Having been a vegetarian since my early teens, my 19th year on this planet saw me take the plunge and ‘Go Vegan’. I had always been empathetic to the plight of animals for as long as I can remember and found (and still find) it upsetting to think that animals are bred and killed for human consumption.
The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated’ – Mahatma Gandhi
It was 1996 and I was in my second year at Lancaster University studying Philosophy/Psychology. One of the units that I had opted to take was ‘Animal Rights and Environmental Values’ – this proved to be a life changing year for me as I was exposed to literature, film, images and research from those who were top of their field, about how animals reach our plate and the impact this has on the environment and the individual.
The picture was not a pretty one and can be summed up with Paul McCartney’s infamous quote, “If Slaughter Houses had glass walls everyone would be vegetarian”.
I understand that this is a contentious issue and my personal journey will be neither understood or agreed with by many. I must also lay bare the fact that in the 20 odd years since I first went vegan I have yo-yo’d back and forth between vegetarianism and veganism – for which I am not proud and feel that I need to accept a certain level of ‘hypocrisy’ as I have not fully committed to a 100% vegan diet since 1996; this is something I am currently working on as I learn more about vegan food/lifestyle/products and the environmental impact of animal agriculture.
Fundamentally though – what I am interested in is finding out more about a vegan way of life and how it can, or could lead to healthier humans and a healthier planet; I am less concerned about applying the label ‘vegan’ to myself or others and more concerned about understanding how we could all strive towards a lifestyle that is sympathetic to animals and the environment.
I met my husband Matt in 1998. We were introduced because we were vegan and there were so few of ‘us’ about then that our mutual friend who introduced us, couldn’t believe there were two of us in the same room! Both Matt and I are huge music lovers and at the time we were listening to The Smiths a lot (I know, such a student cliche!) amongst other things; ‘Meat is Murder’ was their second studio album and released in 1985 (due to my age, I was a little late to the party). The first time I heard the song ‘Meat is Murder’ I felt almost numb. It still upsets me to listen to it to this day;
Heifer whines could be human cries
Closer comes the screaming knife
This beautiful creature must die
This beautiful creature must die
A death for no reason
And death for no reason is murder.
– From ‘Meat is Murder’ – The Smiths, Rough Trade Records, 1985 –
Matt and I have three daughters and the first of them, Freyja, was born in 2000. I had a beautiful, happy, healthy vegan pregnancy (even my Doctor admitted that she was surprised when, having insisted on testing my iron levels, as she felt they MUST be very low given my diet – they were bang on!). Freyja is now 17, she too is vegan and feels very passionately about the plight of animals.
She has a social conscience that is unusual compared to many of her peers and wants to know where her food has come from, and what she can do to help improve the state of the planet. I am very proud of her for taking this on as I know it has led to people judging her negatively or just generally giving her a hard time, which is pretty rubbish when you are in the midst of navigating adolescence – She stands strong however.
My husband and two younger daughters are vegetarian, although often eat vegan so that we can all eat the same meals.
As a growing teen and as someone who could potentially be influenced by media persuasion and peer pressure, I asked Freyja a couple of questions about her choice to become vegan:
What motivates you to be vegan?
“It’s all about the animals – I care about them as much as I do humans. I don’t think it’s fair to subject them to unnecessary pain.”
“Also health reasons, I have been fully vegan for almost a year now and I have a lot more energy and the spots on my forehead have really cleared up.”
What do you eat in a typical day?
“I Drink lots of water – up to 3 litres a day (especially if I’ve been to gym).”
“Breakfast might be home-made pancakes with blueberries and Alpro soya cream or weetabix with red berries.”
“For Lunch I tend to eat a lot of salad as I enjoy it. I try to make it interesting my adding protein such as Linda McCartney shredded chicken/duck or a variety of beans and a nice dressing.”
“For Tea I enjoy homemade soup – one of my faves is tomato with ciabatta pieces in it, or rice with stir fried vegetables and tofu. Oh and I love a dairy free ice cream for pudding (Aldi’s coconut based ice cream tubs are yum!)”
“Snacks include fruit, red pepper and houmous (if I’m feeling naughty I might have a couple of Oreos or some After Eight mints).”
