WHAT IS VEGANISM? TODAY’S DEFINITION IS A MODERN ALTERATION OF THE 1950S DOCTRINE, FROM HOW MAN SHOULD LIVE TO THE POSSIBLE AND THE PRACTICABLE EXCLUSION OF ANIMAL CRUELTY AND EXPLOITATION. IN 1944 BRITISH VEGAN SOCIETY CO-FOUNDER DONALD WATSON INTRODUCED THE TERM ‘VEGAN’ FOR THOSE WHO WERE UNTIL THAT TIME KNOWN AS TOTAL OR STRICT VEGETARIANS, A LIFESTYLE ELIMINATING ANIMAL PRODUCTS FOR CONSUMPTION, CLOTHING AND OTHER PURPOSES. ON THE TOPIC OF VEGANISM CIRCLESOTW TALKED ABOUT ACCESSIBILITY, CRITICISM, AND SECOND HAND LEATHER WITH 21ST CENTURY MEDIA-OFFICER AMANDA BAKER OF THE OLDEST VEGAN SOCIETY IN THE WORLD: THE VEGAN SOCIETY UK.
Sanderz: Does the philosophical/ethical discussion about what veganism should be obstruct the accessibility to practice veganism? And if so in what way?
Amanda: I’m going to explain that practical vegan living can go comfortably hand in hand with the more abstract ethical debate. It’s possible for people to trip themselves up and get tangled in philosophical side of things. We do try encourage people to keep a balance. In one way veganism is very straightforward. Vegans avoid anything taken from animals for any purpose. So if an animal is involved vegans avoid it. But we are living in the real world. We don’t live in a vegan world. In practice we’re evolving our approach.
The word vegan was defined in 1944. There were people living effectively vegan lifestyles a hundred years before that, but they called themselves ‘vegetarians’. It’s an evolving situation as with any belief system. Practical vegan living is choosing the food and other things in your life that avoid animal use to the best of your ability.
As long as you’ve got fair access to shopping facilities and cooking facilities it can be very straightforward. The philosophical or ethical discussion of veganism can get very abstract.
Some people do not even understand what ‘an animal’ is. You can get into very difficult discussions with people who don’t understand that fish are animals and insects are animals. On a higher level of understanding you have very academic debates about speciesism. That’s a word not many people have come across before. In the same way that one should try to avoid prejudicial discrimination against people on the bases of unrelated characteristics like their gender, their sexuality or their race, speciesism is prejudice towards a being on the bases of their species.The argument would be that we should treat individuals equally no matter what their species is, because all animals seek life and seek freedom.
To the best of our knowledge, all animals experience pain and fear, in analogy to the way we do. It can get very abstract when you start examining things like that, but that doesn’t need to come in the way of leading a straightforward vegan life on a day-to-day level.
Sanderz: There is some opposition to “going vegan/vegetarian” as being beneficial to the environment when a diet is based around meat substitutes. What is the vegan view point on the comments that substitutes and the soy bean agriculture being harmful for the environment?
Amanda: Well, once again it is straightforward, if you have fair access to shopping and cooking facilities, to follow a nutritious and exciting vegan diet, which is also kind to the planet. It’s important to be clear that the key principle of vegan living is to end the use of animals. If you are an environmentalist you can tailor your vegan lifestyle to be as kind to the environment as possible as well.
In a British context, a well-planned vegan diet can cut our use of land, fresh water and energy by 2/3 compared to the typical British diet. I’m not sure how well known is the report ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ It’s an environmental issues and options report by the UN released in 2006 by the FAO, to assess the impact of the so-called ‘livestock sector’ on the environment. I recommend anyone to look it up as it’s available on the internet. In the report, the UN shows that human farming of other animals is in the top three causes of all major environmental problems, from local water pollution to global climate change.
So there are very strong environmental arguments for adopting ways of living that don’t depend on farming of other animals. Of course it’s perfectly possible, if you don’t care about the environment, to live a very high consumption vegan lifestyle. It’s pinned down to your personal choice.
Meat substitutes are an important part of a vegan diet for many people, especially when you are “in transition” from your ‘traditional’ diet and living in the same way as the society around you. It can be very helpful to have something familiar that you can put on your plate, especially at the end of a long busy day at work. Meat and cheese substitutes have an important round to place for many people. But if your heart is in environmentalism, you will probably tend to minimize the use of those sorts of products. That doesn’t make them intrinsically good or bad. It’s when and where they fit in your own lifestyle.
I think your question about soybean agriculture needs a bit more attention, because it’s very widely misunderstood. In fact, soya is mostly consumed by meat eaters and vegans are a very small proportion of the consumption of soya beans.
