JANUARY marks the start of Veganuary, where we are encouraged to stop and think about our relationship to animals and make a pledge to give up eating meat, fish and all food products derived from animals (including dairy and honey), for one month.
The first ever Veganuary took place in 2014 and by 2020, 450,000 people around the world had signed up to take part.
Its popularity in recent years has re-affirmed the Vegan movement, established by a woodworking teacher from Yorkshire in 1944 called Donald Watson.
In 1926, at the age of just 16, Donald became vegetarian for seven years before questioning other facets of what he viewed as the exploitation of animals — particularly dairy.
His views were considered too extreme for The Vegetarian Society he was a member of, so he and four friends formed a separate society, coining the term Vegan and establishing The Vegan Society in 1944.
It wasn’t until 1949 that the first agreed definition of Veganism, from Leslie J Cross, was settled on: “The principle of emancipation of animals from the exploitation of man.”
The modern definition of Veganism encapsulates food, clothing, commodities, work, hunting and medical vivisection.
Veganism sits on a spectrum from strict to vegan-ish. Each person has their own reason for adopting a vegan lifestyle, usually based on one or more of the three pillars of veganism, each a compelling motivator in their own right: Animal Welfare, Environment and Health.
The most popular reason for people adopting some or all aspects of Veganism, according to the Vegan Society, is animal welfare. The way humans look at and consider animals has been labelled a kind of moral schizophrenia. On the one hand, we find piglets and calves, puppies and kittens cute and want to cuddle them. On the other, we like eating bacon and steak but recoil from eating meat from a dog or cat.
The moral dilemma is a stark one: why would we choose to eat one animal but not another?
Dogs and pigs are said to be equally sentient and therefore equally able to experience suffering, pain and fear.
The dilemma is even more stark in the human context: Why is it acceptable to exploit animals for entertainment (e.g. dog racing, circuses), but unacceptable to exploit a child for entertainment, or keep slaves.
In the book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer asserts the argument that: “Equality is a moral idea […] not an assertion of fact.”
It’s not a question of intelligence, equality or hierarchy, but simply: does an animal have a capacity to experience suffering?
Veganism says all animals can, including insects. So, whether raising an animal for meat, milk, textiles or harvesting honey, or forcing animals to work, hunt or undergo medical experimentation for our benefit, all have the capacity for exploitation which cannot be wholly and completely justified.
It is easy to see and understand why this argument is the most compelling and the most difficult to square away with counter arguments based on our own lived or cultural experiences.
I consider myself an animal lover but a while ago someone told me this was impossible if I eat meat. I still think about that a lot.
In the early days of the Vegan Society, environmental considerations were at the heart of the movement. A natural diet, organic living and growing were indelibly intertwined with veganism — Veganic was a thing.
There are also the numerous arguments about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment: methane emissions, overuse of antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides and resultant pollution and degradation of soil, air and water quality — as well as climate change effects.
When a diet is solely plant based, the environmental and health considerations are amplified. The use of pesticides and herbicides are not just counter-intuitive to the ideology of Veganism (is it acceptable to eradicate insects and degenerate soil for the sake of perfect veg?), but from a health perspective it is essential that their use is at least minimal and at best non-existent. Why? Because whatever the veg eats, we eat.
But how can a growing global population be sustainably fed on a plant-based diet alone? The Vegan Society has a progressive, some might say controversial, view on Genetically Modified crops, to which they say: any food produced from GMO’s must be clearly labelled and not include any animal genes or animal derived substances. If a food meets that criteria, it’s all good.
This position is couched in acknowledging that a global transition to either an entirely or largely plant-based diet must rely on a variety of agricultural technologies to make it a long term, sustainable reality.
Environmental considerations should be viewed through the lens of each country’s particular agricultural method, however. Few would argue cutting down swathes of Amazonian rain forest for soybean plantations to feed animals destined for our plates is a good idea; or the 95 million beef cattle housed in filthy feed lots in California. These situations are dire with untold consequences for animal welfare and environment; but what is happening in Brazil and California is not comparable to Irish agricultural practices.
Remember the outcry at the EAT Lancet Report of 2019 on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems? It proposed five strategic goals to address how to feed a global population of 10 billion people by 2050.
The problem was everyone got stuck and enraged on Strategy 1 which, among other things said: “The scientific targets... provide guidance for... recommending increased consumption of plant-based foods... while in many settings substantially limiting animal source foods.”
The point the report was trying to make that is often overlooked is to make healthier foods more accessible, affordable and available than unhealthy foods; less opportunity for unhealthier foods to enter the diet, and an emphasis on producing healthier food not more food.
In other words: produce more nutritionally-dense food than calorie-dense food.
This is an important distinction to make. In 1944, methods of food production were completely different to today. There was less ultra-processing of food and less intensive agricultural practices, meaning crops contained more nutrients (and less pesticides and herbicides, and less soil degradation).
Today’s food industry is reacting to Veganism’s rising popularity: people want vegan food that is convenient and fits into a busy lifestyle. But ultra-processed convenience foods are junk whether they are vegan or not!
Health gains from adopting a vegan diet can only happen when environmental and health concerns are taken together and viewed holistically.
Eating fewer animal foods, either by quantity per meal, or having more plant-based meals per week, is a better option than relying on convenience foods lacking in goodness for the sake of being entirely plant-based.
Whichever pillar of veganism you find yourself more drawn to, eating more vegetables, fruits, legumes and wholegrains will always be better for us. So, allow yourself some room to be curious and see what you can do to embrace the little vegan inside us all this Veganuary!
Next Monday, January 11, in print: Veganuary — focus on good nutrition.