The Uncomfortable Promise of Veganuary

VeganuaryA few years ago I took the pledge and did the Dryathlon in January. It seemed like a good idea unless you were a brewer or local café owner.

It wasn’t about faith or belief or ethics; it was just a way of giving up the grog for a while, allowing my body to flush out some of the toxins it had built up during the previous 12 months and my liver to begin its process of self-restoration. It helped me to start running again, losing a bit of weight in the process.

No arguments were involved; to be honest no one was remotely interested apart from myself.

That was then. Now, though, in 2018 the landscape appears to have changed.

It seems now that giving up the grog isn’t enough; you have to do Veganuary. This is actually the name of an organisation that promotes the benefits of going vegan; for the environment that you don’t threaten, for your body which you don’t harm for the animals that you don’t destroy. Three good reasons to do it.

If you go to the veganuary.com there is plenty of useful information about the merits of veganism, ie where do vegans get their protein? Answer: everywhere.

jamie-oliver-1001x640And it looks as though plenty of people are giving it a crack. According to veganfirst.com around 150,000 people have signed up while tv chef Jamie Oliver (pictured left) has been tweeting vegan meals to his 7m followers.

On the face of it this is a very exciting time for vegans. Instead of being laughed into a corner they are moving into the mainstream. The Spread Eagle in Homerton has just ruined many vegans’ Dryathlon by opening up as the first totally vegan pub in London. And in the suburbs outside Paris, vegan products are appearing on the supermarket shelves. Sacre bleu, this is France, the land of frogs’ legs, pigs’ trotters and all manner of spleen and gizzards drenched in a thick, creamy sauce. The times, they are certainly a’changin’.

But (and this is a “But” delivered with furrowed brow and uneasy hand on the keyboard) the hype around Veganuary makes me uncomfortable.

WHY ON EARTH ARE YOU CONCERNED? 

Well, when I did dry January I dreamt of February 1. I wasn’t giving up the booze to see if I could go tea-total, I was counting down the days until I could pull the ring on a tin of beer or uncork a half-decent bottle of red. It was a chore. A challenge. One that I knew was good for me but one which I resented.

My concern is that Veganuary will have the same effect on all the well-intentioned people who give it a go. Resentment.

They will grit their teeth to get through the month and then celebrate the end of the month by tucking into the biggest steak they can find. My rather unpleasant cynical self says they will then proceed to bore people over the years to come with the line: ”I went vegan for a month and their food is appalling”. Or words to that effect. Temporary convert equals lifelong expert.

Of course, I shouldn’t reduce everyone else to my low level. I am sure there are plenty of people out there for whom this will be the first step in the journey and I applaud them.

I just wonder, though, whether it could do more damage than good.

The point about veganism is that it is more than just a diet; it is a way of life. Some people connect with it instantly, for others it can take a little longer. I was vegetarian for 20 years before I became a vegan. I was lucky because my entire family had already made the move; I was the last to shake off the cheese addiction.

That family unity (we argue about pretty much everything else) led us all to examine different aspects of our daily lives. The fridge was the natural first stop. That meant longer in the shops checking the ingredients on various foods; bad news for the kids in the sweets aisle.

Then there was the wardrobe – out went wool and, obviously, leather – and the bathroom which involved lengthy searches for cruelty-free products. Remember that although some companies may claim to be cruelty-free in Europe all bathroom and beauty products sold into China have to be tested on animals. Hence a company like L’Oreal is not cruelty-free.

Vegan BaileysYou may even have to keep an eye on the booze cabinet:  for many vegans Christmas 2017 was a special time as they were able at last to nestle down in front of the fire with a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream – made with almond milk.

MORE THAN JUST A DIET

Going vegan really does become a mindset. Once you have made the intellectual decision to go down that route then there really isn’t any turning back; February 1 does not exist.

There is no hardship involved in this decision. It is just the way it is. Once I had learnt more about the abuse of the cow (and the male calf) in the cheese-making process, Stilton stopped tasting of Christmas. It tasted of death instead.

Yes there is the environment and the health of the individual human but – please forgive me if this is stating the obvious – veganism is first and foremost about animal welfare.

If a person isn’t interested in that then there is little chance they will ever want to adopt a vegan lifestyle. Why should they?

This is not to say that many omnivores don’t care about animals. Of course they do. Many people have cats and dogs and goldfish in their homes; others stable horses. And in spite of what a lot of vegans say there are farmers out there who care about the cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and turkeys that they tend – at least up until the point that they are put to death.

earthlingsFrom this group there will undoubtedly be a percentage who want to explore the full vegan lifestyle. And that is great. That is the future. That is the process by which we will continue to see a rise in veganism to the point that one day, yes, we will be able to lose certain farming abuses (beginning I hope with the truly despicable French “delicacy” foie gras).

It would be wonderful if the 150,000 people who signed up for Veganuary didn’t just eat vegan but actually learnt about the ethics of veganism. How about all of them taking 90 minutes out of their life to watch the Joaquim Phoenix-narrated documentary Earthlings?

I hope this doesn’t sound as though I am trying to turn people away from trying veganism. I am not.

I am just concerned that Veganuary is rather like Vegan Light. And if that is anything like any of the Light beers that I may have tasted over the years, then it won’t be very good. And it won’t last. And that will be a shame.

Not least for the animals.

©Barney Spender 2018

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