognize that it’s not accessible to everyone, whether it’s for socio-economic reasons, for reasons of personal health, or because of cultural ties to certain food. We really wanted to focus on a more intersectional approach to this issue.” Lou explained that the goal of the event was to show how everyone, including non-vegans, can make responsible choices with food consumption.
“Through this conversation, we [hoped] to show people that even if you’re not vegan and you don’t eat local all the time, it’s about making conscious choices to become more sustainable, and not necessarily about reaching this pinnacle goal that is unattainable. It’s a work in progress for everyone, and even if we’re not perfect, the point is that we’re trying every day.”
Alison Gu, another SSMU Sustainability Commissioner and organizer, mentioned that the discussion also aimed to address different perceptions and practices surrounding veganism.
“There are a lot of negative stereotypes around veganism, and I think it has a lot to do with white feminism veganism,” explained Gu. “If you only eat vegan products but you are heavily consuming chocolate, coffee or tea, products which are harvested and produced in a way that exploits workers and humans, there’s a contradiction in that if you care about animals, why don’t you care about humans?”
In response, Natalie Quathamer, a McGill alumni who studied dietetics, stated that the most sustainable option must be considered: “That’s true. For example, I am vegetarian most of the time, but if I go to a dinner party and am served meat, then I eat it because it is the most sustainable option. I guess the most important thing is trying to find the best route in all options.”
“The key is to find the right balance,” said Quathamer, emphasizing the importance of balancing health and environmental concerns when choosing the most sustainable option. “In the developing context, meat is very important. We have a privilege for the simple fact that we are growing up in this country. However, if you are in a developing country, eating meat may be the healthiest option, but also the most sustainable one. Yet, today, 80 per cent of agricultural land goes to feeding livestock. ”
They mentioned that eating meat can be an important part of people’s diets, as “one thing missing in every plant-based product [is] vitamin B12, which can only can only be found in animal products.”
“You can become anemic if you are missing B12 and feel fatigue,” Gu noted. “You can take supplements or eat a lot of nutritional yeast to keep a healthy diet.”
One participant raised a question about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and how GMOs impact food sustainability. Gibson explained that GMOs were created by crossbreeding plants: “There are the commercially produced plants that we eat, and other wild types of the same plants,” Gu said. “A lot of GMOs is just putting strong genes of wild plants into the commercial types. It’s not the mad scientist thing that is often portrayed. […] The general scientific consensus is that there are no adverse effects of GMOs.”
When asked about the health impact of GMOs, Gibson encouraged participants to look at systematic meta analyses, which, according to Gibson, compile hundreds of studies and create a more reliable sources of information. “There is a famous study of mice with huge tumors after eating only GMOs. But the truth is that most studies that are done against GMOs are not scientifically reliable. In this case, the kind of mice that were picked already had a greater risk of developing tumors.”
Veganism at McGill
When asked about vegan and vegetarian options available at McGill, Gu claimed that she has seen real progress on the availability of vegan options around campus.
“In my first year, there were barely any vegan products,” she said, “and everything that was vegan looked gross and was disgusting and expensive, and they didn’t change it at all. Now they’re getting much better. When they have a vegetarian option, they try to make it vegan, just because everything that is vegan is also vegetarian. And McGill recently started a partnership with Aux Vivres, which is a vegan restaurant. They are much better at being more inclusive.” She also stressed the importance of not only considering what we eat, but how we eat, highlighting the contradiction of heavily packaged vegan products. “Being vegan also does not necessarily mean eating sustainably. […] For example, the Aux Vivres products are all vegan but they are all packaged in plastic, which was recently changed to be non-recyclable. They started out with recyclable plastic but now they are going backwards. I think it’s important to try to balance out those two things, especially if your goal to be vegan is to be helping the environment.” Lots of vegans eat a lot of imported products, something that is detrimental to the environment,” added Gu.
Gu explained that with the promotion of the vegan lifestyle, we must be mindful of the products we consume. “Meat, for instance, contributes to global emissions in a significant amount, and more so than people realize,” she said. “[In promoting veganism] we also have to be careful about social sustainability as well, thinking about equity and treating humans well, as well as treating animals. And there are people who are only vegan because they care about the animals and that it is fine. But in just that, when you are trying to advocate for a cause that you care about, doing so in a way that is understanding of everybody’s different situations.”