By Sarah Palmer, CES Communications
Nina Gheihman, a former CES Graduate Student Affiliate, recently graduated from Harvard University with a Ph.D. in sociology. Currently, she is jointly appointed as a postdoctoral researcher at the Sustainable Food Initiative at University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and is a Visiting Scholar in the Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School.
Nina Gheihman is no stranger to unexpected twists of fate. When she originally proposed a dissertation focused on veganism, she was strongly cautioned against focusing her work on such a fringe topic. However, she wasn’t deterred and as a result, she got to witness the inner-workings of just how this niche activist movement evolved into a cultural behemoth.
Fast-forward five years and once again she was, along with the world, embroiled in a major upheaval. This was a global pandemic, which disrupted the final months of her Ph.D. candidacy. “I was in the final throes of finishing my dissertation and, as everybody tells you, the last few months are really intense. And on top of that, I'm actually Canadian so I didn’t know if I would have to go back to Canada.”
Thankfully, Gheihman was able to stay in the U.S. and, while initially disappointed that her friends and family couldn’t come to her defense in person, she quickly realized that with a virtual defense the whole world was open to her. Her research, which was funded through a Krupp Foundation Dissertation Research Fellowship from CES and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, sent her to France, Israel, and California. Via the wonders of Zoom, she was able to invite over 75 people from across the globe to witness the fruits of her labor.
Now in California, Gheihman is working on converting her dissertation into a book for a general audience. “It is so important to educate. It's still important to promote this change in the food system.” She hopes to put out her book, How It All Vegan: The Inside Story of Icons, Informers, and Innovators Who Changed Food Forever, in 2022. This engaging look at the rise of veganism seeks to disentangle a complicated web that started with the rise of the meat and dairy industry in the post-WWII boom. Threads in this web include the meat and dairy hegemony, the subliminal messaging that pervades how we as a society engage with food, and the shifting societal role that veganism has, and continues to have, in the collective consciousness.
Her book aims to educate, but also illustrate veganism’s incredible development over time. Currently, many people think of veganism as extreme, but as the health benefits, animal rights concerns and environmental advantages of vegan options become obvious, veganism has become more present in mainstream culture. Gheihman’s research has charted how veganism became a high-profile, elite trend, but also how the concept of eating “plant-based” has been integrated into day to day life.
“As a sociologist, I'm trying to take a step back and realize how all these forces are coming together in order to mainstream this movement.” Gheihman’s work has identified the major methods through which this cultural shift occurred. Broadly she has identified three strong pathways by which veganism took on cultural significance. These include its popularization by high-profile individuals, its presence on knowledge platforms such as social media and entertainment heavyweights like Netflix, and finally through the founding of companies who are providing protein alternatives that are feeding a public increasingly hungry for plant-based options.
“I thought the story of how veganism mainstreamed would be one about the battle between activists versus the entrepreneurs. However, I discovered that most of the entrepreneurs are former activists, who realized that education or advocacy was only going to get us so far in terms of convincing people to shift their diet.” It’s getting easier, and despite the global economic downturn in the vegan sector business is booming. Meat alternatives are stocking the shelves and many major businesses are pouring money into vegan-friendly products. Gheihman noted, “(vegan) products used to be created for this niche subculture. And now actually the target is the omnivores.” Research shows that individuals enacting small changes with what they eat, could make a huge positive difference in creating a sustainable, healthier food system. This could mean integrating some vegan alternatives, or as Gheihman put it, “it's really just trying to reduce the meat at the center of your plate and increasing whatever else is on your plate already.”
Gheihman’s work shows that veganism is far from fringe, now it’s a force to be reckoned with. What’s more, vegan food is not a distinct and separate subgroup as almost every food has a vegan counterpart - and a tasty one at that. Gheihman still occasionally indulges in her beloved ice-cream, cashew-based of course. “Whether you agree with it or not, I think vegan entrepreneurs have really affected the popular culture and are shifting us towards a more plant-based diet. And I wanted to tell their story.”