The fish-eating New York City mayor should absolutely call himself a vegan.

Susan S. Johnson

Eric Adams is a crusader for veganism who cannot stop eating fish. The New York City mayor embraced veganism more than five years ago after experiencing diabetic symptoms and regularly promotes the vegan diet as healthier for both humans and the planet. He wrote a book touting veganism and has even launched “vegan Fridays,” requiring public school cafeterias to provide vegan meals every Friday. And yet people keep spotting Adams eating fish. The latest sighting emerged in a Politico article, which reported that the mayor usually dines on “fish and salad” when he eats at Osteria La Baia, a midtown Manhattan Italian restaurant that is reportedly his “unofficial office.” The observation prompted another round of accusations that Adams is lying about his veganism—to which he responded with a vegetarian cooking demonstration on Monday, refusing to clarify the precise contours of his diet and calling his critics “the food police.”

As a vegetarian of more than 18 years, I stand in awe of Adams’ masterful, mysterious performance here. The mayor has refused to let meat-gobblers set the terms of the debate, a debate that unfailingly fixates on purity and hypocrisy over practicality and ethics. People who eat meat are often desperate to prove that self-identified vegetarians and vegans are moralistic phonies who break their own rules. Adams has denied these self-serving critics the satisfaction of chagrin while keeping the focus where it should be: on the urgent need for everyone to stop eating so much damn meat. I became a vegetarian because I empathize with nonhuman animals to a sufficient degree that I believe it is immoral to eat them, but even if you don’t care about that, you should probably be alarmed that the meat industry is a massive contributor to climate change—a fact that its lobbyists are attempting to undermine through pseudoscientific research and propaganda.

You may be thinking: Oh, great, another preachy vegetarian, here to lecture me about the evils of meat. Quite the opposite! I am here to tell you that, if you currently eat meat, you should not stop. This isn’t reverse psychology. It is, rather, an acknowledgment that if you try to quit meat, you will almost certainly fail. In my experience, adults who attempt to go vegetarian quickly fall off the wagon, then go right back to their previous meat parade. Some research bears this out, and suggests most will fail within a year of the switch, though the exact figures are disputed. And that is the worst possible outcome. Americans eat way too much meat, significantly more than most of the rest of the world. The average American eats around 222 pounds of meat each year, the equivalent of 800 hamburgers. Framing meat consumption as a binary obscures the fact that there is a compromise between eating a small mountain of meat every year and eating none.

Adams is eager for New Yorkers to make that compromise. In 2021, he urged New Yorkers to try the Meating Halfway challenge, which encourages participants to eat less meat. He rejects judgmental purity in favor of sensible pragmatism. When prodded about his alleged fish dish on Monday, Adams told the press that while he tries to adhere to a plant-based diet, he is “perfectly imperfect.” Though his dubious comments about the relative addictiveness of cheese versus heroin attracted the most attention, he also admonished New Yorkers, “Don’t beat yourself up. No one is perfect in the city.” And he added: “Here’s my message: The more plant-based meals you have, the healthier you are going to be.” That is a brilliant message, a truthful and realistic plea to help improve health outcomes and save the planet by simply adjusting your diet.

Fine, you might say—Adams has the right idea, but why does he have to misrepresent his own eating habits? Why doesn’t he does just call himself a pescatarian—that is, someone who eats fish but no other meat? The answer is obvious: He isn’t one. A pescatarian typically eats fish, dairy, eggs, and other animal byproducts. But Adams does not eat animal byproducts. The technical term for his diet is probably “seagan,” but in addition to being a stupid word, that label doesn’t really capture who he is. Adams’ diet is overwhelmingly vegan. Occasionally, however, he eats a meal that includes fish. He appears to believe that this intermittent deviation does not disqualify him from maintaining the vegan label.

It seems pretty obvious that, as a public figure who seeks to be a role model for his constituents, Adams wants to model veganism, not seaganism. That is a responsible choice: Overfishing has devastated our oceans, driven biologically important species to the brink of extinction, decimated global fish stocks, and destroyed marine ecosystems. Adams does not want to encourage New Yorkers to eat fish because eating fish is not his vision and is often ruinous to the planet. To square this desire with his apparent guilty pleasure of occasional fish, he has chosen to retain his identification with veganism. And no one has a right, or a particularly good reason, to deny him that self-determination.

By modeling a vegan diet in a country where meat is both wildly over-consumed and associated with masculinity, Adams is taking a bold, even courageous stance. Vegetarianism and veganism retain a stigma in the United States—a genuine problem that prevents policymakers from discussing meat reduction alongside renewable energy and electric cars as commonsense solutions to climate change. It is long past time that a prominent politician challenged this ridiculous pandering to the sensitivities of meat-eaters. Adams is the imperfect vegan who is perfect for our times.

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