That’s because 90% of all soya bean protein is actually being consumed by meat eaters because they are being fed to the farmed animals. The soya is being shipped around the world in large quantities and we’re learning more about the environmental impact of the shipping industry and large multi corporations of farming in former rainforests. It’s largely the farming of animals that’s driving that trade. For example in the UK the dairy industry that keeps cows for their milk. 50% of the protein for those cows comes from, not grass or grazing, but from high energy feed substitutes. Much of those feeds are made of soya beans. So if you care about the consumption of soya, it’s much better to eat soya directly in the form of tofu, tempeh or soy sausages.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea from biology: the ‘trophic pyramid’. This is the fact that for every level in the food chain only 10% of the food energy that is eaten by the previous ‘level’ of animals is transferred into the bodies of the predators. By eating low on the food chain, which means directly eating soy ourselves, we only need roughly speaking about 10% of the soya. This is a considerable smaller portion of soy then if we first feed it to a cow who’s being farmed for her milk or cattle farmed for their flesh. Most of the soya food energy goes into keeping the cattle warm, repairing their bodies or their moving about. It doesn’t get turned into what meat eaters eat.
But if you don’t like soya, you don’t have to eat soya. It is not essential for vegans. If you have soya allergies, you still can be vegan. If you avoid soya for environmental reasons, you still can be vegan. It’s absolutely non-essential. I hope it reassures anyone who’s worried about that particular issue.
Sanderz: The vegan society defines veganism as ”a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible or practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to animals for food, clothing and any other purpose”. Can you explain the ‘possible and practicable’?
Amanda: We live in a non-vegan world. As vegans, we wish to see the end of animal use for any purpose. But there are some problems we can’t solve as individual vegans.
As a vegan, if I’m very lucky, I can go into a vegan shop that’s run by a vegan proprietor and all the products are vegan. But even then, some of the suppliers are not going to be vegan. We’re in a whole system of cars, computers and so on using animals. The exploitation of animals is embedded in our whole society.
We don’t want anyone to despair because being vegan is not being a 100% personally perfect. It’s about doing the best we can, in our real lives and our current situation, to minimize the exploitation of animals. In some cases, it’s not going to be possible to avoid something, which has involved animals.
For example, in the European Union all pharmaceutical medicines by law still have to be tested on animals. That is not something that is consistent with a vegan lifestyle, but we’re not going to say to people: ‘When you are ill you have to put your heath at risk.’ If the only medicine that can make you healthy again is a prescribed medicine, you can’t change that as an individual. It’s better to get healthy. Then you can live your life as a healthy person and to the best of your ability, as a vegan. So it’s not always practicable to avoid something that is not 100% perfect yet. That’s one reason why organizations like the Vegan Society can be really helpful for individual vegans facing these sort of situations. We can come together as a community, combine our voices and work with organizations such as Dr. Hadwen Trust (www.drhadwentrust.org), which funds and advances alternatives to animal testing for medicine. There is a process in Europe looking at alternatives to testing for medicines, but it is underfunded and under-supported. There are many good medical reasons to move away from animal testing as well, but it’s a very slow process.
In the meantime it may not be possible and practicable for one person to solve that problem. That’s why that phrase is included in the way the Vegan Society defines veganism, if we want it to be a realistic way of living.
Sanderz: How do you deal with criticism about veganism and inconsistencies?
Amanda: It does happen. People nitpick and they will say to you: ‘Well, you’re not a 100% perfect so why bother to even try.’ In the heat of such a moment, it can really be hard. What we do advice to people is, if you don’t want to get into an argument, you can say: ‘I don’t want to answer this at the moment. In the meantime I do the best I can. If you are genuinely interested in having this conversation, we can talk when we’re calmer.’
It’s not helpful for anyone to get upset and get into nitpicking. Sometimes people go vegan, but they genuinely can’t afford to buy a new pair of shoes. It’s not fair or at all logical for them to criticize you, when you’re not able to immediately afford to change from wearing your old leather shoes to a vegan alternative. But criticism can be very upsetting, especially when it’s someone close to you.
Each of us make our own journey, which we can take in our own life. Sometimes we can’t go as fast as we would want to, but the important thing is that we are on the journey in the direction we want to be going. We’re going towards the world where other animals are no longer used by humans. We are animals as well of course, but we don’t use non-human animals. We are trying to be a good part of the Animal Kingdom.
Sanderz: Is buying second hand something that would fit into a vegan lifestyle?
Amanda: We would say that leather or other non-vegan materials are not suitable for vegans. On an abstract level that is clear cut I think. But there still may be situations where you don’t have a possible or practical alternative. For example, there are people who have to wear a uniform for work that might have an item of a non-vegan material. We say ‘no’ to buying second hand items that you don’t actually need. You would still be reinforcing the idea that it is okay to, for example, to wear leather, which is a material that is vital to the economics of the meat industry. It is not something that is consistent with a vegan lifestyle.
Sanderz: What are the pros and cons of going vegan health wise?
