Vegan writer SELENE NELSON has found herself at the forefront of the war on meat after her exchange with Waitrose magazine editor William Sitwell went viral. She argues why meat-eating can no longer be considered a personal choice
The rise of veganism is impossible to ignore. The year started with ‘Veganuary’ – a campaign that encourages people to go plant-based for a month – and had more participants than the previous four years combined, with more than 250,000 sign-ups and millions more taking part unofficially.
Highlights of Veganuary 2019 included new plant-based ranges being unrolled by Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Aldi, and – lest we forget – Piers Morgan having a meltdown over a vegan sausage roll.
Opponents of veganism may find the idea of a meatless sausage roll infuriating, but what is it about the vegan movement that makes some people so cross? I’ve pondered this a lot, especially since my run-in with former Waitrose Food magazine editor William Sitwell last year went viral. That episode – when he responded to my pitch suggesting articles on plant-based recipes with his own idea for a series on ‘killing vegans, one by one’ – and the divisive reaction to it, confirmed what we already knew: that not eating meat is a highly emotive topic. VICE explored the causes of ‘vegaphobia’, while the Daily Mail urged their readers to ‘stand up to vegan terrorists!’.
So what’s behind the rise of veganism – and what does its escalating popularity mean for our planet and our politics?
Let’s start at the beginning. The word ‘veganism’ first entered the lexicon in 1944, when teacher Donald Watson founded The Vegan Society in Leicester. Seventy five years later, the definition of veganism remains the same: it’s 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’.
While veganism remained a fringe movement for decades, in the past few years it has soared into the public consciousness. There are three powerful, yet wholly separate, reasons for its rapid rise in popularity: health, the environment, and animal rights.
Eating less meat is better for the planet – that’s no longer disputed – yet the urgency of the situation perhaps isn’t so known. Last year the UN warned that we have just 12 years to limit climate change to avoid ‘catastrophe’.
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of environmental destruction, species extinction, ocean dead zones and water pollution, yet we do little to counter it. While campaigns to ban plastic straws have been widely embraced, in truth stunts like these are futile: plastic straws amount for 0.3% of the eight million metric tons of plastic that annually enters our oceans.
The leading cause of plastic in the ocean is actually abandoned fishing gear. Known as ‘ghost gear’, it kills millions of marine creatures each year.
It is, according to a 2018 report from World Animal Protection, ‘the most harmful form of debris.’ Further illustrating this is the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, a drifting stretch of refuse twice the size of France that weighs 79,000 tons; nearly half the weight of rubbish (46%) is abandoned fishing nets. Despite all the talk of reducing single-use plastic, the leading cause of it is rarely even acknowledged, let alone tackled.
Studies prove that swapping to a vegan diet is the single biggest way to reduce our impact on earth. Critics of veganism frequently argue that soya is unsustainable, yet only 6% of all soya is used for human consumption – the overwhelming majority is used for animal feed. Shockingly, the prevalence of industrial farming on this scale is driving the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.
Health is another leading cause of the rise of veganism. Countless studies link major diseases like cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes to the consumption of animal protein. Switching to a plant-based diet has been proven to prevent, treat and even reverse heart disease and type two diabetes. The largest organisation of nutritional professionals in the world implicitly stated that a vegan diet is adequately healthy for all stages of life, including pregnancy.
It wasn’t too long ago that vegans were seen as thin and malnourished, but the health benefits of a plant-based diet have never been clearer. Tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, F1’s Lewis Hamilton, boxer David Haye and many other elite athletes have all cited their vegan diet as reasons for their success, claiming they feel stronger and faster and their recovery is quicker. The old protein-deficient vegan trope has (almost) been retired.
So, now, most of us agree that one can be healthy on a vegan diet. We can also agree that animal agriculture is harming the planet. What we can’t seem to agree on is how we should treat animals.
Undoubtedly, this is the most divisive aspect of veganism – and indeed, for vegans this is the crux of the debate. Vegans oppose the unnecessary slaughter of living beings – but if we know that humans don’t need animal products to stay healthy, can this ever really constitute as ‘necessary’?
My opinion is no, but then again, as a vegan I’m often told my beliefs are ‘extreme’; vegetarianism is acceptable, but veganism is going ‘too far’. The only reason people view one as tolerable and the other as excessive is because the cruelty – or the simple fact that an animal lost their life – is overt in meat. Conversely, the insidious nature of the dairy and egg industries means the general public is mostly unaware of standard procedures – and to explore this issue properly we need to lift the veil.
