Updated: Sep 15, 2019
This article was originally published in
This year is looking great for those on a plant-based diet, but if you're a vegetarian we may have some news for you ...
2018 might well have been the year of the vegan. In 2012, an NDNS survey found that roughly
, equivalent to 1.2 million vegetarians. By 2018,
meaning 62.5% more people were vegetarian. By contrast, vegan numbers have risen from the more modest 150,000 (0.25% of the UK population) in 2014 to 600,000 by 2018 – a remarkable increase of 300%, with
as just four years previously. 1.16% of the population now considers themselves vegan, with young people leading the numbers (
). Vegans still lag behind vegetarians in terms of numbers, but the rise in the lifestyle exceeds that of vegetarianism. Since 2015, “vegan” has begun to overtake “vegetarian” as a search term on Google, with
that of “vegetarian” as of September 2018.
Apart from the numbers and statistics, we’ve also seen veganism hit the mainstream in a big way. Celebrities such as heartthrob Zac Efron and singer Will.i.am went vegan (with the latter giving us the #Vgang hashtag), joining other plant-based A-listers and cultural icons such as Sia, Beyoncé, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ariana Grande, Bryan Adams, Peter Dinklage, Russell Brand, Mayim Bialik, Ellie Goulding, Jessica Chastain, Woody Harrelson, Darren Aronofsky, and Liam Hemsworth. In London alone, there are almost 150 exclusively vegan restaurants and shops, and with ethical eating in the public eye this number looks set to increase.
So, why is veganism looking to overtake vegetarianism? The simple fact is that the primary reasons people go vegetarian are also applicable to going vegan – so whatever the reason for ditching meat, eggs and dairy should be the next to go.
In 2015, the World Health Organization announced its position that both red and processed meats were linked with cancer in humans. Red meat was classified as Group 2A, due to “epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer as well as strong mechanistic evidence” with processed meat labelled Group 1, meaning the evidence that processed meat is carcinogenic is as strong as the evidence for cigarettes and asbestos. The WHO’s analysis found that “every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%.” Meat isn’t good for us, and our protein needs can be met by vegetables, pulses, and faux-meat alternatives without the saturated fat, cholesterol, and carcinogens.
But giving up eggs and milk can seem extreme when we’re taught from a young age that they’re a vital part of a healthy diet. We’re told that eggs are a good source of protein, and that without milk we’d develop rotten teeth, osteoporosis, and shattered bones. In fact, one study found that high milk intake was associated with a greater chance of fracturing bones and another study concluded that calcium intake had no effect on preventing fractures at all. Animal milk does contain a high percentage of calcium, but it also contains animal protein that leaches calcium from bones to excrete it in urine, due to animal foods containing two to five times more sulphur-containing amino acids, which acidify the blood, than plant foods. Milk is actually making our bones weaker, not stronger. Considerable evidence also exists to suggest that dairy is a risk factor for cancer. Calcium can be found in a wide variety of plant foods, including tofu, broccoli, kale, spinach, chia seeds, almonds, and plant milks. Eggs can also be substituted for any protein-rich food source such as tofu and chickpeas.
Leaving out the animal protein hasn’t slowed down an array of vegan athletes from competing at the top. Serena Williams, regularly ranked as world No. 1 in singles by the Women’s Tennis Association, has won the US open three times since going vegan in 2012. Four-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton kept his edge with a plant-based diet, and renowned American football player Colin Kaepernick, who has been vegan since 2015, recently became the face of Nike.
With the amount of water, deforestation, and pollution it takes to create one beef burger, it’s ridiculous to consider yourself an environmentalist and still eat meat. After fossil fuels,
animal agriculture is the biggest producer of human-made greenhouse gases, which are contributing to global warming and its disastrous effects, and it’s also having a massive impact on our landscape. One study suggests that by replacing beef in the standard diet with plants would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 96%. But is it enough to swap from meat-eater to vegetarian?
