He’s an actor who initially became famous for playing Boone Carlyle in the hit series Lost, but who’s now best known for his role as Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries. Besides being an actor, he’s also a director, model, and activist. But is Ian Somerhalder vegan?
No, Ian Somerhalder is not vegan. Despite his many endeavors to protect the environment, to raise awareness about climate change, and to help wild and domesticated animals, he still eats animal products and wears animal materials. He also rides horses and might still be into fishing.
The oil spill that propelled Ian into action
In April 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in an oil leak that would become the largest marine oil spill in history. It took months just to get the flow under control, and a total of 4.9 million barrels of oil were leaked. The spill directly affected 68,000 square miles of ocean, roughly the size of Oklahoma, and the oil also made its way to beaches, wetlands, and estuaries. It killed countless animals, and its long-lasting, devastating effects on the ecosystem made it one of the largest man-made environmental disasters ever.
Ian was born and raised in Louisiana, and the city he grew up in, Covington, was close to the areas affected most. So, as soon as he heard the news, he came over to help. “I knew when this damage started happening, it was going to take awareness. The stark impact on the wildlife, that was my main concern,” he said.
He shot two public service announcements for organizations involved in animal rescue efforts. One was primarily focused on brown pelicans and the other on endangered sea turtles. He didn’t leave the affected area after that, though. He stayed and continued to help.
Two months later, when the leak still hadn’t been plugged, Ian was still there. He expressed how he felt in an interview: “Never in a million years did I think that we’d be having this conversation two months later. You know when something bad happens in your life, or something goes wrong — that weird kind of really uneasy feeling you have in the pit of your stomach? I’ve had that for two months.”
The following month, he had to get back to work. But the ecological crisis was far from over, and he knew structural changes needed to be made to prevent other disasters in the future: “It’s time to change, and I think this disaster is the game changer. It feels like this is one of those catastrophic events that truly changes the way that we think.”
Was Ian in it for the animals?
Ian’s actions during that period showed a deep concern for the animals living in the region. However, it should be noted that the main reason he was so familiar with the ecosystem was that he had been out there killing fish so many times:
“I grew up in that bayou, in those marshes. Having fished all the coastline in Louisiana and Mississippi, I know how delicate that ecosystem is. The thought of that oil sinking into the root systems of those plants, killing the oysters, crabs and shrimp, sends chills down your spine.”
And even during that period, he didn’t just express concern about the animals, but also about the industry that kills animals:
“Just watching all these very proud, hardworking fishermen, who have never asked for anything in their lives, who support themselves and their families for generations with this one industry. Now it’s likely to disappear. If it’ll ever recover, we’re talking decades and decades. It’s beyond tragic.”
So, he didn’t have an inherent problem with killing animals or even with an entire industry built on killing animals, as long as the animals were fish and pollution wasn’t the cause of death.
Founding the Ian Somerhalder Foundation
Before 2010 was over, Ian founded the Ian Somerhalder Foundation. The foundation would focus on global conservation efforts. “The oil spill opened my eyes to the fact that we all share one backyard and one biological process,” he said.
He was interviewed about it two years later and emphasized that we all have the power to change the world: “The most amazing aspect of ISF is that at its essence, we are a collective. The true wealth behind ISF is the collection of passions, strengths and commitment offered by ALL the people involved. … I play the same role we all do. I am a committed human being on this planet who wants to see change and know I can’t do it alone, and that in the diversity of thought lay the solutions to the problems we face.”
He also specifically mentioned that we can change our world by making different consumer choices: “Since you yourself are the world around you, it’s also important to look at your daily choices and consider whether it’s reflecting the change you want to see. … Truly, the more that one reflects on her or his daily habits as a consumer and a member of society, the more obvious it becomes that our personal choices reflect the whole picture of the current state of our planet.”
Ian’s efforts to stop deforestation
Shortly after he founded the Ian Somerhalder Foundation, the foundation collaborated with Conservation International in an effort to save over 300 acres of forest. They focused specifically on rainforests. Ian said: “We have to stop cutting these forests. We must answer the question: Where and how will we get the resources that we need out of those forests?”
Ian didn’t answer the question, and he may not have known the answer at the time, but the question actually has a straightforward answer:
The biggest driver of rainforest deforestation is beef production. Forests are cleared to create pastures for cows. The second biggest driver is soy production, of which the vast majority is fed to animals. Growing crops for animals in order to eat the animals is inherently inefficient compared to growing crops for direct human consumption.
