Veganism is for Life, not just for January

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… no, not Christmas, it’s Veganuary

Last year over 580,000 people signed the pledge to go vegan in January, and 98% of them would recommend that their friends do the same. This year 40% of signatories have said that they hope to still be vegan beyond January.

For grey-haired vegans like me, this is incredible. When I first went vegan back in the 1990s you had to travel to Leeds or Sheffield to get basic things like plant-based milks, or even tahini. It was a pretty lonely path as there wasn’t the wealth of choice and information that there is now. Information is key to becoming vegan. It is as easy to become unhealthy on a bad vegan diet as it is on a bad meat and dairy diet (it is worth pointing out here that I myself struggle with periods of giving into processed foods, they are designed to be both attractive and addictive, but I never feel healthy, or even particularly satisfied, when I have given into them). But veganism is much more than a diet, it is a way of life which seeks to end the unnecessary exploitation and suffering of all sentient beings. From its conception, for whom we vegans owe Doncaster-born Donald Watson and his wife Dorothy a debt of gratitude, veganism recognised that we’re all different and must work with what we have — or have not — got. As the charitable aims of the Vegan Society describe it, veganism is:

“[…] a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

I first went vegan for the animals, and they remain my first concern. The industrial processes of modern animal agriculture cause immense suffering for billions of short-lived, captive-bred land animals every year. If you would like to know more about this industry and other forms of animal exploitation — and I must warn you that you cannot unlearn these brutal truths — then documentaries such as Earthlings (2005) and Dominion (2018) are a good starting point. As an animal lover, the facts contained within these films is enough for me. But, as the charitable aims of the Vegan Society pointed out, veganism can benefit people and the planet too.

The more we find out about the mechanisms behind climate change, the more important switching to a plant-based food system becomes. A recent study found that meat accounts for 60% of all food-based greenhouse gas emissions. As the Guardian report explains:

“The raising and culling of animals for food is far worse for the climate than growing and processing fruits and vegetables for people to eat […] confirming previous findings on the outsized impact that meat production, particularly beef, has on the environmentThe difference in emissions between meat and plant production is stark – to produce 1kg of wheat, 2.5kg of greenhouse gases are emitted. A single kilo of beef, meanwhile, creates 70kg of emissions. The researchers said that societies should be aware of this significant discrepancy when addressing the climate crisis.”

There are, of course, animal farming systems which produce less greenhouse gasses (part of the methane problem is feeding ruminants soybeans, you try eating a diet of just beans and see how much you break wind!), but even sustainably managed pasture can only sequester a limited amount of CO2, so eventually more land is needed. Meaning that we might indeed reduce emissions, but the resulting habitat loss places even more stress on the ‘Extinction’ half of the Climate & Extinction Emergency. Whereas a plant-based diet which uses land to directly feed 7 billion primates (us) obviously uses less land and resources than a food system which grows plants to feed 56 billion non-human animals to then feed us. Allowing us to give back land for rewilding so we can sequester carbon in the way which nature intended. It is worth pointing out that industrial plant based farming can also be very destructive if we do not farm with ecological awareness. Palm oil, for instance, is causing massive habitat loss for a product which is neither essential or particularly healthy. When I talk about a move towards plant based food systems, I have sustainable techniques such as permaculture in mind.

As people who have watched the now famous Seaspiracy documentary will confirm, industrial fishing doesn’t fare much better than industrial farming. We all know how important the Amazon rain forest is (itself in danger due to industrial beef farming), we call it the lungs of the planet, but in reality 70% of the planet’s oxygen is created by the ocean’s phytoplankton. For all the destruction we witness on land, our oceans are in an even worse condition. Without healthy oceanic ecosystems it is game over. As is famously said of the bees, if they go, we go. Veganism is, quite literally, for life… all life on earth.

It is worth pointing out here that nobody is attacking subsistence fishing and farming. We must always keep in mind the ‘as far as is possible and practicable’ caveat in the Vegan Society definition of veganism. Island fisherfolk suffer due to industrial fishing regardless of climate change. The difference is that they are likely to lose an important source of nutrients (which is already happening thanks to the depletion of fish ‘stocks’ a very telling word when we are concerned with the exploitation of life) as a result of industrial fishing practices. We in Westernised countries, who chose to stop eating fish for pleasure, can easily replace the nutrients found in seafood with nutrients from non-animal sources, so we can do subsistence fisherfolk and subsistence animal farmers in the Global South a huge favour by reducing our own intake of industrially fished and farmed animal produce. 