Whilst veganism is gaining popularity at a rapid rate, in the mid-nineties we were definitely a minority. Non of the lovely selections of milk/dairy alternatives that we see today were available and the soya milk that could be bought (at supermarkets in the city!) tasted so ‘beany’ it was almost unbearable.
Quorn was launched in 1985 by Marlow foods as an accessible, affordable alternative to meat, but didn’t make an appearance in most supermarkets until the late nineties – however their first vegan product didn’t show up until 2011 and their second 2015. Slow progress some might say? But progress all the same.
The ‘Fry’ family have also become a well known brand name in the world of vegan food in the UK; particularly meat alternatives such as sausages and burgers. They are a family run business and have been since 1991 – their products can now be found in most major supermarkets and as a business and as advocates of an animal free diet/lifestyle, they are thriving. Check out their story here.
According to recent research, veganism in Britain has increased by 360% in the last ten years and today there are over 1 million vegans in the US and over half a million in the UK. There are said to be a number of reasons for this change including animal rights, personal dietary decisions, medical reasons, the environmental impact of rearing livestock, mental health and well-being in general. As I see it, there is no correct reason for being vegan, but just as we need to listen to the facts and figures being listed about how climate change is destroying our planet, we also need to wake up to the environmental impact of rearing animals and the health implications for those who eat meat.
Research carried out by Dr Dean Ornish suggests that the most common cause of death amongst US males is heart disease; with the average omnivore having a 50% chance of heart disease and the average vegan only 4% – that’s quite a hefty difference!
Raising animals for food also requires huge amounts of land, energy, water and food as well as causing undeniable suffering to many animals. According to a report published by ‘The WorldWatch Institute’, more than 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture. I’ve heard many arguments against this, including the notion that large areas of land are being used to produce soya beans for example – however the majority of those soya beans are used to feed cattle, not simply used to produce a milk alternative.
Becoming a vegan often leads to many people asking questions; modern society has seen celebrities such as Beyonce, Brad Pitt, Jay-Z and Pamela Anderson amongst many others adopt a vegan lifestyle, which has made taking the plunge seem a little more accessible and acceptable to the rest of us mere mortals.
I have come up against a huge amount of conflict regarding my lifestyle choices over the years (aswell as much positivity and curiosity I have to say), which I have always found somewhat confusing for the simple reason that even if you make a conscious decision not to engage in a plant based/vegan lifestyle, the research to suggest that it is not only a healthier option but also better for the planet, is undeniable. In other words, you may not want to be vegan but at least admit it’s a pretty good way of life. Are the general population experiencing cognitive dissonance perhaps?
‘Cognitive Dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc.’
In 1957, American Social Psychologist Leon Festinger suggested that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). For example we know that smoking is harmful (cognition), yet many people continue to smoke (behaviour).
If we apply this to veganism – other than those born after the year 2000, for many the concept of veganism is an alien one – the idea of ‘normal’ suggests that most people eat meat/dairy and that’s just the way it is, but when this normality is challenged, cognitive dissonance is experienced – many people will be questioning a notion that they have thought of as a ‘standard’ part of life all of their lives – the motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behaviour…in this case continuing to eat meat and dairy, even though research suggests that the alternative is a healthier option and better for the environment.
I guess it boils down to the fact that a change in attitude takes place over a long period of time. Decades, even centuries! It used to be considered normal and acceptable that women didn’t have the vote – this is rightly considered unacceptable in modern civilised society, but it took many years for this change in attitude to take place.
Could the same become true of veganism – will the people of the future look back and say ‘ I can’t believe that humans used to drink cows milk – how crazy!’ It certainly is food for thought!
We can see quite plainly that our present civilisation is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilisations were built on the exploitation of slaves, and we believe the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals’ bodies.
– Donald Watson founder of the vegan society –
Like many vegans I know, I am not comfortable with the depiction of vegans being preachers / hippies / irritating / annoying/tree-huggers – after all, one of the most wonderful privileges that has been afforded to us as 21st century humans of the western world is that of choice and freedom of option and opinion.
However, I would simply urge anyone reading this to perhaps look a little closer at the research and maybe even dip a toe into the world of veganism. Not only does it offer a healthy lifestyle, but also potential for a greener cleaner planet for future generations.
As a mother of 3, I think I owe them that.