So, we can eliminate the top drivers of deforestation by simply switching to plant-based food.
Ian was misinformed about ranching
In 2011, Ian flew to Zimbabwe to meet with Allan Savory, an ecologist and cattle rancher.
Allan is known for his unconventional theories. He once advocated for the killing of 40,000 grazing elephants in order to protect land which he thought they were damaging. The elephants were killed, only for Allan to realize that they weren’t responsible for the damage after all.
Ian met Allan to talk about a different theory, though. Simply put, Allan claimed that certain cattle ranching practices could reverse desertification, and by doing so we could create more fertile land that would capture and store enough carbon dioxide to reverse climate change. In an interview that same year, Ian made it known that he was so impressed by this theory that he wanted to make a documentary about it:
“I met a scientist named Allan Savory. He’s figured out a way to reverse climate change, literally through agriculture. So I’m directing this documentary about him with Geoff Shotz, our camera director on Vampire Diaries…The goal of the movie is to win Allan Savory a Nobel Prize for agriculture, which has never been done.”
Thankfully, this documentary was never made, because Allan’s theory was incorrect. Although certain cattle ranching practices can have a positive effect on the land, the extra carbon dioxide that this land can capture and store isn’t even enough to offset the emissions from the cattle themselves. Ranching cannot reverse climate change. On the contrary, it contributes to it.
Ian never publicly spoke about it again, so it’s unclear if he gave up on the documentary because he realized Allan was wrong or because of other reasons.
Ian’s other environmental efforts
Ian has done a lot to raise awareness about environmental problems and climate change since, ranging from conversations with people on the street to speaking to Barack Obama when he was in office. Ian was also one of the hosts of the documentary television series Years of Living Dangerously, which was dedicated entirely to the topic of climate change. However, despite highlighting how consumer choices shape our world, he has not focused on the effects of animal products on our environment and climate.
That’s a shame because the animal industries have a huge impact on that. They provide only 17 percent of all calories but occupy almost a third of all land on Earth to do so. That’s more land than the area of Russia, the United States, and Canada combined. Land that we could otherwise give back to nature. And apart from occupying land and driving deforestation, they also cause ocean dead zones, and they emit a lot of greenhouse gases.
Scientists have calculated that a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food, and more than half of those come from animal products. That makes switching to a plant-based diet one of the most effective choices we can make as consumers to decrease our emissions.
The animals Ian overlooks
Interestingly enough, Ian has worked on numerous projects focused specifically on animals over the years. But, as mentioned before, he has a blind spot for the animals who are exploited and killed the most. His mindset is illustrated perfectly by an answer he gave in an interview in 2012 when he was asked about animal rights:
“Animals definitely hold a special place in my heart and I have been blessed to see firsthand the interconnectedness of species and how vital they are to our planet. No better experience explains this than my recent trip to Trinidad and Tobago where I watched turtles hatch and crawl their way to the ocean. The survival of those turtles has a massive effect on the ecosystem that crawls up the ladder of species — even reaching the fish that we consume as humans.
“We at ISF also focus on animal cruelty issues including our work for stricter animal cruelty laws after a horrific incident in British Columbia where sled dogs were brutally killed due to a drop in tourism. With goals of protecting all living beings, we aim to protect the habitat and conservation of our endangered wildlife while simultaneously working toward initiatives in topics such as horse slaughter and species-specific oral sterilization.”
So, he specifically mentions “goals of protecting all living beings” and everything he says is geared towards that, everything except one small part of one sentence: “the fish that we consume as humans.” It’s easy to miss because he mentions so many other species and he is actually actively involved in helping those, but it’s vital that we focus on the fish.
The reason for that is that we kill fish and other aquatic animals in far greater numbers than we kill other animals. The number of land animals we kill each year is estimated at 72 billion, most of those animals are chickens. But the number of fish we kill isn’t even in the billions, it’s in the trillions. Estimates range from 1 trillion to 2.8 trillion individual fish each year. In other words, the number of fish we kill every two to six weeks is bigger than the number of humans who have ever lived.
