Veganniversary! Fifteen Years of Veganism
Today I celebrate fifteen years of veganism. I turned vegan in the autumn of 2005 when I was nineteen and in my second year at university. Before turning vegan I ate a normal diet including meat, fish and dairy, and I didn’t pay too much attention to the non-food items I used either, other than to buy cruelty free cosmetics. The only thing I didn’t eat was beef which I stopped eating in the mid 1990s as a result of the BSE / CJD crisis in the UK. It was my decision to stop eating beef when I was ten, and I made that decision because I was so horrified by what I was seeing in the news and the knowledge that BSE was caused by feeding cows – herbivores – low quality food containing the remains of other animals. I was probably more aware of the BSE and CJD crisis than most children and teenagers would have been at the time because, after leaving midwifery in the late 1990s, my mum worked as a nurse and provided nursing home care for a young woman just a few years older than my brother and sister were who was dying from CJD. Knowing what I did, giving up beef was easy.
Although I didn’t turn vegan until I was nineteen, I had long been concerned about animal welfare. When I was six years old and living in Germany, my school took part in Berlin’s ‘Grüne Woche’ – Green Week. It was the first time I really learned where the meat on my plate came from and how it was produced. It is a very British phenomenon to lie to children about where meat comes from and how animals are treated on farms. I have always loved animals. As a young child, every time I tried to join the dots between the sweet little lambs and chickens at children’s petting farms and the food on my plate, I received reassurance that the animals we ate as food led long, happy lives, and died of natural causes before being turned into pies, schnitzels and sausages.
Though I don’t recall the specifics of the Green Week activities I took part in, I do remember wanting to become vegetarian as a result of what I had learned in school that week and asking my parents if I could, though the answer was ‘no’ because they thought it was just a phase that I would grow out of. Everyone else in the family ate meat, and my turning vegetarian would throw a spanner in the works. Besides, I was asked, wouldn’t I miss eating all my favourites foods like merguez, peperoni pizza, schnitzel, roast dinners and moules-frites?
My parents regularly made vegetarian dishes for dinner, alongside typical British dishes such as roast dinners to mark the religious holidays of Christmas and Easter, lasagne, cottage pies, and other traditional meat and fish based recipes. Our meals were also shaped by the time we spent abroad as a result of Dad’s job which took us to both France – where I was born and my family lived for four years – and Germany in the 70s before I was born and again in the early 90s. In Mum and Dad’s rotation were a selection of traditional French and German dishes, and both cuisines go heavy on the meat and dairy.
Food is an exercise in bonding in my family. From Saturday night homemade pizzas, to summer BBQs on camping holidays, to Dad’s fantastic curries and the mountains of brie, camembert and roquefort brought back from France every time we visited, food was one of the few things that we all agreed on. My wanting to go vegetarian – and finally vegan – would change all that. I can understand why my parents were hesitant to support me in turning vegetarian as a child, though they have been incredibly open-minded, supportive of and curious about my veganism since I made the leap to a plant-based diet fifteen years ago.
The final push for me to go not just vegetarian but vegan as an adult came about during my first year at university. My student loan didn’t stretch to cover organic / “free range” or higher welfare cuts of meat, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy the value versions. Even as a meat eater, they looked disgusting, and I knew animal welfare standards were low. At around the same time, I started reading a lot more about chicken farming for eggs, the myth of “free range”, and the connection between the veal and dairy industries. The more I read, the less I wanted to eat animal products, and I came to the conclusion that I just didn’t feel comfortable contributing to industries that directly and indirectly inflict such pain and suffering on non-human animals.
My position and core belief is that human life and non-human animal lives are equal in value to one another. If it isn’t okay for me to cause harm to another human being, then it also isn’t okay for me or my actions to cause harm to non-human animals. I am an ethical vegan – as opposed to simply a dietary vegan – and so my veganism influences not just what I eat, but the clothes I wear, products I use as cosmetics and around the home, and the businesses I support based on whether they fund or make use of animal testing. Over the years, my veganism has branched out and become more environmental in focus too. I now also appraise companies and decide to support or boycott them based on what they do or don’t do for the physical environment, because environmentalism and animal welfare concerns go hand in hand.
