Now entering its 21st year, World Vegan Day was started by Louise Wallis, then president of The Vegan Society, to celebrate the society’s 50 year anniversary.

What is veganism?

The Vegan Society defines veganism as, ‘a 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.’ This means avoiding all animal products and by-products, including meat, fish, eggs, dairy and honey, as well as leather and products tested on animals.

A brief history

In November 1944, six ‘non-dairy vegetarians’, as they were known then, met up to discuss their diet and lifestyles. Among these six were Donald Watson and Elsie Shrigley who, together with the other four, would found a new movement.

They came to settle on the name ‘vegan’ after deliberation, rejecting words including ‘vitan’ and ‘benevore’, using the first three and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’. Mr Watson described it as, ‘the beginning and end of vegetarian.’

Why go vegan?

The reasons people go vegan can be divided into three main groups of concern: animal welfare, environment, and health.

Animal welfare

The vegan diet is probably most associated with a cruelty-free lifestyle – you may have seen the term ‘cruelty-free consumer’ thrown about.

Many people are aware of the, frankly, disgusting conditions battery-farmed chickens are kept in. Cattle, too, can be raised in ‘intensive’ indoor systems where they be housed throughout their lives. However, moving beyond the concerns with the housing and slaughter of animals, vegans disagree with the processes behind egg and dairy production.

In the past, unwanted male calves from the dairy industry would have been bought for beef cattle. Now, many are either being shot on-farm, sometimes soon after their birth, because they are considered to have no economic value; or, transported (up to nine hours at a time) to the continent to be fattened for veal. Besides the welfare of the calf, vegans also oppose the resulting distress to the mother cow.

Male chicks born to egg laying hens, who are bred for quality and quantity of eggs produced as opposed to weight gain, are killed. This may be via either ‘mincing’ (more widely used in the US) or gassing. In 2010, The Telegraph reported on undercover footage shot by vegetarian organisation Viva! who visited two hatcheries. In one, they claim the male chicks were thrown into an electric mincer and used as fertiliser. The second sees male chicks in crates gassed and then packaged for reptile feed.

Environment

Looking at water alone, animal products consume significantly more water than plant crops.

Beef cattle is one of the ‘thirstiest’, with an average global footprint (AGF) of 15,400 litres for each kilogram. Animal feed accounts for 99 per cent of this total footprint, with drinking and service water making up the last one per cent. The AGF for sheep meat is 10,400 l/kg, while pork requires 6,000 l/kg. To produce a kilogram of chicken meat, 4,300 litres of water is needed for a single kilogram.

Per calorie, the average footprint for beef is 20 times larger than that for cereals and starchy roots. For each gram of protein, its footprint is six times larger than pulses.

The water usage takes into account rainfall, irrigation and fresh water, and can be used to compare how water can be used across different agricultural products.

Maize (corn) has an AGF of 1,222 l/kg, whilst rice requires 2,497 l/kg. The supposed vegan staple, lettuce, has an AGF of 237 l/kg. Also, according to the average global footprint, cucumbers and pumpkins use around 350 litres of water per kilogram.

Click here to visit The Water Footprint Network, to learn more about water footprints.

Health

Despite the general myth of vegans being skinny, malnourished hippies, I can quite confidently say that veganism can be a perfectly healthy diet. Whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes are lower in fats and contain unsaturated fats. As with any diet, you can eat junk food that is likely to have a negative impact on your health – but there may be fewer junk food options on a vegan menu.

To be a healthy vegan, you need a varied and balanced diet – as always. Vitamin B12 deficiency, in particular, has been associated with veganism because animal-derived forms of the vitamin can be more easily absorbed into the body. However, by eating fortified cereals, soya products and supplements, a vegan can easily reach their recommended daily intake of 0.0015mg per day. NHS Choices warns against taking too much B12 (via supplements, for example) as it may be harmful. It says 2mg or less a day is unlikely to cause harm.

For everything else, you can look to the world of fruit and veg! Green, leafy vegetables, in particular, are a good source of vitamins C, B, K and E, as well as calcium and fibre.

Find out more about vegan sources of vitamins and minerals by clicking here to visit NHS Choices.

A note from me

People often tell me that they simply could not give up meat. Fair enough, I take that on board. Just give it a go, for a couple of weeks. What do you have to lose? You might find it’s easier than you thought and that it’s pushed you into new food territory. After a little while, if you can’t bear it any longer, at least you’ll be able to say you tried it.

It is a dramatic change to go from meat-eater to vegan, but there’s no shame in taking it in stages. I did. Nine years ago I became pescetarian, which means I excluded meat products but still ate fish. Several years after that I gave up the fish, first for Lent, and then full stop. Just over four years ago I gave up dairy, but kept eating free-range eggs. I finished with eggs not long afterwards. You could say veganism crept up on me.

I can still eat a huge variety of food – but not at a cost to animal welfare. There are loads of different vegetables that you mightn’t have tried, or grains that you – and I – haven’t yet heard of. It is a brilliant time to be vegan right now because it is gaining in popularity, and now businesses are starting to take notice of us. Over the past few years I have noticed more vegan products, that are more widely available, and more signposting regarding animal testing.

The Vegan Society, whose website can be found here, offer a month’s worth of daily advice and support for vegan starter-outers. Read around, find your feet, and talk to people.

 – Lara Stace, Correspondent (Food)

LEAVE A REPLY