Veganism isn’t a revolutionary way to change the world (Photo by Alexander Pohl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Features

Menace of the vegan militants

What you eat is just a lifestyle choice, not a way to save the world

I love cappuccinos — for years my mum and  I bought two of them, soup-bowl-sized, from the Costa on Holloway Road in north London before going grocery shopping. But recently, at more upmarket establishments, my regular order has been answered with a question — oat, soy, almond or animal milk? The puzzled look I get when I say “semi-skimmed” is a sure indication of how prevalent the vegan craze has become.

Forget faux fur and bamboo shoes — spurning all consumption of animal products is now the thing to do. According to market intelligence organisation Mintel, the UK has overtaken Germany as the nation with the highest number of new vegan foods. Thanks in part to the UK-wide ban on grabbable junk food at supermarket checkouts, vegan-friendly agave syrup- encrusted nuts are now readily available. Restaurants and food chains are cashing in, too. Greggs CEO Roger Whiteside boasted recently that the social-media attention created by its vegan sausage roll allowed him to sell to middle-class former “Greggs rejectors”.

I see it locally: what used to be a Costcutter at Manor House junction (selling sword-shaped bottles of vodka) is now called “Simply Organique” with a “free-from” section. It seems the guys who own it have figured out they can make more by flogging plant-based yoghurt to people who have mistakenly wandered up the hill from Stoke Newington than they ever did selling chocolate bourbons and bargain basement frankfurters. The vegan pound is real — the Financial Times reported that Greggs had enjoyed a “14 per cent rise in sales in the first six weeks of the year” thanks to its inclusive menu.

Vegan activists demand the rest of the world admit that their diet is the “right” and “best” choice for our health

You’d be forgiven for thinking that we were all converting to veganism — but we’re not. The Vegan Society claims that
“vegans and vegetarians look set to make up a quarter of the British population in 2025, and flexitarians just under half of all UK consumers”. But hardcore don’t-even-eat-road-kill vegans only make up 1.16 per cent of the population, at just over 600,000 in 2019 — up from 150,000 in 2014. The reality is that most people might dabble with the new trend, but still return to their Sunday roasts.
The problem is that veganism has become much more than a niche consumer choice. While political vegetarianism has been around a long time, the militant vegan outlook is much more uncompromising. According to vegan activist and YouTube star Earthling Ed, “Animals have one chance at life, and who are we to take away that one chance because we enjoy the taste of their flesh and their secretions?”

Secretions, if you’re wondering, is a horrible word for things such as eggs. On an episode of BBC Three’s short-lived series Britain’s Most Offended, artist and vegan activist Nik Thakkar compared eating meat to “racism” as eating meat was “speciesism” and claimed that “every time you go to buy milk you’re paying someone to rape a cow”, presumably alluding to artificial insemination. For vegans, the distinguishing line between animals and humans — biological or philosophical — is non-existent. Eating animals (or products derived from interference with animals) is as morally reprehensible as the murder, rape or harassment of human beings.

Alongside vegan activism (cutting wire fences on farms, stopping livestock on the way to the slaughterhouse or shouting at customers in the Brighton branch of McDonald’s), veganism has tapped into a growing anxiety about food, diet and health. Riding on the back of the “clean-eating” fad, characterised by anaemic-looking white girls using Instagram to show off their triple-soaked overnight oats, veganism has become the sine qua non for those concerned with their health. Most people know that a high consumption of so-called plant-based foods (vegetables to you and me) will be beneficial for our health. But rather than see a vegan diet as part of a spectrum of healthy eating choices, vegan activists demand the rest of the world admit that their diet is the “right” and “best” choice for our health.

A vegan I once knew lived solely off mass-produced, plastic-covered chocolate bourbons and onion rings

An outraged response to a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week revealed how intense the fanaticism of the vegan outlook is. After reading vegan advocates’ descriptions of presenter Kirsty Wark’s interview with food writer Joanna Blythman as “fatuous propaganda”, “ridiculous” and “offensive”, I listened and found the interview rather more measured than I was led to believe — though Blythman and Wark referred to veganism as a “fad” at one point. Vegan advocates took issue with Blythman’s claim that a vegan diet could not “compare in nutrient density” to one with meat consumption. In fact, what she said was that unless one was to spend an inordinate amount of time learning the right way to get the right kinds of nutrients and vitamins needed from plant-based foods, most people who go vegan (particularly young women) end up with worryingly low levels of vitamins and iron. If veganism was as easy, affordable and healthy as the activists claim, why does the Vegan Society advertise and sell its own brand of supplements, Veg1?

Rob Lyons, the author of Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, went vegan for a brief period in his early twenties. He certainly lost weight, or as he put it, “I used to look like a rake.” Now a meat-eater, Lyons is dubious about the idea of veganism being better for our health. “There’s nothing to stop you eating lots of fruit and vegetables while also eating meat, eggs and dairy.” For Lyons, the key is in a moderate approach to what is ultimately a personal choice: “Thanks to human adaptability, if you know what you’re doing, it’s perfectly possible to be vegan and healthy. Just don’t assume it’s more healthy than an omnivorous diet.”

But perhaps the main reason why moderation is unlikely when it comes to veganism is that its new-found legitimacy is grounded in the politics of climate panic. With the boom in movements such as Extinction Rebellion, “going vegan” to save the planet has become the newest way to show solidarity with environmentalist politics. Climate and vegan activists claim science is on their side: mass livestock farming produces methane gas, uses fertiliser, and wastes massive amounts of water. But people forget that a vegan diet is not always as pure and carbon-neutral as activists might like to make out. A vegan I once knew lived solely off mass-produced, plastic-covered chocolate bourbons and onion rings.

Veganism is popular with my generation because it is an easy way to signify that you have the right views

Studies have shown that the influence of so-called “fad” diets such as clean eating or veganism has led to an increase in demand for avocados, which use a huge amount of water and have to be shipped internationally. Vegan activist Earthling Ed asks his followers if their tastebuds are more important than their lives, alluding to the “mass extinction” that Extinction Rebellion and others are continually forecasting. But what these (often middle-class) activists fail to recognise is that for most people, tastebuds don’t come into it at all.
Most families in the UK who eat meat are not being selfish but simply feeding their families in the quickest, cheapest and most nutritious way. For families like mine, that always meant meat, potatoes and a few greens.

The problem I have with veganism is that personal food choices aren’t really political per se. While debates about climate change, the meat industry and public health are worth having, the politicisation of diet tells us something very important about the move away from politics with a capital P. The rise of identity politics — where individuals are encouraged to view politics as an individuated affirmation of their own sense of self — has nurtured a generation of narcissists. Veganism is the perfect example of the holier-than-thou, virtue-signalling approach of many aspects of contemporary politics.

Veganism isn’t a revolutionary way to change the world, a stance against cruelty or a leading light to save the nation’s health — it’s a lifestyle choice. Veganism (or Extinction Rebellion or clean eating for that matter) is popular with my generation because it is an incredibly easy way to signify that you have the right views, the right sympathies and the right political leanings. It’s all about your lifestyle and your conscience. As David Attenborough said: “How could I look my grandchildren in the eye and say I knew what was happening to the world and did nothing?”

If we want to get serious about changing the world, we have to challenge the growth of this new, identitarian approach. Veganism might make you sleep better at night (bar the beansprout flatulence) but what it cannot do is become the basis for any meaningful societal change. Rather than hectoring people from an enlightened plant-based perspective, we should encourage a younger, vegan, generation to stop looking for their political satisfaction in the aisles of Whole Foods and start thinking bigger about how we can make the lives of human beings (and animals) better without restricting our ability to enjoy life.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover