Vegan Farming; The Latest Movement
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
At the weekend I was in a newsagent’s shop, browsing the magazine section with my three-year-old nephew. He, of course, was focusing on CBeebies and Paw Patrol and trying to choose which had the best toys and activities whereas I was perusing the cooking mags. Picking them at random based on the cover shots, I ended up with an armful of predominantly vegan cooking magazines, something which initially took me by surprise before I considered the steady rise in popularity that veganism has enjoyed in the last couple of years.
Grow Talk wrote about the rise of veganism earlier this year as we entered Veganuary and with it the promise of a record number of sign-ups for those feeling vegan curious or wanting to make a lifestyle change.
Being vegan is a lifestyle choice that is now more accessible than ever; the internet is flooded with vegan-spiration, supermarket chains stock an increasing variety of vegan-friendly produce and even high street chains like Greggs and Pizza Hut are on-board with vegan offerings. Just ten years ago, finding a vegetarian option on a restaurant menu was a considerable win, whereas now most chains and indies cater for vegan diets without fuss and vegan restaurants and cafes are becoming commonplace.
Consumers are increasingly coming around to the idea of veganism, even if for just one day a week with trends like ‘no meat Monday’ or vegan eating on weekdays becoming increasingly popular. Today’s generation of consumers are more informed about the industries their consumerism is contributing to. Concern about animal welfare and the knock-on effect this has on what we are eating is combined with concerns regarding sustainability and the impact we are having on the environment. And these concerns are no longer limited to just the consumer.
At the end of last month, The Guardian reported on farmers, those at the heart of the meat industry, who were choosing vegetables over meat and undertaking vegan farming.
Sivalingam Vasanthakumar, a 60-year-old farmer from Devon, was on the road to the abattoir with a trailer full of lambs when he changed direction and drove 200 miles to an animal sanctuary. He now plans to grow vegetables.
In 2017, Jay Wilde of Bradley Nook farm in Derbyshire took his cattle to a sanctuary and decided to become a vegan farmer. The film 73 Cows which tells his story has been nominated for a Bafta.
These stories aren’t limited to the UK; in the US, the Illinois-based charity Free From Harm has gathered stories of many farmers who have switched to veganism.
For members within the meat industry to embrace veganism sends a powerful message; these people are not just changing what they eat, they are changing their livelihoods and abandoning practices that, for many, have been handed down generation-by-generation.
Jay had grown up working with his family’s herd of dairy cows and had realised over time that there was so much more to these animals than we are led to believe. He explained:
“I began to see that cows recognise each other, and they’ve got very good memories. They experience a range of emotions – they can be sad, happy, bored or excited. They do also have facial expressions. You can tell what a cow is thinking by looking at them. I’ve even seen cows cry.” (Vegan Society)
Jay described witnessing the separation of cow and calf in order to obtain milk as “really difficult” and continued:
“Cows are conscious of what goes on around them – they have personalities and an inner life. They’re not just units of food. Knowing them personally makes it more difficult to think about eating them.”
For many it may still seem incongruent that people whose livelihoods are so closely linked with the meat industry can even consider a vegan diet or switching to work in the vegan industry as an option. At our Grow Office Party, I was talking to Steve Williams from Topsham’s Good Game about this very subject. He spoke about attending vegan groups and commented on how people were often surprised that those in the meat industry would even consider a diet that didn’t include their produce. It all comes down to “sustainability”, he explained. Eating meat for every meal of every day isn’t sustainable and often isn’t financially viable.
Although the environment and issues surrounding sustainability are often considerations for those considering undertaking a vegan diet, the issue of our conscience cannot be ignored. For many of us, it has become increasingly difficult to pick up a pack of cheap supermarket bacon without questioning the welfare of the animals behind this steal of a price and therefore the quality of the meat we are consuming. Alongside this are concerns for those within the farming industry; how much profit goes back to the producers?
For producers and consumers alike, there is no escaping the fact that we are consuming animals, but if this has always been the case, then why are we now questioning it? Hunting and farming to feed families has been a practice in the UK, moreover in the world, for more generations than I feel like counting right now. So why is veganism skyrocketing to new heights now? Why are some of those within the meat industry having a change of heart when it comes to using animals for food?
