Holistic sustainability: Is travelling vegan always ethical?

by Hazaar the Bazaar
vegan, produce

Disclaimer: this article is in no way intended to dissolve the sustainability efforts or intentions of vegans / vegetarians / flexitarians / the diet and lifestyle to which you prescribe, nor does it aim to deter anybody from choosing to live by one of these diets. This article aims to dissect our food choices while travelling in a bid for holistic sustainability, and introduce information that is overwhelmingly unreported so you can make your own personal decisions and create your own boundaries while travelling.

I’m not an egg-eater. I don’t eat them for ethics reasons, but I also genuinely think they are gross.

Recently though, I ate an omelette, and I don’t regret it. Before you pull out your burning stakes and run at me, hear me out.

Kurdish culture is famous for its unwavering hospitality. We were staying in an Airbnb in Kars, Eastern Turkey (you can find my ultimate guide to Eastern Turkey here), with a guy who didn’t speak really any English.

Communication certainly didn’t flow, but he made us feel welcome by pouring us huge cups of Fanta and shoving the TV remote in our face. He told us through Google Translate that he was going to make us dinner and I told him ‘ben vejetaryan’ which means no meat. He gave Kade some of his leftover meat stew and made me toast with potatoes.

The next morning we woke to a cooked breakfast.

khavalti, turkish breakfast, delicious, local food

Oh, yes. This is the part where I let you know that meat and eggs are the bees knees in Turkey. It’s not very common (and not always super accessible) to avoid eating animal products.

Two scary yellow omelettes sat on the table screaming up at me. What on earth was my game plan? Every route seemed wrong as I picked up my fork and saw Kade give me a quizzical look and take his first bite.

I couldn’t just… avoid eating it, could I? Our host sat at the table with us, and we were due to leave for a day of sightseeing with him within twenty minutes. I needed to eat something, and I also couldn’t give my omelette to Kade and explain to him ‘oh sorry I don’t eat eggs’. I should have done this the previous night when I mentioned to him that I didn’t eat meat. It was my mistake – eggs are a breakfast staple in Turkey and I knew that.

So I ate (most of) it. I felt ill and off about it all day, but I don’t regret my choice AT ALL.

Why? I abide by the idea that sustainability is holistic. What exactly does this mean?

It’s still an emerging concept, so there’s no one accurate definition – but basically, it means that we should broaden our concept of sustainability to include an economic, social and cultural perspective, too. After all – our social construct, past and present, has ultimately led us to the environmental catastrophes we now face.

McGill University published an informative PDF on holistic sustainability here.

While it’s true that going vegan is one of the biggest contributions you can make to lowering your negative impact, there’s a lot more to it. We are never going to be perfect in our sustainability efforts, so we have to find balance.

Sustainability also relies on knowing your own boundaries and morals inside out and effectively analysing your current situation to find your personal best outcome. Perfection is out of the question, so the notion of balance is integral.

Back to my omelette situation: for me, I am confident in my boundaries but always learning and evolving. At home, I enjoy eating without animal products. It feels right to me and it aligns with my morals. 

While travelling, I try to abstain from using animal products until it counteracts my efforts within other realms of sustainability (cultural, economic and social sustainability for example). When I was served the omelette, I swiftly weighed up my morals and boundaries and decided I needed to bite the bullet as a gesture of thanks for our hosts’ hospitality. 

I realised my mistake – as a middle-class Australian, I have the privilege of choosing to abstain from animal products. It was my responsibility to navigate this topic respectfully with my host, but I ignored the opportunity.

So while practising veganism during your travels is admirable, there are a few things you might want to consider if holistic sustainability is your overall aim.

Take the following considerations with a grain of salt if you like; do your own research and make up your own mind. My aim is simply to create some food for thought and prove nothing, except for the notion that sustainability is complex and anything but black and white. This is simply an insight into the considerations I take when I analyse my own sustainability attempts as a whole.