And while many people believe that fish can’t think and feel like other animals, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Research has shown that fish are both intelligent and social. They live together with other fish that they know, they exchange information, they work together, they learn from each other, they spread risks in dangerous situations, and many fish even build nests for their children or to protect themselves from enemies. They’re also just as capable of experiencing stress, fear, and pain as other animals. And they want to live.
This doesn’t mean that the work Ian does to help other animals isn’t valuable, it most certainly is. All the animals he helps are in genuine need of help too. And he has done a lot more than what he described in that one answer. However, as long as he’s not addressing the trillions of animals needlessly killed by humans every year, he’s not working towards his goal of protecting all living beings. In fact, by supporting the animal industries with his consumer choices, he is actively going against his stated goal.
The animals in Ian’s life
Further evidence that Ian does genuinely care about animals, but simply has a blind spot for certain species and industries, can be found in his personal life. He and his wife, actress Nikki Reed, have adopted cats, dogs, horses, and a bird. And on top of the animals who live with them, Nikki also frequently takes in animals who need a temporary home. In this video, from February 2020, Ian talks about their companion animals:
In the video, he also makes the case that people should adopt animals instead of buying them. Unfortunately, he weakens that case by saying that there are acceptable ways to buy animals too if people really want to. But given that there are millions of existing animals in need of homes, there’s really no way to justify breeding more into existence.
Not mentioned in the video is the fact that he, unfortunately, does ride horses. While horseback riding is often presented as harmless, it’s actually not in the horses’ own interest to carry humans on their backs who dictate their movements. Not to mention that horses need to be broken in to even allow it. For these reasons, horseback riding is not considered vegan.
Ian eats plenty of vegetables. In December 2018, he was in a grocery store with “a grocery basket full of normal and healthy foods that just all happen to be green or not processed,” and his basket looked so different from those of other shoppers that several people commented on it. Ian found that strange and he took to Instagram to write a long post about it, which is worth a read:
This Instagram post actually prompted someone to ask the following questions: “Are you vegan? What foods do you eat to build muscle?” These questions were presented to Ian, and he gave the following answer in a video in December 2019:
“I’m not vegan. My diet is primarily vegan. Protein helps to build muscle. But what people don’t realize is you can build tremendous amounts of muscles with vegetables and really amazing dense starches, like sweet potatoes, potatoes, quinoa, great gluten-free pastas too. You know, there’s all this stuff in there, and it works. It works. It works. It works.”
So, even though he’s not vegan, and the jacket he was wearing in the video was probably made of leather, he was positive about veganism. Quinoa is indeed high in protein, and the other food he mentioned also contains protein, but not as much as quinoa and some other types of plant-based food, like legumes.
But what does he mean when he says his diet is “primarily vegan”? We don’t have to guess because another video was published just three weeks earlier in which he laid out what he eats in a typical day. In that video he says: “I don’t eat a lot of meat, so I substitute it with fish.” And while he does eat lots of plant-based food, he explains that fish is typically part of both his breakfast and lunch, and sometimes his dinner too. But often his dinner is an “amazing, vegan, amazing meal.” Other than that, he also mentioned sheep’s yogurt and honey as animal products that he regularly eats.
He grows some of his own food, but it’s unclear if he also catches any of the fish he eats himself. When he was interviewed about his hometown in March 2020, he recommended visitors wanting to eat fish or crabs to catch them themselves. He grew up doing this, so it’s not unthinkable that he still does this on occasion.
The additional downside of eating fish
Obviously, eating fish is not vegan, as Ian acknowledged. And killing fish is not any less harmful than killing other animals. But there’s an additional downside to swapping land animals for fish that many people don’t realize:
Most fish are significantly smaller than cows, pigs, and even chickens. So, someone who switches from eating land animals to eating fish ends up eating far more animals in total.
Ian calls his diet “primarily vegan” because almost everything he eats besides fish is vegan. But when we focus on the animals, which is the essence of veganism, we see that many more animals are killed for his diet than for that of an average meat eater who doesn’t eat fish nearly as often.
The simple fact is that there are no animals we can eat without causing harm. Luckily, we don’t need to. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explicitly states that appropriately planned diets without any animal products are “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
Adopting a vegan lifestyle is completely in line with Ian’s idea of changing the world through our daily consumer choices, and it benefits many of the causes he cares deeply about. Hopefully, he will come to realize this as well and decide to go vegan.
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