Going Vegan; The Top Three
Those who have chosen to go vegan cite one or a combination of the following three reasons: environmental concerns, personal health and animal welfare. In addition to factors pertaining to personal beliefs or moral issues, we’ll also take a look at the ‘trend’ of veganism and thus the trendsetters and celebrities who may also be responsible for veganism’s transition from a perceived hippy fad to a permanent lifestyle choice.
Love the environment, don’t eat it
Firstly, let’s look at the environmental impact. With global warming becoming a flashing red warning beacon on our radars so recently, reports like the 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow from the UN and the follow-up 2010 report drove up publicity of the cons of meat and dairy production and consumption. The initial report described the livestock sector as one of the most significant contributors to environmental degradation and the follow-up warned that rising meat and dairy consumption alongside global population increase meant a shift in veganism was vital to save the world from climate catastrophe and food shortages.
An apple a day…
By examining a range of diets and health kicks, it becomes clear fairly quickly that meat and dairy produce are not necessary ingredients for every meal, or even every day.
Slimming World, one of the most popular healthy-eating lifestyles in the UK, allows meat but with the fat removed, butter must be Synned and cheese and milk are allowed in measured portions. Speed foods, a wide collection of fruit and vegetables, are essential in Slimming World’s plan for a healthy lifestyle and to promote weight loss. The plan has also been steadily including vegan supplements and alternatives so it is just as easy to count oat milk into your plan as it is to count dairy.
The Mediterranean Diet has fruit and veg at the top of its healthy pyramid, alongside healthy fats (avocados, nuts and oil). The diet recommends fish, but only around twice a week. Poultry, eggs and dairy also form part of the diet but again, these are recommended just a few times per week. Finally, red meat can be eaten in the diet but should only be consumed a few times a month.
There are obvious exceptions, with diets like keto and paleo advocating a high meat intake and recommending dairy too. But, as with all diets and eating plans, you need to choose what works for you. Earlier in the month, I was chatting to Oliver, co-founder of CaribSwede Vegan Bakery, at the Source Trade Show. His wife and fellow founder, Anna, became vegan before he did and when he chose to make the switch to plant-based foods, it was for health reasons.
Animal welfare is one of the biggest drivers that steers people towards a vegetarian or vegan diet. When I first considered becoming vegetarian over ten years ago, it was part teen rebellion but predominantly I was an animal-lover and couldn’t continue to align loving animals with eating them.
That was back in the relatively low-tech days; I knew meat was an animal and therefore I didn’t want to eat it. Now with Google, Youtube and Netflix at our finger tips, the processes involved in the meat, dairy and egg industry no longer remain a mystery.
Paul White, chef and owner of Blackpool’s first vegan restaurant, Faringo’s, believes that the mass of information available online is a significant contributor to the rise in veganism. He explained:
“When people see documentaries like Cowspiracy, one is enough. The fact social media is as big as it is now, it spreads things so much faster. I think that’s why it’s mushrooming right now. And it is mushrooming.” (The Guardian)
It seems to support Paul’s theory that it is the younger, ‘tech savvy’ generation that have taken to veganism the most; of those who signed up to Veganuary last year, 60% were under the age of 35 and the Vegan Society’s 2016 poll showed that almost half of vegans at the time were in the 15-34 age category.
We are a generation of Facebook users, we tweet our feelings and we are less responsive to mainstream news and media as our tech-savviness tells us to check multiple sources and not to put our trust into everything printed with a red tab or under a BBC logo.
With this free-flow of information and the ability to tag, share and make things viral, we no longer suffer from being uninformed about any number of things, including the meat and dairy industry. Rewind forty years or more and the practices of farms, dairies, abbatoirs and so on were not known unless you happened to work there. People did not know or want to know the process that the animal had been through before it arrived at their plate; the terms ‘pork’, ‘steak’ and even ‘meat’ speak to this with their separation from origin of the animal.
With official documentaries as well as leaked footage and photos of the practices within the meat and dairy industries now freely available on the internet, the time of not-knowing has long past. Consumers now face a renewed battle of conscience, struggling to align what they have learned about the industry with their enjoyment and convenience of the product itself.
The original Guardian article I mentioned termed this as ‘cognitive dissonance’; a feeling of mental discomfort stemming from conflicting attitudes and beliefs. Inevitably, one of these beliefs or attitudes must be changed in order to reduce the discomfort experienced and restore ones mental balance.