Vegetables, fresh produce, colourful, food privilege
Photo by ja ma on Unsplash

1. Being vegan is a privilege that some can’t afford

Put simply, if you have the ability to choose what you eat, you’re benefiting from food and class privilege

What is food privilege?

Put simply, food and our food choices are, whether we are aware of it or not, determined by our social privilege. Elements like gender, race, income, ethnicity, language, our location, religion and class lay the foundations for our individual social privileges.

While at home, if you have the ability to abstain from animal products and you do, you are using your privilege wisely.

But how does this relate to travelling as a vegan? Depending on the country you’re travelling and the culture you’re exploring, the locals may not benefit from the same food privilege you do. While you are able to choose your diet, some are wondering where their next meal will come from. So, in the notion of holistic sustainability, is it fair to benefit from your own personal food privileges in a culture that does not reap the same benefits?

There’s no right or wrong answer, and it’s not black and white. I’m not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.

Your personal boundaries and morals are just; so it’s not automatically right or wrong to travel as a strict vegan amongst those who don’t share your food privilege. But – it is vital to consider your approach to this if your aim is holistic sustainability. After all, sustainability doesn’t stop at the environment, it merely begins there.

Livestock plays a different role in the Majority World 

If you’re unfamiliar with the term of Majority World, read about it here.

While I know this is an extremely controversial topic to touch on, I think it’s important. I am in no way an expert on this topic. Elements also undoubtedly vary from country to culture, to religion, to region etc.

The livestock industry in countries within the Majority World is often vastly different to the ones you and I aim to boycott (and rightly so) with veganism. In places like Australia, the US and the UK, agriculture is mechanical, commercialised and capitalised.

Personally, it makes me extremely sad to see animals being killed for consumption, but I also recognise that eating animals is embedded into every culture, and has been since the beginning of time. This issue has arisen solely due to our over-consumption and exploitation of the livestock industry. So how does this relate to travelling? Let’s dig deep.

Antonio Rota is a senior expert in the International Fund for Agricultural Development. He focuses on climate resilient, gender-sensitive and sustainable intensification of smallholder livestock production, and the agricultural industry as a whole. 

He agrees that the environmental cost of the commercialised livestock industry is ridiculous, and it warrants discussion, but we need to include the needs of the Majority World in our debate. After all, livestock plays an important role in the livelihoods and economies of countries within the Majority World. 

An estimated one billion smallholder farmers in these countries depend on livestock for their income. In fact, production within the Majority World generates up to 40% of the global agricultural GDP.

Rota says that meat, dairy and egg consumption is actually on the rise within the Majority World, because populations are growing, urbanisation is increasing and incomes are rising. At present, commercial farming is producing only a minor share of food for consumption in most African countries- but Rota says this is changing fast.

He says this is the turning point. It is vital large-scale production doesn’t displace most smallholders, as we’ve seen happen in the Minority World. The commercialisation of our agriculture industry exploits our animals, our environment, and our society.

Instead, Rota says we need to aim to make the livestock industry more sustainable and invest in smallholder livestock producers in the Minority World.

Smallholder producers can offer valuable and important sustainable solutions to the challenge of nourishing populations and lifting families out of poverty

Antonio Rota
farm, fields, rural, agriculture, livestock
Photo by Sveta Fedarava on Unsplash

So what could this mean for you, as a traveller? 

For me, it means eating locally. I don’t ever eat meat (because that is where my personal boundaries lie), but I’ll consume some dairy products if it is locally sourced. To me, in my bid for holistic sustainability, I see my impact of supporting the local economy as more direct than choosing to not eat dairy from a non-commercialised source.

Again, this is all up to you. There is no right or wrong. Find your boundaries and go with what you feel is right.

2. Vegan food is not automatically ethical food – there’s more to it

For most people, the aim of living a vegan lifestyle is to live as harm-free as possible. But here’s a kicker: a product or food is not automatically harm-free because it doesn’t directly harm animals.