Veganism in 2005 was a little bit like how I imagine vegetarianism was in the 1960s – kooky, weird, niche, and deeply unfashionable. I found internet forums a great source of support in the months before and after I turned vegan, and ended up reading a lot about diet and nutrition in order to work out how to eat a balanced diet. It’s very easy to overeat carbohydrates as a vegan, and so it took a lot of reading, trial and error to find out what worked for me and what didn’t. I quickly gave up on trying to ‘veganise’ traditional meat and two veg meals, and changed the way I thought about food and recipes in general. There weren’t many meat alternatives on the market back then, and those that did exist weren’t particularly appetising. Instead, I took a whole foods approach and relearned how to cook and bake everything from scratch. The only substitute products I bought and consumed on a regular basis were soya milk, soya mince, soya yoghurt, and dairy free chocolate (and icecream). Living in a big city was handy, as Birmingham’s Chinese population is served by some really good East Asian supermarkets where I could find cheap tofu in plentiful supply when the offerings in regular supermarkets were expensive and low quality, so I have long made the most of that.
It is beyond the scope of this blog post to go into what I eat on a day to day basis, and recipes that I enjoy. If you are new to veganism or considering going vegan, or a friend or family member is experimenting and you want to support them, there are thousands of fantastic vegan cookery blogs and Instagram accounts to choose from for inspiration and advice. What I will say though, is that vegan food is anything but bland. Becoming vegan is a fantastic excuse to explore different foods and cuisines, to learn how to cook, and to find food that you love and look forward to eating and sharing with other people. I particularly love Middle Eastern flavours, and the food I make is heavily influenced by the likes of Yotam Ottilenghi and Sabrina Ghayour. Though both of them use meat and dairy in some of their recipes, they also share a lot of vegetable based dishes that are already vegan or very easy to substitute for – including soya mince in place of animal based mince.
A year after I became vegan I changed course at university from civil engineering – which I never really wanted to study in the first place – to environmental science, which was a much better fit for my interests and values. While my veganism was initially and remains to this day first and foremost about animal welfare and animal rights, it was whilst I was studying environmental science that I really came to research and understand the environmental and human benefits of plant based diets. Whilst I am not ashamed of the animal welfare and animal rights based motivations behind my veganism, for the past decade or so I have tended to emphasise the environmental benefits of plant based diets when explaining my veganism to casual acquaintances because they are, to many, more compelling and less jarring than talking about animal rights. Animal rights is marred in the public eye by the visually violent and confrontational acts of the likes of PETA, and so it’s a tricky thing to talk about on a superficial level when small talk turns to what’s on or not on my plate – for example when I attend a wedding as a guest!
Despite knowing that environmentally motivated veganism is more popular and socially acceptable than animal rights motivated veganism, I never foresaw how popular plant based diets would become as more and more people seek to reduce their carbon footprints and take positive individual action on climate change. It’s been incredible to see veganism become mainstream these past few years, and that is almost entirely down to widespread concern for the environment rather than concern for animal welfare. Ethical veganism ‘for the animals’ is actually pretty rare, but the science is unequivocal about the climate impact of the meat and dairy industries and the need to transition to more plant based diets. Ultimately, I support all approaches which lead to increased uptake of vegan and plant based diets. Whether someone is vegan for the animals, for the environment, or for both, we arrive at the same destination by different paths.
As a result of veganism becoming mainstream, being vegan in the UK in 2020 is a piece of cake. Whereas once I had two choices for meals out – Indian or Chinese restaurants – now almost every restaurant on the high street will have not just one but several vegan options. I am not used to options! Speaking of cake, in cafes it used to be that I counted myself lucky if there was a plain flapjack, whereas now I find myself dithering over a selection of two or three different cakes, icecream and pastries. Veganism is on the rise across Europe, too. I spent a lot of time in Poland between 2011 and 2013 whilst studying for my PhD, and was surprised to find vegan cafes in Gdynia, as well as lots of options in the supermarket. Germany has long been ahead of the curve in terms of the environment as I experienced in childhood, but to my great surprise I have even seen change take place in France. Just last year I was bowled over to discover a vegan magnum at a nondescript motorway service station somewhere between Calais and the Alps, and supermarket aisles full of dairy-free products and meat alternatives. I remember long journeys across France in the 1990s where the ‘vegetarian option’ in restaurants was chicken or fish – and the sandwich range at service stations was limited to ‘jambon ou jambon et emmental’.