Vegan farming thus offers an option to farmers who are battling with cognitive dissonance, spending the majority of their time with livestock and experiencing their sentience whilst also preparing for the inevitable time that they must be slaughtered to contribute to the industry.
It is also worth noting our change in attitude towards animals over the years and the impact this may have had on veganism’s continued climb. We are officially an animal-loving nation; 45% of the UK’s population own a pet and most of us do so for sentimental reasons, rather than the functionality of having a mouse-catcher or guard dog. We own pets in a different way than previous generations, allowing them into our beds, buying treats and accessories for them and, overall, treating them as a member of our families. The sentience of these animals continues to chip away at our consciences, coupled with YouTube videos of cows cuddling and licking humans and the above-mentioned animal welfare documentaries exposing practices that jar with our animal-loving lifestyles.
In addition to these more personal reasons, the cult of celebrity cannot be ignored; with health, lifestyle and gossip magazines updating us on the latest diets, the choice iconic celebs like Ellie Goulding, Natalie Portman, Ellen DeGeneres and Liam Hemsworth, to name a few, have made to go vegan must surely have an impact.
In addition to these celeb figures, some vegans in the UK cite Jeremy Corbyn as an influence. As a long-standing vegetarian and respected politician (depending on your political alliance, of course) Corbyn’s left views and alliance with the younger generation in conjunction with his refusal to eat meat have made him a champion for normalising vegetarianism and bringing the idea of a plant-based diet to the mainstream.
Tim Barford, manager of Europe’s largest vegan events company, VegfestUK, believes there are deeper roots to the recent explosion of interest in veganism.
“There is a big plant-based shift culturally, a systemic change in the way that we’re approaching food and the way that we feed ourselves. Remember that successive governments over 15 years have been ploughing money into persuading people to eat more fruit and vegetables, with the five-a-day campaign. Then you’ve got a real cultural change among millennials, which is very much built around justice and the way we look at animals.”
In addition, Tim acknowledges the move away from ‘militant veganism’, whereby protesters would don balaclavas and seek confrontations outside shops selling fur or circuses that used animals. Now, people share information and tips through the internet, they form peaceful protests like vows of silence, and they organise festivals and events to celebrate being vegan. Tim continued:
“This new breed are not playing up to that stereotype – they recognise the danger of it. There’s a real understanding and compassion among today’s activists. I’m a bit older and that wasn’t there in the radical 70s and 80s, with the punk rock, ‘f*** you’ kind of attitude – it’s now more reflective and therefore more effective.”
Rapidly growing consumer awareness of the impact industrial agriculture has on both animal welfare and the environment has led to a drastic change in eating habits. Alongside the supermarkets and restaurants that are now offering plant-based alternatives are major companies like Guiness, who removed the fish bladders from their product to make it vegan. Richard Branson announced in 2017 his plans to invest in a start-up called Memphis Meats, which is developing lab-grown meat from animal cells as an alternative to animal agriculture, sometimes called ‘clean meat’. He commented:
“In 30 years or so, I believe we will be shocked [that] we killed animals en masse for food.” (The Guardian)
In 2016, a group called Fairr (Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return) co-ordinated a group of 40 large institutional investment funds to urge major food producers and retailers such as Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, Tesco and Walmart to develop alternative, plant-based sources.
Local consumerism is also experiencing a revival; concerns for industrial agriculture and animal welfare were undoubtedly lower in the pre-supermarket era where consumers were able to buy directly from producers or from local shops and thus carbon footprints and large-scale industrial farming were not concerns.
Whether or not vegan farming is the answer, or even an option, for the farming industry which has been in crisis for some time due to financial pressures and the prevalence of mental health issues, remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the industry is changing. More and more people are choosing vegetarian or vegan diets, even if only part-time, and thus the demand for animal products is changing.
There are many people out there who will undoubtedly still mock a vegan diet or feel personally offended that their right to eat meat is being questioned, but they exist among a society whose concern for the environment and the impact we are having upon the planet and its creatures is escalating.
Vegan farming may or may not be the next big thing, but veganism itself has demonstrated its durability and continues to assert its place within society. Does it answer all of the concerns that fuel it? That remains heatedly debated in the media, but perhaps answering the growing concerns and questions is not as important as being responsible for posing those questions. As Tim Barford explained above, veganism has become a movement to share information and make knowledge freely available so that we can take responsibility for questioning practices that we have always considered normal.
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