There’s a mind-game non-vegans like to play to show vegans that we’re hypocrites. They ask us what we would do if we were alone on a desert island surrounded by animals, but no edible plants. Surely we would eat the animals to survive? This does not show the hypocrisy of veganism, it illustrates the central importance of the phrase as far as is possible and practicable’. It is a question of necessity. Taking this idea of necessity a step further I have heard vegans turn the argument around by asking non-vegans to imagine that they lived on an island full of animals where every other food group is also readily available — an island just like the one we Brits live on — what reason is their to eat the animals beyond a few moments of supposed pleasure for the taste buds? A moment of pleasure for you. A lifetime of suffering followed by eternal death for the industrially raised animal you ate. And talking of necessity, what greater necessity is there than an inhabitable planet?

Using the as far as is possible and practicable caveat, a commitment to veganism should also be looked at with relevance to the individual in question as well. There are people who need to take extra care with their diet (education is key… education is always key) and there are, of course, people who’s financial situation dictates choice. But the myth that veganism itself is expensive has more to do with marketing than economics. Yes, if you buy processed goods then they are likely to be more expensive if they’re branded as vegan. ‘Vegan tax’ is a well recognised phenomena. But veganism has been around for a lot longer than the word ‘vegan’. A vegan practice of some description has been recorded in many cultures, throughout history and all over the globe, and most vegan recipes are based on traditional meals from subsistence farming cultures which use locally grown crops. In fact growing and eating your own seasonal, vegan organic produce is not only affordable, it is a healthy and satisfying way to live (this is one of the messages of Bentley Urban Farm). As I have quoted elsewhere, I am deeply inspired by Konju Briggs Jnr’s idea of the ‘universal vegan’ as somebody who is not “dependent on special products, mock meats, packaged goods, and so on, who could be just at home eating the fruits and veggies available in Kinshasa or Kisangani as are available in Karachi or Kansas City”. A veganism available “anywhere in the world where fruits and vegetables are affordable and accessible.”

Fresh, seasonal, locally produced, non-processed food is one of the key reasons why a balanced vegan diet can be extremely good for you. Far from limited, it includes the entire non-animal spectrum of fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, fungi, etc; a rainbow of colour and flavour which is often eaten raw. Organic is more costly because the farmers have to pay for licenses (surely it is the chemical and nitrogen users who should really be licensed… Nitrous Oxide, N2O, created by synthetic, petrochemical-based, fertilizers, is 300 times more potent than CO2), but the health benefits of organic growing are worth the price if you can afford it. What we really need to do though is grow more as a community… and eat more communally for that matter. This way we can bring the price of healthy food down for everyone. Because veganism is for everyone.

The idea that our food choices can benefit all life on earth, and help people that we will never meet, shouldn’t be too shocking. If you think about it, as a movement against exploitation, veganism is about a profoundly lived and shared equality. It is the practice of treating all sentient beings with equal respect. Another inspiration of mine, Professor Angela Davis, has pointed out that we cannot take a radical or revolutionary stance against any oppressive system without also recognising the systematic oppression of our profit-hungry industrial food system. Along with flying less, eating less meat is one of the only things you can do as an individual to have an impact on climate emissions. Everything else lies in the hands of corporations and governments. A commitment to veganism shows them that we are ourselves committed to change in our everyday lives, and that we will not allow them to ruin our planet. For it is very telling that they want us to believe that it was we who ruined the planet. Don’t believe them. The privatisation of profit and the collectivisation of loss is central to their economic model. Humans aren’t the problem. We are not a disease, a plague, or the equivalent of the comet which killed off the dinosaurs. Unlike the real problems of profit, greed, consumerism, and the myth of unlimited economic growth, we humans are a natural part of the web of life. And unlike the power and money addicted elites, the vast majority of us just want to enjoy that one precious life while we can. As such, veganism, for me, is simply the ultimate example of live and let live.

Main image by Lynda Bell. All of the photographs are by Warren Draper and are of meals which he has made which include produce grown locally at Bentley Urban Farm

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