Whilst my family have been very supportive of me and my veganism, I have encountered my fair share of resistance and criticism over the years. I’ve fielded concerns for health – “where do you get your protein / calcium / iron / EFAs / B12 from” – as well as whether veganism is compatible with physically demanding jobs and lifestyles. To the latter, I point to my husband Ed, who was vegetarian until he was ten and then turned vegan a few months after me. He is a distance runner who has a sub-15 time for 5000m and runs about 140 – 160km (just under 100 miles) a week. I’m active too, but recreationally rather than competitively, so my experience is no bench mark for how compatible veganism is with athletics, whereas Ed’s experience is probably a better example of what’s possible.
It is true that a poorly planned vegan diet is at risk of being unbalanced and unhealthy. A person who eats meat, fish and dairy produce on a regular basis is more likely to have correct levels of B12, iron etc, as well as to consume sufficient amounts of protein and essential fatty acids, even if their diet includes lots of junk food and repetitive meals. Veganism on the other hand, requires a bit more planning. Ed and I eat a variety of vegetables, lots of different types of beans and lentils, tofu, nuts and seeds, oils and nut butters which in combination provide all the protein and fats we need. Carbohydrate isn’t a problem, and to fuel Ed’s running he simply eats a lot of potato, bread, rice, and couscous. The only supplement we both take is a B12 supplement; omnivores receive adequate B12 through the meat and dairy products they consume – much of which is fortified with additional B12 – whereas vegans and vegetarians are more reliant on fortified dairy or fortified dairy-alternatives as well as the B12 which is added to grains and cereals. After fifteen years of veganism, B12 is the only thing we keep an eye on as everything else has fallen into balance and feels very natural and easy for us.
I’ve also had many a philosophical debate and straw man encounter, invariably with people who have read far less about veganism and nutrition than I have and feel threatened by my veganism as a result of their misplaced belief that I judge them for doing things differently to me. I wish this wasn’t so, as I really don’t think badly of friends, family members or complete strangers who consume meat or dairy products. Not everyone shares my views on species equality, and as I have already discussed, non-vegans are more likely to be curious about veganism or plant-based diets out of concern for the environment than they are because of animal rights. I have found that being open and hopefully approachable, as well as very calm when someone appears confrontational about what I do or don’t eat and why, is the best way to approach debate and criticism. Most people relax and start asking questions out of curiosity once they realise I’m not a PETA member who is going to throw paint at them or call them names. Having gone to a religious school where Christianity was forced upon me against my will, and become estranged from a sibling as a result of their religious fundamentalism and dogged evangelism, I am all too aware of how damaging and counterproductive attempts to force one’s viewpoint on another person can be. I am passionate about my veganism and would love to live in a world where non-human animals aren’t used as food and labour, but rightly or wrongly, I have chosen to take a non-confrontational approach and don’t push my views on other people.
Over the years some of the more philosophical questions I’ve been asked have included whether I would eat roadkill, whether I would eat eggs or honey produced by a friend who keeps chickens or bees as a hobby, whether I would kill mosquitoes, do I feel guilty about the ants I accidentally tread on while walking down the street, and how do I feel about the insects that are killed by agricultural pesticides. I’ve also been asked how I know for sure whether a carrot is sentient or not and whether oysters feel pain. Some people like to poke holes in my philosophy in order to try and tear down my belief system for their own amusement, but I try to remain unemotional about it, stick to the facts, and not rise to the bait. I acknowledge that it is impossible to live without ever causing harm to the physical environment and all non-human animals, and that the court is still out on whether non-vertebrates including molluscs can feel pain, but these challenges and uncertainties don’t mean that I shouldn’t try to minimise my impact on non-human animals and the physical environment as much as possible.
I don’t eat honey because bees make it for themselves as their own food source in the same way as all mammals produce milk for their own young, and because I have a lot of respect for bees and the work they do in pollinating plants which benefits humans and non-humans alike. Whether they do or don’t feel pain when they are disorientated and / or accidentally killed during hive fumigation is only a small part of the argument to avoid honey. Likewise, when I find ants, spiders, flies, bees and wasps in my home I try to catch and release them, find and remove whatever it is that is attracting them into my home in the first place, or encourage them to go out of their own volition. Depending on your viewpoint and the science of the day, they may be simple creatures, they may or may not feel pain, but there is no need to cause them harm and so I don’t. Yes, I would eat a cake baked with eggs laid by chickens raised in a friend’s garden or sample the honey that comes from an ethically managed, non-commercial, domestic hive. However, I avoid eggs and honey in my day to day life because it is impossible to discern such nuances when out and about and buying food commercially. Terms like ‘cruelty free’ and ‘free range’ are very easy to abuse for marketing purposes so as to be almost meaningless, with the exception of the BUAV leaping bunny symbol used on cosmetics which is regulated and therefore trustworthy.