Amanda: Generally speaking, it’s straightforward to support healthy lifestyles at every age and stage of life on a well planned vegan diet. Obviously if you have personal, individual medical concerns you may need to speak to an expert. That would be the case with whatever diet you would follow, to make sure that you meet with your specific medical needs. In the UK, that would be a Registered Dietician. They are the people who are trained to University degree level to understand your medical needs and how to support those needs with a diet. General practitioners of medicine or family doctors don’t have that kind of training. So, if you have specific concerns, see the relevant expert.
That aside, humans can get every nutrient we need on a vegan diet in plentiful quantities. We, at the Vegan Society, would advise you to generally follow a wholefood-based diet, lots of brightly colored fruits and vegetables and lots of dark green leafy vegetables. Make sure you get a good balance of your essential nutrients. For example, for vitamin B12 you should be taking a supplement or fortified foods, as should anyone over the age of 50 no matter what their diet is. That’s not a concern, but straightforward to do. Those of us who live away from the Equator need to take care of vitamin D intake, but again, that goes for everyone. For omega 3 essential fats: the fish get them from plants, so we can take it from the plans ourselves too. Everything that we need for a very healthy diet easily meets the UK Government’s 5 portions of fruit or vegetables per person per day target, fiber targets and health guidelines. It’s very straightforward and can be very affordable. If you look on the Vegan Society website all of our ‘healthy eating’ guidelines are freely available.
Sanderz: Can you tell me something about the Vegan pledge?
Amanda: One of the roles of the Vegan Society is to support people who are ‘vegan curious’, who want to adopt a vegan lifestyle. We were inspired by London Vegan Campaigns, which every year run a lovely vegan pledge scheme, where people get intensive support per month. They see a Registerd Dietician, have cooking workshops and so on. So we thought: ‘Why don’t we make this sort of support available to anyone?’
We started our own vegan pledge, where you can sign up for free through our website. We link the ‘vegan curious person’ with an experienced vegan who will act as their mentor or, if you like, their agony aunt . We try to find someone who is in the same area, so they can give local information about shopping. When you have problems while shopping, you can text or phone your mentor/buddy to ask for help. If you are in a day-to-day situation such as: ‘My brother or sister are being very picky about me going vegan,’ and it’s making you upset, your mentor can offer very practical support.
People can sign up to have a mentor for a week or for a month. Some people keep in touch with their mentors for many months, as they become more confident as vegans. On average we have about 200 people a month who are taking the Vegan Pledge. Vegan food turns out more tastier then they expected, it’s much more straightforward than they expected, and usually more affordable too.
If people find that too intimidating and don’t want such a month long commitment, we also offer more informal support. People can come to our facebook page (www.facebook.com/TheVeganSociety) and we can give them informal answers. We also have local groups around the UK and in the Republic of Ireland where people meet up together. We’re looking at how we can support people all around the world, because we do have members worldwide. The Vegan Pledge is very popular and successful. We have a lot of vegetarians who say: ‘I’ve finally been able to give up cheese thanks to the Vegan Pledge.’ This is very positive.
Sanderz:What would be a good initial advice for people who are considering going vegan?
Amanda: Get in touch with other vegans. There is lots of vegan food available in ordinary shops. Vegan food is not some strange, special different food. Fruits and vegetables are vegan. The things you eat anyway can easily be made vegan. You take it in manageable stages and you should find that within a few weeks it’s a lot more straightforward.
Sanderz: Can you tell me something about your own experiences as a vegan?
Amanda: When I left home I started to explore plant-based cuisine. I come from a farming background, and it was never really questioned that we ate a ‘typical’ meat-and-dairy based British diet. I started to discover world cuisine, things like Indian, Mexican and Thai food where meat doesn’t have to be in every meal. There are wonderful dishes that are naturally plant based, so I already knew how delicious vegan food could be.
But then I was really making concerted effort to cut my carbon footprint. I had given up flying, have never owned a car and I’m a keen cyclist or travel by public transport. I have insulated my home, recycle, conserve water and grow my own fruit and vegetables. One day, I suddenly came across some facts and figures on the internet about how huge the impact is of animal farming and I realized that I’ve been ignoring a whole area in my life, what they call an ‘800-pound gorilla in the room’. That was the huge environmental impact of animal farming and for me that was the switch. It clicked in my head: ‘I want to be vegan.’ This was the right thing to do and it fits in with all of my ethical positions, not just on the environment. I’ve always looked after animals, especially rescued animals and I thought: why would you love and care for a rescued animal and then eat a piece of meat? It was completely illogical and inconsistent for me, and I realized, not necessary in our modern lifestyle. It was concern about climate change that actually made me finally make the commitment to being vegan.
Sanderz: Thanks Amanda.
Amanda: Many Thanks.
You can find more information on the Vegan Society website: www.vegansociety.com