What is it?
The Vegan Society defines veganism as ‘a way of living which seeks to avoid, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.’ In addition to abstaining from meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey, vegans do not wear animal-derived clothing, such as leather or wool, or use cosmetics and other products tested on animals. Medicine is currently the exception since animal testing is still a legal requirement in many countries. However, there are organisations dedicated to exploring alternative forms of testing. Vegans also don’t participate in activities which feature animals, such as zoos, circuses and horse racing.
Vegans believe that animals are sentient beings with feelings, emotions and individual personalities, just like humans, and that they have the same rights to life, freedom and not to be exploited. For some, religious beliefs, health and the environment may also be a factor in the decision to switch to a plant-based diet. Vegan diets can be varied, from raw to junk food; there’s now an International Vegan Junk Food Day, established to demonstrate that being vegan doesn’t have to mean giving up pizzas, burgers and other treats.
The term ‘vegan’ was coined by founding members of the Vegan Society in 1944, using the first and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’, the movement veganism grew out of. However, there is evidence of abstention from flesh as far back as Ancient Greece when the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras advocated a vegetarian diet. Some Buddhists, Hindus and Jains have also been adherents to vegetarianism. The concept of veganism began to take hold in the 19th century in the UK when Dr William Lambe and Percy Bysshe Shelley publicly objected to eating eggs and dairy on ethical grounds.
Whatever the reasons, today veganism is growing faster than ever, shedding negative stereotypes and becoming more mainstream. The Vegan Society estimates there could now be as many as 300,000 vegans in the UK alone. The non-dairy milk substitute market is estimated to be worth £150.6 million and sales recently rose 155%, from 36 million to 92 million litres, between in 2011 and 2013. Certain countries have seen a surge in people adopting a plant-based diet for health reasons, and positive media coverage and powerful documentaries like Cowspiracy and Earthlings have played a part in encouraging more people to go vegan. Negative perceptions have been challenged by a number of high-profile, successful vegans (actors like Woody Harrelson and Jared Leto, and athletes like Carl Lewis and the Williams sisters). Stars like Beyoncé, with her vegan food delivery service, have given veganism the celebrity seal of approval, and prominent vegan chefs and bloggers are proving vegan doesn’t have to mean dull.
What are the benefits?
The arguments are the same as for vegetarianism, but vegans also avoid dairy, eggs, animal fibres and other products on the grounds that the animals suffer no less cruelty. Dairy cows are prone to infections due to over-milking, and are kept in a continual, unnatural cycle of artificial insemination and birth to stimulate milk production. Their calves are taken away soon after birth, since the mother’s milk is required for human consumption. Like laying hens, dairy cows are either slaughtered in their prime for meat or simply disposed of once they are exhausted and no longer productive. The average life span of a dairy cow is four years, in contrast to its natural 20. Male animals (chicks, calves) are the unseen victims of these industries, being surplus to requirements, and are either killed immediately (chicks may be minced for pet food) or live very short, unnatural lives (veal calves).
Leather is less of a by-product and more a highly profitable part of the meat industry, with animals enduring the same conditions and treatment. Along with other animal fibre, vegans don’t wear wool, since sheep have been manipulated and bred to produce unnaturally large quantities (no wild sheep would require shearing). Some also endure painful ordeals like mulesing (slicing off folds of skin from Merino sheep to prevent biting flies).
Vegans also believe it is unacceptable to inflict pain and suffering on animals for testing cosmetic and other non-medicinal products.
Whether animals should be kept (or hunted) for meat and other resources, whether cruelly or not, is a philosophical point that is covered here.
The UN has stated that eating meat is ‘one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.’ Figures regarding the impact of the livestock industry vary, but it is widely believed to be one of the greatest sources of climate change and environmental degradation, ahead of total global transportation. In addition to carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from forest clearing, cows and sheep produce 37% of human-related methane gas and 65% of human-generated nitrous oxide, mostly from manure. Both methane and nitrous oxide have a far greater impact on climate change by volume than carbon dioxide.
In terms of food security and global hunger, vegans feel the current global food model is simply unsustainable. Roughly a fifth of the world’s land has been degraded by overgrazing and agriculture is responsible for 80% of global deforestation, with livestock farming taking up the majority of the world’s agricultural land (for grazing and feed production). A meat eater’s diet requires more resources than a vegan’s. For example, it takes, on average, 4.5 pounds of grain to make just 1 pound of chicken meat. Animal agriculture is also incredibly water inefficient: it is estimated to require, on average, 1,000 litres of water to produce 1 litre of milk and 15,000 litres for 1kg of beef, vs. just 300 litres for 1kg of potatoes. Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the United States alone.
Therefore, it follows that more people could be fed on a plant-based diet using the same resources, and that less meat eaten means less land required to feed a given number of people, so there would be more land available for nature. (although land used for livestock does tend to be more marginal, less suitable for growing crops). However, the figures above relate to large-scale, grain-fed, intensive livestock farming, and there are more sustainable ways to keep livestock. The environmental arguments for veganism are more complicated than the health or animal welfare ones. Here is a more in-depth look.
