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Briefing: The Rise and Rise of the Vegan

Donald Watson
Donald Watson, founder of The Vegan Society


This article appeared in the the 17 November 2018 edition of The Week magazine. Click here to view our subscription options, and enjoy our in-depth briefings every week.

What are the origins of veganism?

It was born in Holborn, London, in November 1944, when a small group of people led by Donald Watson, a pacifist woodwork teacher in Leicester, formed the Vegan Society. Vegetarianism had long existed in Britain – the Vegetarian Society was founded in 1847 – but it generally meant a diet including cheese and eggs.

Watson, by contrast, advocated “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals” in any way. His group sought a new word for this. Various suggestions – “vitan”, “dairyban”, “sanivore” “benevore” and “beaumangeur” – were rejected before they plumped for “vegan”, made up of the first three and final two letters of the word vegetarian, “because veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion”.

Why do people become vegans?

In the 1940s, as now, there were three main reasons: the welfare of animals; the person’s own health; and the health of the environment. Watson was horrified when he discovered how dairy farming worked: that dairy cows were serially impregnated; that they were separated from their calves just days after birth so that humans can drink their milk, before being slaughtered once they became less productive.

He felt that in time, everyone would “view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals’ bodies” (insects included: honey and royal jelly are also in theory prohibited). Today, there is a rough division between “ethical vegans”, who won’t use any animal products in any part of their life, and mere “dietary vegans”.

Is veganism actually good for your health?

Mostly. Unbalanced vegan diets can cause nutritional deficiencies, because they tend to be lower in vitamins B12 and D, calcium, iodine and some fatty acids. In the 1950s, some British vegans became ill, with fatigue and tingling hands and feet: it transpired that this was due to a shortage of B12, found in meat, eggs and dairy products, a deficiency that can also lead to anaemia and neurological damage.

However, today dietetic associations in Britain, the US and Canada say that a well-planned vegan diet should pose no problems, even for pregnant women and infants; it should include supplements or foods fortified with B12 and other nutrients. And since vegans eat more fruit and vegetables, take in fewer calories and fats, and exclude red and processed meat, veganism is on the whole healthier than the standard Western diet.

Is it better for the environment?

Yes. Industrial livestock farming, particularly of beef, causes massive environmental damage. The case was laid out compellingly in the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow.

This found that raising livestock takes about 70% of all agricultural land and produces only 17% of the world’s calories. In 2006, the livestock industry accounted for 9% of all CO2 emissions and 37% of methane emissions, and generated 30 million tonnes of ammonia. The clearing of land for pasture, and to grow crops that are fed to animals, is a major cause of deforestation. The case, however, is not straightforward.

Grazing is often done on land unsuitable for arable farming, and sustainable livestock farming can help restore soils. But by and large, cutting out or reducing meat is clearly beneficial for the environment.

Why are vegans seen as annoying?

Veganism is a fairly radical critique; it is uncomfortable to have one’s daily habits, or in some cases one’s livelihood, judged as immoral. And in a tiny minority of cases, veganism can take extreme forms: the Animal Liberation Front, an organisation with vegan roots, is widely considered to be at the centre of the web of British animal rights terror groups active in recent decades.

Hence, perhaps, the strain of “vegaphobia” in British life identified in a sociological study of 2011: newspapers, the study found, “tend to discredit veganism through ridicule, or as being difficult or impossible to maintain in practice. Vegans are variously stereotyped as ascetics, faddists, sentimentalists or, in some cases, hostile extremists.” Recently, though, the image of vegans has changed substantially.

In what way has their image changed?

The Observer recently reported that the movement had become “much cooler than it used to be” – that it had “acquired a hipster cachet”. Whereas it used to be associated with hippies and cranks, today all manner of celebrities and sportsmen and women are vegans. “Plant-based” diets – a term that, as The Economist puts it, “reliably says ‘vegan’ to vegans but doesn’t say ‘weird’ to the less committed” – are credited with working miracles by everyone from Serena Williams to Bill Clinton.

Instead of being ascetic and joyless, now it’s a fun “lifestyle choice”. You can get “vegan junk food”: soybean burgers that ooze blood made from beetroot, or deep-fried jackfruit (which has the texture and taste of pulled pork). Market analysts say that 2018 was the year veganism “went mainstream”.

How many vegans are there?

Veganism has spread slowly across the West over the decades – a German branch formed in the 1950s, the American Vegan Society followed in 1960. But recently, the numbers have exploded. The Vegan Society says that the number of British vegans has risen from 150,000 to 600,000 in the past four years. One in eight Britons, according to a recent poll, is either vegan or vegetarian.

The numbers are particularly high among the 18-34 age group. Being a vegan is a great deal easier than it used to be – Waitrose introduced a vegan range in 2017, with other supermarkets following suit. But it is still hard to stay the course. It may be that in the future, part-time vegetarianism or veganism is the real growth area: today, more than 20% of Britons claim to be “flexitarian”.

This article appeared in the the 17 November 2018 edition of The Week magazine. Click here to view our subscription options, and enjoy our in-depth briefings every week.