Perceptions about veganism

Vegan artwork
Unity Diner, Hoxton - London
The Ecologist and the Vegan Society launch an extensive report into attitudes about veganism among our regular readers.

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I experienced one huge disappointment about becoming vegan a year ago: it was no longer edgy and radical. It has - I have to admit - been far too easy. It hasn’t really been much of a conversation starter, only discussed around logistics for major eating events like Christmas.

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There was a time when being vegan meant that you stood out as someone deeply concerned about animal welfare. It was the ultimate in virtue signalling.

There was absolutely no prospect of ever eating in a restaurant with friends again; family members would have a melt down if you visited for lunch; it was generally believed that you lived on the brink of starvation, lacking this mysterious “Vitamin B12” which apparently only existed in raw t-bone steak.

The vegan issue
The Vegan Issue - Out Now!

Empathy 

The reality of being vegan today is fundamentally different from ten years ago, never mind in the early 1980s when I made my first attempt.

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Restaurant staff are always extremely accommodating, family members are extremely well versed on the issues and happy to cater for their concerned loved one, and supermarket shelves are heaving with both traditional products which should have always been vegan and also those new science-flavoured fake sausages.

There is one serious issue about becoming vegan that I should really warn you about: once you have crossed the rubicon, you may never go back. For decades I was comfortable with being a pescatarian: the idea of eating a rabbit, a lamb, or a cow evoked a visceral sense of disgust. However, this just did not extend to octopus, salmon, oysters.

It seems that during the year that I have stopped eating fish my unconscious empathy with the animals of the sea has extended and deepened. Now I feel genuinely as upset at the prospect of eating a tuna as a duck.

This particular empathy was not able to unfurl until there was a space where I was not directly implicated. Now that these feelings exist in this space, they are highly sensitive even to imagining going back.

Learning experience 

This has been a longer process. I have been interested in systems theory for some time, and this interest naturally increased my understanding of biology.

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It became increasingly clear that the categorization of “fish” and “animal” was entirely human and arbitrary. My belief now is that octopi are more intelligent, empathetic and social than some breed of dogs. And of course there is this video of the child learning about the squid on his plate.

The last 12 months have been a real learning experience for me. The question of becoming vegan was of course posed by the amazing Veganuary campaign. And the final decision was taken by subscribers to The Ecologist newsletter - who voted in favour of the editor adopting a vegan diet. It was the best decision I have ever not made.

We also asked our subscribers to share their thoughts about veganism in a long, detailed survey. Your response was absolutely amazing. We had more than 450 people participate, and 250 of those were happy for us to publish their views.

Somewhat overwhelmed with the amount of information at our disposal, we turned to The Vegan Society, who are increasingly involved in research activities and collaborations with academia.

Their research is managed by research officer Dr. Lorna Brocksopp, and supported by an interdisciplinary Research Advisory Committee of academics. The Vegan Society therefore were able to facilitate and co-ordinate the analysis of the survey, working with researchers from Kingston University.

Together we are today publishing an extensive report into attitudes to veganism among our regular readers. The results are fascinating: the Kingston researchers Luiz Gustavo Silva Souza and Arabella Atkinson have done an amazing piece of work.

Read The Ecologist and Vegan Society report now!

Change

One of the key findings is that there is a significant divergence in opinions between those who have bitten the bullet, as it were, and become vegan and those who have not.

For non-vegans, one of the most significant barriers is the perception that sustaining a vegan diet is difficult and not yet socially accepted.

There also remains a concern that vegan diets are not healthy - despite the fact that meat eating is linked with increased risks of cancer, heart disease and other life-threatening conditions. 

The report also evidences a major shift in attitudes: concern about climate breakdown is almost as important as animal welfare among those who are considering becoming vegan. There is now a clear recognition that becoming vegan is one of the few individual life-style choices that can make a real difference in reducing our carbon impact, alongside a reduction in flights.

This is coupled with an understanding that systemic global change, within the agriculture industry and in terms of our capitalist economy more generally, are also necessary.

Findings

One of the unexpected pleasures of the report is hearing from vegans about the joys associated with removing meat and diary from your diet. The report states: "Participants cited the feeling of being happier, lighter and having a “clear and guilt- free conscience.

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"Participants cited benefits such as peace, more empathy to others and feeling closer to nature.

"Other could-be vegans highlighted effects for society, ‘not supporting cruel industrial practices’, adopting ‘ethical consumerism’, a ‘mindful action in the real world’ and setting up a ‘good example’. One participant mentioned difficulties instead of joys (perceived low variety and high prices of vegan food).”

Conversely, one of the difficulties of becoming vegan and allowing that inner growth of empathy is that it is then more difficult to witness the world around us.

The appalling conditions in the meat industry, the impact mega farms are having on our countryside, the threat of “chlorinated chicken” which forms a background to Brexit and a potential Trump trade deal. This, and of course the death of millions of animals every day. It’s difficult to know, difficult to take. 

We surveyed our readers to inform the vegan special issue of our sister print magazine, Resurgence & Ecologist. Marianne Brown, its editor, has published a range of informative and engaging articles about veganism in this month’s issue under the title, A Lot on Our Plates. 

Marianne interviewed Chris Packham, the popular TV presenter and animal rights protests about his experiences of being vegan this year. Shaina Rogstad discusses speciesism.

We interviewed Sally Carson from Clive’s Pies about the production of high quality vegan food. We also discuss nutrition, the carbon impacts of meat and vegetable crops, and even features a delicious recipe.

New normal 

I have to admit that one of the motivators for me in becoming vegan is a desire to be ahead of the curve. Chris Rose, in his influential book, What Makes People Tick, discusses how effecting change in society depends on understanding people’s attitudes, and how these are framed.

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He talks about the process of “normalisation”, and discusses our roles as pioneers, prospectors and settlers. I need to be a pioneer, and that’s one reason why I first became a vegetarian in 1989.

But in the last few years it has been increasingly obvious that vegetarianism - never mind pescetarianism - is not cutting edge. The front line is vegan.

We now see that veganism is being adopted by prospectors - hence all those high price foods in the supermarkets. Soon, I strongly suspect - it will be the new normal. If you harbour a desire to be an early adopter, the time is right now.

This Author 

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. Read The Ecologist and Vegan Society report online. Image: Tallys_art. Unity Diner, Hoxton. 

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