What we forget, when we pick up products from the supermarket shelves, is that the meat, dairy and egg industries are some of the most powerful in the world. Their marketing reflects this. People see labels like ‘humane milk’ and ‘humane meat’ and they believe them – yet these are myths, marketing ploys that exist only to make us feel better. The word humane means compassionate and kind – and because it means this, neither meat nor dairy can ever be considered it.
Dairy cows are forcibly impregnated to produce milk. Their calves are taken at birth: if he’s male, he’s often shot because he won’t produce milk, or he may be dumped, still alive, in ditches like garbage. Alternatively he’ll be locked in a pen, unable to move, touch grass, or even lie down – and when his muscles are soft enough, he’ll be killed and sold as veal. If the calf is female, she’ll lead the same life as her mother: repeatedly impregnated, her calves taken, and when she’s too spent to produce enough milk (around six years old) she’ll be sent to the slaughterhouse. Cows naturally live to 25 years old.
The fact that all dairy cows end up as cheap beef isn’t widely know. Neither is the abhorrent treatment of newborn calves. But public ignorance is what the industry wants, and so the truths are kept hidden and the myths perpetuated. There’s no disputing how well it’s worked; for example, very few people see problems with ‘happy eggs’ from ‘free-range, happy hens’. Yet beneath its cheerful veneer the egg industry is just as dark.
The public aren’t told about the practice of ‘chick culling’ – the slaughter of billions of newly-hatched chicks every year. Male chicks are by-products of the egg industry – worthless because they don’t lay eggs – so they are macerated alive in high-speed grinders, asphyxiated by carbon dioxide, or suffocated in plastic bins. The British Egg Information Service say the culling of male chicks has been in place ‘as long as the industry has been there’.
What about pigs, among the most intelligent, emotional and cognitively complex animals in the world? Sows are kept in metal ‘gestation crates’ so small they can’t even turn around. They are mutilated at birth, their tails cut off, their teeth pulled, their ears tagged. In this country, we think the ‘humane’ way of killing them is to gas them. Forced into carbon dioxide gas chambers, pigs’ bodies burn from the inside as they suffocate. Their panicked, agonised screams can be heard far outside the chambers.
‘If I want to eat meat, that’s my choice,’ is a response I hear a lot. Vegans are frequently accused of being militant, forcing their beliefs on people while refusing to respect others’ personal choices. But the minute something else is harmed by your ‘personal choice’, it stops being ‘personal’. A living being has been victimised by your choice – in the case of meat, a living being has lost their life. It can never be a ‘personal choice’ when there’s a victim involved.
Unfortunately, animals have been victimised to the point where they’re not even considered victims anymore. In the UK, we’re appalled by the Yulin dog meat festival, in China, dismayed by the Faroe Islands’ pilot whale hunt, but cows, pigs, chickens? They don’t count. The animals themselves disappear; they’re no longer living, breathing, feeling individuals – they’re commodities, walking hunks of flesh waiting to be killed. This isn’t even about meat anymore: it’s about the industrialisation of living creatures.
When I speak to people about the realities of farming, I’m often asked if animals are self-aware. But this question misses the point. The question we should be asking isn’t ‘are they self-aware?’ but ‘do they suffer?’
Do these animals feel fear, as they’re lead into the slaughterhouse over ground coated in blood? Do they feel pain, as they’re hung upside down and a knife is thrust into their throat? We know, from the abattoir footage no-one wants to watch, that the answers to these questions is ‘yes’. So let’s consider another question.
If we could live in a world where we could not only survive but thrive without eating animal products… if there was an abundance of plant-based food at our disposal… if eating this way was infinitely less harmful to the environment… should we still choose to kill animals? If these three hypotheses are true, can there ever be a moral justification for doing what we do to animals?
Vegans are called ‘extremists’, but what really is more extreme? Gratuitously exploiting and killing living beings for their milk, eggs and meat – or trying to encourage people not to kill unnecessarily? The reality is that in 2019 there is no meaningful argument against veganism. And now, as the clock ticks and our awareness heightens, we have a choice: we can continue our mindless slaughter, our wilful destruction of our planet – or we can move forward compassionately. We can grow, as a species. We can evolve.
• Selene Nelson is a writer, journalist, author and vegan activist.