Many global fisheries are also known to be overexploited, with depleted stocks. Overfishing and by-catch (species such as dolphins, that are not the intended catch) are factors in the decline in numbers of marine species in certain parts of the world.
The environmental costs of leather production are also high: much leather marketed as Italian actually comes from ranches in the Amazon rainforest, some on illegally cleared land. Tanning is a highly toxic process, damaging health and polluting waterways and soil in developing countries to which production is often outsourced.
However, the purely environmental arguments for and against animal products are complicated. For example, eating eggs from free-range chickens on a mixed smallholding, line-caught fish or lamb from the Welsh hills may well be more sustainable than drinking soy milk from GM plants grown using pesticides on the other side of the world on land that was previously rainforest. From a purely environmental perspective, we need to look at foodstuffs on a case-by-case basis. Having said that, the sheer amount of meat eaten today means that a lot of it has to come from large-scale, industrial livestock farming, and so overall, it would be a good thing if humanity consumed less meat – and more vegans can contribute to that.
A well-balanced vegan diet is more likely to be high in fibre, low in fat and contain the recommended amount of fruit, vegetables and legumes for optimal health. Vegans tend to score better in terms of heart disease, blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, certain cancers and arthritis, among other conditions. They also tend to have lower cholesterol and lower body mass index (BMI), than any other dietary group. The Vegan Society also reports that vegans may benefit from increased energy, clearer skin and better sleep. Health benefits to the individual can have a knock-on effect for society as less strain is placed on health services.
What can I do?
A wealth of information and vegan recipes can be found online, and vegan cookbooks are increasingly available to buy. The Vegan Society website offers recipes, information and nutrition resources.
If you’re dropping meat, dairy or eggs for the first time, it’s important that the food you cook is appetising enough to keep you motivated and enjoying your new diet. Food should look good as well as taste good. Look at the food you already enjoy; is it vegan or could you substitute any ingredients to make it so? Lots of Asian food and other international cuisine is already animal-free and nutritionally well-balanced so can be a good place to start. Beware of using unhealthy amounts of things like salt to make up for the flavours you’re used to. Use going vegan as an opportunity to experiment with new ingredients, spices and contrasts of colours, flavours and textures. Nuts and pulses are a great alternative source of protein and fat and add interesting textures and flavours. Combining grains and pulses (beans on toast, dhal and rice), either in one meal or throughout the day, can help to provide all the essential amino acids. Properly informed and with a little planning, it’s easy to cook vegan food at home. Eating out may be harder, but most restaurants in the UK and US are increasingly offering vegan options in response to consumer demand. Things may be harder for vegans in other cultures where meat and dairy still form the cornerstone of the traditional diet.
In the US and UK at least, vegan-marked products are moving away from their ‘niche’ status and becoming more widely available to buy. Food labelling is also becoming clearer in response to demand. The Vegan Society reports applications for their internationally recognised vegan trademark have hit an unprecedented high, roughly doubling from 2014 to 2015. Some 18,000 internationally available products, from food to cosmetics now carry the trademark. While vegan food may not necessarily be cheaper than meat (which is produced extremely cheaply these days), it needn’t be more expensive. In fact, a recent poll of first year university students in the UK showed 18% of them were considering going vegan to save money while studying. The Vegan Society offers tips for vegan shopping on a budget.
The British Dietetic Association agrees that a well-balanced vegan diet is as nutritionally complete as any other, and that well-planned plant-based, vegan-friendly diets can be devised to support healthy living at every age and life stage. Obviously being vegan does not automatically guarantee a healthy diet (a crisp sandwich is vegan but probably shouldn’t be a considered a staple). However, neither does eating meat; many omnivores can just as easily lack important vitamins and minerals if care is not taken. A vegan diet should follow the same rules as any other: the correct number of portions of fruit and veg, carbohydrates or starchy foods, and protein (from pulses, soy, etc.) per day. Nutrition is especially important during pregnancy, or for children and the elderly.
If you’re thinking about switching to a vegan lifestyle, you could start by taking the Vegan Society’s 30 Day Vegan Pledge and sign up for daily emails with advice, information, support and recipes. Some people go vegan overnight, but others take small steps over a period of time. You could start by trying non-dairy milks, replacing meat products with alternatives, trying vegan recipes or eating in vegan restaurants to see what works for you. The most important thing is to enjoy the process and treat it as a learning experience.
Societal and peer pressure can affect how easy it is to make any lifestyle change. Vegans are still a minority group and may be the target of jokes or teasing, especially at times when meat/dairy takes centre stage at a celebration or event (cakes, barbeques, Christmas, Thanksgiving). Parents of vegan children should be especially aware of this. Fortunately, in the US and certain European countries at least, attitudes have come a long way. The Vegan Society offers support to individuals, including advocating on behalf of vegans in vulnerable situations, such as in prison or hospital, who are not getting adequate nutrition. There are also local vegan groups and support networks all over the UK and the rest of the world.
Thanks to Jimmy Pierce of the Vegan Society for information.
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