Pop culture sees avocadoes and quinoa as the two quintessential vegan staples – but how harmless are they really? When animal rights are the criteria, these products seem fine. In delving deeper and thinking holistically, things aren’t so simple. People and the environment as a whole matter, too.

The sustainability grade of a product or food also has to take into consideration: 

  1. The environmental impact of its production
  2. The social impact of its production
  3. Its food mileage

This topic is extremely complex and loaded: so in a bid to break it down into bite-sized chunks, let’s analyse avocados against the criteria above as an example.


First, a few quick facts. Avocado was once eaten seasonally, but demand boomed once the social media and superfood era began fetishising the fruit. Mexico is the worlds largest producer. In 2018, Mexico produced around 60% of the global yield. Trailing far behind are Peru, at 13%, and Chile at 7%.

avocado, hass, vegan, trendy, green
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Environmental impact of production

In short, avocado farming is causing deforestation, destroying ecosystems and consuming way too much water. In Michoacán, Mexico, the largest avocado producing region in the world, pine forests are at serious risk. Despite being a unique habitat to native species, the forests are being flattened illegally at alarming rates for avocado plantations.

The water consumption of avocado plantations is also a serious issue. It takes up to 1000 litres of water to grow 1kg of avocados (about three pieces of the fruit), which means less water reaches Michoacán’s mountain streams and the animals who depend on it. There are a lot of other environmental concerns surrounding the exploited avocado industry, including the use of agricultural chemicals and the large volumes of wood needed to pack and ship the produce – but we won’t delve deep into those today.

Social impact of production

The social impact of avocado production greatly depends on where they are grown; but within the world’s dominating production region, the stakes are high for everyone involved. Firstly, farmers and locals are impacted directly by the environmental downfalls of the production. In Chile, the industry is exacerbating a regional drought. Many plantations are installing illegal pipes and wells to divert water for crop irrigation, leaving locals to rely on contaminated water delivered by trucks.

Environmental concerns aside, there is a direct and demanding personal toll on the smallholders in the industry, too.

mexico, mexican flag, green white red
Photo by Jorge Aguilar on Unsplash

Have you heard of the term blood avocado? As avocado production boomed, drug cartels moved in, realising they could extort growers and packers.

As Inteligencia says “Our appetite for avocados has made them more valuable than cannabis in Mexico- and drug syndicates have taken notice.”

A 2017 report from Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office found that two major narco gangs were entirely boosted into existence by extorting and kidnapping avocado farmers. The cartels often enforce a tax on sold produce, demand farmers and landowners give up a large percentage of their income and kill workers and their family members – sometimes using the fear tactic of displaying their dead bodies with threatening notes.

Food mileage

Food mileage refers to the geographic distance a food is transported to reach your plate. The concept refers to a products carbon footprint from cultivation, to processing, to consumption.

The food mileage of your consumption is the element you can control the most. It is entirely dependant on your own personal demographics: where are you consuming and where are the foods you consume produced and processed? Avocado production outside of South America is blooming; so you can minimise your negative impact by buying as locally as possible.

Production within Indonesia is fuelling the South East Asian market and Spain is in the game now too; but if you’re in Europe, be wary of exports from the Netherlands. The Netherlands is now the world’s second largest exporter, but they aren’t grown there; instead, they are imported from Peru, Chile and South Africa.

Speaking generally, our favourite superfood racks up a huge carbon footprint when it comes to transportation- and demand has spread like wildfire to areas of the world where avocados aren’t grown. Exports to China began around 2011, and demand grew exponentially. Now, China is the ninth largest importer of avocados in the world, importing a record 32,000 tonnes in 2017 – an increase of 1000% from just 31 tonnes in their debut season. Chile supplies just over half of their import – making breakfast a pretty hefty meal when it comes to its carbon footprint.