Regardless of whether you’re eating beef or drinking milk, those cows are eating a lot of grain, drinking a lot of water (plus the water needed to grow their feed crops), and producing a lot of methane, which is 84% more effective at trapping heat than carbon dixoide. And what’s worse is that the rainforests and plants that we need to absorb these greenhouses are being felled for grazing and to grow animal feed. Water is also wasted: it takes a lot more water to produce a litre of cows’ milk than a litre of soya milk due to cows needing drink water and their own feed watered – and that’s not even mentioning the slurry run-offs into rivers and lakes.
Egg production still confines thousands of birds to a small space – whether that’s caged or “free-range.” And these chickens need to eat: battery-cage chickens require 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of eggs, with free-range chickens needing roughly 20% more feed. It’s an inefficient way of eating, and that’s without considering the toxic effects of keeping so many animals in such small spaces, including high levels of ammonia.
A lot of people stopped eating animals simply because they couldn’t reconcile their desire to eat meat with their desire to not do harm to an animal. Eating part of a dead body, however it’s cut to look otherwise, is a direct reminder that an animal was killed for a slice of its flesh. But since animal products like dairy and eggs aren’t part of the body and don’t necessitate killing, it can be easy to overlook the harm inherent in them, particularly with “welfare” labels such as “free range” and “organic”. But cows and chickens still suffer under contemporary farming practices. It can even be argued that any use of an animal, including backyard hens and cows that get to keep their calves, is exploitative: we have no right to take what their bodies make for our own use, particularly when we don’t need to.
In order for a cow to produce milk she must first give birth to an infant, just like any other mammal including humans. Most cows are artificially inseminated, meaning a farmer buys bull’s sperm and forces it into the cow. Just like us, cows are pregnant for nine months, and when they give birth they have a strong mothering instinct. When the first colostrum milk (which is unsuitable for humans to drink) is replaced by normal cow’s milk the calves are separated from their mothers, which is highly distressing for both the mother and her baby: the mother’s milk is extracted for human consumption, and the calf is fed a cheap milk replacer for five to six weeks instead of the usual six to twelve months of suckling. Female calves are then reared to replace the culled females, while males are slaughtered at a young age. Young calves to be killed and eaten at under a month old are known as bobby calves, but since the market for this is low in the UK, they are either shot shortly after birth – which
shocked British viewers when the scenes were aired for a 2012 Channel 4 documentary – or exported abroad for veal. As for the mothers, a dairy cow’s natural lifespan is twenty-five years: by the time she is six years old, her body is worn out by constant pregnancies and feeding, and she is slaughtered for cheap meat. The milk industry claims its victims just as much as animal flesh industries.
Egg-laying chickens are also abused in agriculture. Since male chicks are incapable of laying eggs, they are sorted after hatching and immediately gassed to death. Broiler (meat) chickens are bred differently to egg-laying breeds, and so these male chicks wouldn’t put on enough weight to be economically viable. 50% of the chickens bred for eggs don’t live past a day old – thirty to forty million chicks every year in the UK. The females then have their beaks trimmed without anaesthetic to prevent them from cannibalising each other under the stress of their conditions and will be sent to growing facilities until they reach maturity, at which point they will be transported to either colony cages or barns. Once egg production drops at around one year of age (natural lifespan seven years), the chickens are deported to a slaughterhouse, where they suffer the same slaughter methods are meat-reared chickens, either gassed or electrocuted and then their throats cut.
Killing animals is as much a part of the egg and dairy industry as it is in meat agriculture. Whether they’re slaughtered shortly after birth or later at a fraction of their natural lifespan, no animal produced for commercial gain escapes exploitation.
Veganism isn’t fringe: it’s easy
Even ten years ago, “veganism” connoted shapeless hemp smocks, lentil stews, and raw tofu: now it’s grown into a popular multi-faceted movement. Whether it’s raw, or home-made alternatives to familiar favourites, or pure junk food, there’s a vegan meal to satisfy every craving. Supermarkets stock vegan alternatives for milk, cheese, and yoghurt, and restaurants are getting savvy to a growing vegan consumer base and catering to requirements. With a thriving community online (and the chances are that you know a vegan yourself) there’s always help available to make the transition.