Nothing brings the political, social, and cultural impact of food to the fore like an argument on veganism. With Veganuary 2022 wrapped up, it’s time to reflect on the history and significance of the movement as a whole
Since its coinage in 1944 by Donald Watson, an animal rights advocate, ‘vegan’ as a term has evolved and ballooned into so much more than just avoiding meat and dairy. While it’s most traditional usage is heavily diet specific, the practice is also about as much about avoiding practices that commodify animals.
From avoiding animal products or byproducts, to sustainable living in terms of apparel, make-up, and more, there’s so much more to veganism than meets the eye. Through Veganuary, an annual challenge run by a UK non profit organisation, one is encouraged to take a small but significant step towards reducing personal and environmental harm thought to be caused by a meat-heavy diet.
Started in 2014 by British entrepreneur Matthew Glover and animal rights campaigner Jane Land, the movement’s motive is simple. As their website reads, ‘they want a vegan world, one without animal slaughterhouses.’ Participants receive a celebrity cookbook, meal plans, nutrition guides, and coaching emails. To make the process as uncomplicated and pressure-free as possible, the material has been designed to make a vegan diet seem sustainable even post the 31 day mark.
But is it really as simple as that?
Apparently an increasing part of the population does think so. The 31 day pledge to be meat free and adopt a plant-based diet has seen a massive jump in numbers, almost double since the original with over a half million people from 209 countries participating in 2021. Of those, India came in third with 60,000 participants. Such was the reckoning in India that it was made a campaign hub for Veganuary 2022, joining the UK, US, Germany, Chile, Brazil and Argentina as global hubs, and also becoming the movement’s first Asian outpost.
As a Veganuary campaign hub, India partnered with the Ahimsa Trust. A non-profit social development enterprise, Ahimsa (which means non-violence in Sanskrit) spreads messages of non-violent transformation. Underpinned by sustainability ethics, it fits quite naturally with the Veganuary movement.
However, the leap to be meat-free or animal product-free is far from binary. Firstly, there’s a significant difference between being plant-based and vegan. While a plant-based diet is similar to being vegetarian and advocates for more plants in your diet, vegans generally tend to forego all animal byproducts as well, making for a stricter regimen. This does tend to create some chaos in terms of finding the right ingredients and triple checking your food before you eat it.
According to India’s Veganuary country manager, Prashanth Vishwanath, it’s not that difficult. Busting a popular myth on all of veganism being greens and lacking nutrients, he says from personal experience, “Plant based food is anything but that! In fact, vegan foods are better than animal derived foods in the quantity and usability of almost all major nutrients. The bonus is that they lack the high concentration of toxins, adulterants, cholesterol, fat, antibiotics and hormones that are so common in animal derived foods.”
The same is underlined with several vegan brands and restaurants coming up across India. A new survey conducted by YouGov suggests that a whopping 65% of Indians plan to eat more plant-based/vegan foods in the new year. With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that Veganuary brought on an additional 40 Indian businesses to release new products and declare special offers to make vegan foods more accessible. From Dr. Oetker, Milkin Oats, BlueTribe foods, Hello Tempayy, Urban Platter, White Light Food, and Good Dot to name a few, there’s plenty of options on the market for people to explore a vegan diet.
Most vegan and plant-based brands tend to market their products as a tastier alternative from a monotonous vegetarian diet. With Hello Tempayy, for example, it’s about catering to vegetarians and vegans looking to get more protein into their daily diet. Unlike plant-based meat, however, they prefer creating a truly delicious protein solution rather than mimicking meat and thereby creating processed food anyway. Which works well to tune out arguments that vegans avoid meat simply to go on and create plant versions of it themselves.
The most major arguments against veganism stem from a health perspective. Apart from a lack of protein, it’s not uncommon for vegans to take B-12 supplements among others to maintain a truly balanced diet. Of course, the biggest meat puritans will also speak of vegans not being as zero harm as they might portray. While industrial agriculture, especially in terms of animal farming, is resource intensive, plant-based farming isn’t as far behind as one might be led to believe. In a country like India, with a significant part of the population desperately straddling the poverty line, what would need to happen for plant-based foods to make a significant dent in hunger and poverty?
“Eating plants is hardly elitist. Being vegan does not mean you eat avocados and tempeh everyday. Many of our traditional Indian foods are vegan. On the contrary, growing plants to feed them to animals and then eating those animals is a highly wasteful and elitist behaviour. Every year 70 billion animals are farmed for food. This is almost 10 times the current human population. More than three-quarters of all agricultural land (which can be used to feed people) is used for animal farming. Animal agriculture is the biggest driver of global warming. To be blind to these glaring facts is privileged and elitist behaviour.”
“We strongly believe that greater awareness on the advantages of a plant-based diet is necessary to reduce the demand on animal products. This will create the necessary market shift towards plant-based foods, free up our land, create more jobs and help us feed more people with less resources. Additionally, increased public demand will persuade governments to incentivize production of a variety of nutrient rich crops and plant-based products, which are now neglected due to the heavy focus on animal farming,” comments Prashanth.
As the global population continues to veer toward and explore the trends of wellness based and sustainable eating, it’s equally imperative to focus on sustainable farming. Here is where things get a little murky and open up to cherry picking as well. Even as animal farming is unsustainable and arguably a great contributor to pollution, nut farming can be equally water intensive for far less a yield, making it as expensive as it is environmentally harmful. So if plant-based alternatives are here to replace the traditional foods, how much of a nutrient difference are we looking at?
According to Hello Tempayy, “This really depends on whether we are staying true to the health claims we make. To us it is important to deliver plant-based food that is healthy in the holistic sense. Good nutrition profile and minimally processed food. Not all animal-protein replacements can make that claim. It is difficult to generalise. We don’t position ourselves as a plant based alternative nor do we attempt to mimic any traditional meat. We are a plant based food and offer a healthy and nutritious option to vegetarians and conscious foodies looking for options. One of the biggest advantages of tempeh is that it’s a plant-based and not a dairy-based protein source, which is ideal for those who prefer a dairy-free diet. And it’s gluten free too.”
The aforementioned survey by YouGov says more than 60% of Indians have a more positive perception of plant-based/vegan diets compared to 2 years ago. Even as the debate rages on, it’s worth noting that the binary, good-or-evil view of meat is pragmatically counterproductive to getting people to convert to a vegan lifestyle.
On a slightly more philosophical tangent, if the only bad thing about meat consumption is its cruelty and unsustainability, then we can focus on giving farm animals a decent life over radically disrupting the ecosystem altogether.
In my personal, humble, and mildly unbiased opinion as a wellness diet enthusiast, there’s a limited spectrum of veganism anyone with the privilege to afford it must consider. Ending animal deaths and suffering is a worthy moral goal for those of us who have the wealth to make choices. But of course, saying that it’s wrong and immoral to eat meat is just too absolutist, and gives vegans a moral complex that often makes them all the more insufferable.
On a more positive note, if a lack of vegan options is getting in the way, it’s a great opportunity to push your inner chef. While cooking is basic for all human beings, there’s something to be said about putting in the effort to truly understand how much one can incorporate such a novel lifestyle. According to Prashanth, Indian and East-Asian cuisines are full of flavour and incorporate a variety of plant based ingredients, making them vegan by default. As the ruling government continues to ban and even harass people for their meat eating/selling ways, it might just bode well for people to take up a version of the Veganuary challenge.
If nothing, it’s worth exploring for an informed opinion, if only to reject it later. But what do I know?