I wouldn’t eat roadkill because the thought of eating meat – any meat – makes me feel sick. I do kill mosquitoes if I can get my hands on them, but only if they evade my bug spray and sting me first!
I am vegan because of my views on species equality, animal welfare and animal rights, but for the hundreds of thousands of people who have embraced plant-based diets in recent years for the environment – 400,000 pledged to go vegan for Veganuary in 2020 – things will often be less black and white. If you are curious about veganism, I encourage you to embrace a creative, open-minded and flexible approach – introduce more meat-free meals, exchange dairy milk for soya milk in your breakfast cereal – and see how you go from there. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and the switch from omnivore to vegetarian or vegan doesn’t need to take place quickly or all at once. I became vegan at 19 when I was still really young, had time on my hands to experiment, and didn’t have any dependents to feed with their own list of likes and dislikes. If you’re well into adulthood and taking the plunge, give yourself some leeway and be kind to yourself when you make mistakes or find it difficult.
Take the transition at your own pace, and don’t feel the need to label yourself as ‘vegan’, ‘vegetarian’, ‘flexitarian’ or ‘pescetarian’ unless you find doing so helpful in some way. You don’t need to throw out all of your cosmetics and cleaning products, donate all of your leather shoes to a charity shop, and empty your freezer of meat all at once or even all together in order to take steps towards a plant based diet or vegan lifestyle. Go at a pace that feels sustainable for you, because it is a big change to make and you’re more likely to quit and go back to your old ways if you feel overwhelmed by overhauling every aspect of your lifestyle in one go.
As with all of the lifestyle choices we make in order to take positive action on the environment, there will be times when it’s not practical. For example, there are times when, despite living in a city, I find it necessary to go somewhere by car. That doesn’t mean that I should just give up walking, cycling and taking public transport altogether and admit defeat. Likewise, there are times when someone accidentally puts dairy milk in my tea, or offers me homemade food which contains dairy products and is vegetarian but not vegan, and I don’t make a fuss but eat and drink what’s offered rather than tip it down the sink or into the bin. My limit is food that contains meat or fish – I just can’t bring myself to eat it as after all these years I don’t see it as food – but thankfully it’s very rare that I find myself in that position and need to say something. My flexibility doesn’t make me a hypocrite or mean that my other efforts are wasted or meaningless. Flexibility – within the boundaries of what you personally find acceptable – will help you go the distance and make long-term changes to your diet and lifestyle.
Speaking of flexibility, I want to briefly discuss non-food items, and in particular, clothing. As an ethical vegan, I don’t like to use wool, leather or silk. Wool and leather are by-products of animal husbandry, and with the exception of peace silk, silk production kills silk worms, which I find unnecessary. However, vegan alternatives to wool, leather and silk often contain plastic, which isn’t great for the environment. Some vegans don’t like to wear second-hand wool, leather or silk because they feel doing so celebrates industries they would like to see abolished. I don’t share this view, as many plastic based alternatives to leather, wool and silk seek to emulate animal fibre originals in both form and function. To this end, I choose to buy second-hand wool, leather and silk products rather than first-hand plastic based vegan alternatives. Interestingly, there are some fantastic innovations taking place within the fashion industry. In recent years I have watched with great interest efforts to develop a fungi based alternative to leather, and I am excited to see where this line of research and the associated commercial ventures go. However, my thick winter coat was made in the 1940s and is made of wool, and Ed’s winter boots once belonged to his dad and are made from leather. I am comfortable with this and encourage you to find a balance that works for you, too.
This has been a really long blog post, but if you’ve made it all the way through I hope that I’ve inspired you to keep going, or to act on your own curiosity about plant-based diets and lifestyles if you’ve been toying with the idea for some time. My veganism is a pragmatic balancing act between what I feel is an acceptable code of conduct based on my views on species equality, animal welfare and animal rights, together with my environmentalism. Fundamentally, I seek to minimise my demand as an individual for animal products, with the hope that I can be a tiny cog in the wheel to change supply chains. Fifteen years in, I am excited to see so many other people join me in my efforts, like I joined those who made the decision to go vegetarian and vegan long before I was even born, let alone quit the roquefort and moules-frites in 2005! Being vegan doesn’t feel lonely, shameful or awkward any more, and I no longer feel like the odd one out as a result of my vegan lifestyle. I’m still a weirdo, but for other reasons.