[Written by Bianca Callegaro (she/her)]
CW: Animal cruelty, animal death
In recent years, worldwide interest for veganism has skyrocketed, going from 30% search interest in 2014, to 80% in 2020. This growing enthusiasm for plant-based diets has been widely reflected in the food industry, with a growing demand for and availability of meat-free and dairy-free products. Between the dripping carnivorous menus of your favourite fast-food giants, reside more timid vegan options, their contents: amalgamations of soya, pea protein and vegetable alternatives. Yet is veganism a mere momentary craze or is it a global movement bound to stay?
An all-encompassing way of living, veganism is not only limited to oat milk and falafel. The lifestyle also involves rejecting the use of animal products in every sector of life. Veganism is primarily an ethical movement, involving consumer choices that reject animal exploitation. However, a predominant reason to shift towards veganism appears to relate to health: a 2018 survey found that 49% of those reducing meat consumption did so for health reasons. A downside of this exclusive focus on veganism’s health benefits has been reflected in the media discourse surrounding Veganuary. The scheme was depicted as a fast, effective detox diet to lose weight after Christmas.
Focusing on vegan nutrition, the health benefits of this diet are numerous and have been recognised by peer-reviewed scientific research. Both vegetarian and vegan diets have been linked to lower rates of ischemic heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. They also help reduce digestive problems, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, without restricting calorie intake. Apart from B12 vitamin integration, a well-planned vegan diet can provide all essential nutrients from the plant world, with the added benefit of avoiding the consumption of pollutants, antibiotics and micro-plastics that are nowadays found in meat and fish. In the long run, all these factors can help reduce mortality and the burden placed on healthcare systems, whilst also sparing food resources – an already depleted asset.
To debunk an additional myth surrounding vegan nutrition, this lifestyle is more convenient and sustainable than omnivore diets. Its staples: legumes, cereals, fruit, and vegetables, are all relatively cheap food categories that are often sold with minimal, or no, packaging. It’s in fact imbalanced diets, low in fruits and vegetables, and high in red and processed meat, that are not just health risks but also environmental.
Omnivorous diets account for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, a bleak statistic considering by 2050 it’s predicted ‘food-related greenhouse gas emissions could account for half of the emissions the world can afford’. However, the adoption of vegan diets is theorised to reduce these emissions by 70%.
The current primacy of climate change and sustainability issues has certainly been the driving force behind the increased number of people adopting the vegan lifestyle, but an additional factor is protection of animal rights. Every year in the UK approximately 2.6 million cattle, 10 million pigs, and 950 million birds are inhumanely slaughtered for human consumption. Social media has further amplified this phenomenon; even just a simple share of a video helps to expose the exploitative practices of intensive animal farming.
Ultimately, the increased popularity of veganism can be attributed not only to the previously mentioned motivations, but also social media. Influencers and online communities have shed a light on the health, environmental and ethical problems behind the consumption of animal products. On a more practical level, online networks have shown how easy, beneficial, and enjoyable it is to follow this lifestyle, debunking harmful stereotypes that condemned veganism as a cult-like movement. The ability to make decisions on which types of food we consume is a recognised privilege. However, becoming an ‘imperfect vegan’ (or flexitarian), taking conscious and informed choices is a meaningful step, with the hope that a greater demand for plant-based products will lead to their increased popularity and hence availability.
It seems that this tendency is bound to last, as its projected benefits encourage individuals, industry, and policy makers to act decisively with the ethical goal of preserving the environment, respecting animal lives, and consequently defending public health. Our privilege as humans has mostly been taken for granted until now: will veganism represent the future’s ethical strategy for survival, or remain regarded as just a ‘trend’?