Published on 01 November 2019
Friday is World Vegan Day – but why all the fuss?
Alex Lockwood is a lecturer at the University of Sunderland and ardent vegan campaigner. Here the Animal Rebellion member tells us why a plant-based food system is not only important, but a matter of life or death for our increasingly fragile planet.
“Okay, so you think vegans are weird – but is that any reason to harass them for saving the planet?
There’s no doubt about it—whereas five years ago you’d probably never met a vegan, today you can’t get away from us.
Whether it’s the child in the latest - some say controversial - Tesco advert, your daughter’s best friend at school - five percent of people under 18 are veggie or vegan - or Mr Broccoli giving Piers Morgan a roasting on Good Morning Britain, vegans are everywhere.
Or so it feels to you.
In fact, the number of vegans hasn’t actually increased that much in the UK over the last three years. What has increased is the availability of vegan meals, the range of alternative meats and cheeses, and indeed the fear and frustration of those opposed to cutting animal products out of their diets.
So, on this World Vegan Day, November 1, if the world’s strongest man is willing to give veganism a go, if Harry and Meghan are debating raising their kids as vegan, and if even budget retailer Aldi is serving you up more vegan options without you even knowing about it, do we still need a day to promote the alternative lifestyle?
After coming back from VegFest London last weekend, where the success and growth of vegan festivals around the UK seems to have reached saturation point, with numbers down - why go to a vegan festival if you can get vegan food and products everywhere - it would seem so.
But in the bigger picture, the more veganism and plant-based foods become part of everyday life, the angrier it seems to make some people—and not only farmers.
There is a growing section of the population who want to cut down, remove or wholly eliminate animal products from their diet.
And that’s where the main growth in the number of vegan meals has come—not from people identifying as vegan, but in more and more people trying vegan one day a week, cutting out beef because of the Amazon fires, and following reducetarian or flexitarian diets.
But why do some people hate vegans so much? At the very least, why do you think they’re still a bit weird?
The fact is, veganism is a radical idea, even if it is based on compassion. In a society where we believe that eating animals (or, rather, some animals… try giving your family roast Golden Retriever for Sunday dinner) is natural, normal, and necessary, the idea that people want to cut out all animal products from their diets, and their wardrobes, goes against what we’ve been brought up to believe.
And that goes for me, too. I was brought up as a meat eater. I have fond memories of going to the butchers with my grandfather to buy a chicken for Sunday roast and fresh liver for his cats.
But at a number of points in my life, and it was a gradual process, rather than an overnight shift, I came to realise that the animals we were eating felt pain, were intelligent, and enjoyed social companions, and wanted to live.
When you learn that pigs outdo dogs on pretty much every test they are given, you start to reconsider if that bacon sandwich is really worth it.
The problem is that when a new idea is introduced into society that challenges how things are normally done, then people do respond defensively. Why should we change what we’ve always done?
Because change means admitting what you’ve always done has been wrong. And in this case, really wrong—causing the deaths of millions of animals every day, simply to satisfy our tastes.
And if that was all that was at stake - if you’ll pardon the pun - then it would be easier to understand the resistance people have to vegan food.
But what is now at stake is the very future of our planet. The animal agriculture industry is responsible for anywhere between 15-20% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, farming is a little bit more efficient, here animal agriculture is responsible for around 10% of all our emissions.
Even so, that’s an incredibly high number, and an unsustainable figure if the UK is to meet its legally binding climate change targets for reducing our collective carbon footprint.
And most major findings over the last few years, from bodies as conservative as the United Nations to the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, have all suggested we need to move quickly to a majority plant-based food system if we are to properly respond as a country to the climate emergency.
With a fully plant-based food system, says the Harvard academic Helen Harwatt, we could grow all the food we needed, in terms of both calories and nutritional needs, right here in the UK, with a third less land than we currently use. That land could then be given over to reforesting, helping support our endangered wildlife like hedgehogs.
That’s because animal farming currently uses 83% of our land, but gives us only 17% of our total calories. That’s incredibly inefficient. You need to put 32 calories of corn, grain and other plants into a cow to get one calorie of beef out. In a world where one billion people go hungry every day, that’s a criminal waste of calories.
Vegans know this. The recent Animal Rebellion protests in London were demanding that our government shift the UK towards a plant-based food system as quickly as possible so we can avoid the worst catastrophes of climate change (which we are already feeling of course, in the increase in local and rural flooding, the fact that so many of our crops withered in the fields this summer due to extreme heat.
So, vegans say, even if you don’t care about animals so much, then surely you care about a safe planet for future generations. For your children and grandchildren? Is that gammon steak really worth your child’s future chances? Is that sausage worth the earth?
This is why people still hate vegans so much. Because deep down you probably agree with the reasons why they do what they do, but you don’t have the courage or belief that you can change too. You like cheese too much. You don’t want to upset your gran by refusing her famous family favourite shepherd’s pie.
But then why not do what you can? Cut down on meat. Maybe try that new vegan pizza from Zizzi. Or listen to your kids, especially those who went on the school strike for climate, who are doing this more naturally.
You can still think vegans are weird, if you want. Maybe you think it is still too far for you to change right now. But whatever you do, please don’t stand in the way of those who are trying to live compassionate lives.
Eat your beef burger if you want, but please don’t force your meat-eating traditions on those of us who are trying to save the planet.”