The food you consume is never going to be 100% harm free. Make peace with that and exercise your own boundaries. This analysis was written purely as an example of how we need to think critically about the food we consume. I’m not recommending you boycott avocados or feel bad if you eat them regularly – it’s simply an exercise in understanding there is more to food ethics than whether a product is vegan.

Ethical Unicorn wrote a really in-depth piece last year on problematic foods- you can check it out here.

3. Vegan foreign-owned vs local non-vegan eateries

Is it better to eat vegan at a foreign-owned establishment? Or eat non-vegan at a locally-owned establishment? Trick question – there is no right answer, but it’s an interesting can of worms to open. In fact, this can of worms is complex- so let’s keep it simple.

If you’re aiming to travel ethically, one of the most important things you can do is support the local community by keeping your tourist dollars circulating within their economy. It’s a grayscale concept so it’s tricky to get right all the time, but I aim to avoid my money from falling into the hands of foreign-owned enterprises and therefore, exiting the local economy.

So when it comes to eateries, including vegan eateries, I tend to avoid ones that are run by foreigners or expats. It is notoriously difficult to correctly assess where your tourist dollar is actually going unless you dig deep.

So for me, unless they are blatantly a fluid part of the local economy and employ local people, I will just avoid foreign-owned.

Personally, I will always opt for the locally run restaurant that also serves meat- I will just choose a vegetarian/vegan item. If there’s a locally run vegan cafe, that’s a completely different story.

Again- I’m not aiming to tell you to boycott foreign-owned vegan establishments. Formulate your own boundaries, think holistically and give your tourist dollar to causes you support- whatever choice that might be. You can also read up on tourism leakage and why it is important to keep your tourist dollar within the local economy.

Remember, one size does not fit all and you’re never going to be able to zero your negative impact.

As a guest, the onus is on you to be flexible – not them

Choosing to remain strictly vegan while travelling is noble and brilliant – but if you take nothing else from this article, please consider this. As a guest from a potentially vastly different part of the world, the onus is on you to be flexible – not them. Why? See the points above.

local, greek, taverna, wine, honey

So how can you do this?

Know your own boundaries inside and out

Decipher why you are vegan or vegetarian. Is it animal rights and you literally can’t stomach dairy or meat? That’s perfectly okay- stick to it. Is it holistic sustainability? Cool! Maybe you could stomach dairy if it came to it, but not meat.

Do you feel like sometimes your food choices override an attempt at an authentic connection to the culture you’re exploring and the locals you’re meeting? Whatever you feel, stick to it and understand that it’s going to vary from person to person.

Do your research

Once you understand your own boundaries, become an expert! No matter where you are in the world, there is going to be local food that aligns with your boundaries. So research the local food you can and can’t eat and learn a few phrases so you can easily communicate your diet.

Connect and explain

People are inherently kind and generally will understand if you don’t eat meat or dairy or eggs etc. Just take the time to actually explain it to them and what it means to you, if possible. Note: Explain without judgement and primacy. Don’t push your stance onto local people and don’t overload them with information unless they ask or are curious.

Language barriers can be an issue here – but communication and your approach will go further than vocabulary. Marko Bollinger, co-founder of the Los Angeles based sustainable tourism company Lokal Travel sums it up quite well:

“If you are going to bring the standards of your culture to a place that isn’t aware of it, part of your integrity is to take the time to make them aware of your life choices and the importance of that to you.”

Final thoughts

My tummy and tastebuds weren’t happy with the omelette I ate in Kurdish Turkey, but my host was pretty chuffed. Alas, food is the window to the soul, and while I had to temporarily disconnect from my food ethics, I gained a whole lot more than I lost. I gained solid, renewed personal boundaries when it comes to my eating habits while travelling, and a new perspective in holistic sustainability.

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1 comment

Alejandra June 28, 2019 - 10:16 am

Absolutely loved reading this article! It’s so important to realise that the road to sustainable and ethical living is not black or white, and the issues around food are a perfect example. Thank you for taking the time to write about this complex topic in a way that is kind, inclusive and approachable!


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