Saturday, 7 November 2015

My World Vegan Month: a Sceptical Adventure in Meat-Free Eating

A few days after I had agreed to go vegan for November in honour of World Vegan Month, I was talking about it in the pub with my friend N. 'I think giving up things temporarily is quite good for one's character,' he said, 'even though I don't necessarily agree that avoiding animal products is always the right choice.'

N's approach rather sums up mine: consumption is complicated, and the more you think about it, the more complicated it gets. For many, the ethic behind World Vegan Month is environmental. We eat more meat in the Western world than is sustainable long-term. Meat production uses vast amounts of resources - water, grain - that cannot help but contribute to man-made climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock make up 15% of global emissions. As global temperatures rise, small changes have big effects on land and people: flooding, displacement. Meanwhile, meat and dairy production indisputably raises ethical questions about the conditions of the animals themselves. Our food is so packaged and sanitised by the time it gets to us that news-stories about breaches in animal welfare are quite a shock: videos of chicken factories reveal the disorder and casual brutality that lie behind our neatly-packaged eggs. A shift away from meat and dairy consumption looks like a compassionate and pragmatic choice for greater environmental sustainability - which long-term at population levels means more human stability.

What's more, we eat more meat than is good for us. The WHO's report into carcinogenic foodstuffs last month revealed what we already basically knew: processed meats are bad. Red meat is a bit less bad. If cancer wasn't enough, how about our soaring cholesterol levels and propensity to mid-life heart attacks after a lifetime of mince, French fries, and sitting down all day, countered (so we hope) by Tough Mudder and triathlons? And delicious though a good steak is - well-seasoned and medium-rare, please - have you seen meat portion sizes in North America? I once sat and watched a friend calmly work his way through half a roast chicken at dinner. I don't think that was unusual, either.

Saskia Gregson-Williams, of 'Naturally Sassy'
By now a vegan diet is looking pretty good, right? Especially these days, when thanks to social media it's really taken off, and you don't just have to eat lettuce and endless humous on toast while chucking back vitamins for all the nutrients you're missing. Dairy-free supermarket products are fortified with iron and B12. Deliciously Ella, Naturally Sassy and Oh She Glows demonstrate inventive ways with nuts, soya, lentils, quinoa, sweet potatoes, Medjool dates, yeast extract, you name it. My New Roots strikes a blow for vegan diet variety by soaking whole grains. (A lot of this is actually delicious.) And that refrain from Michael Pollan has been running through my head for months: 'eat food, not too much, mostly plants.' It's all starting to make sense.

So what are my reservations? I have two: environmental- and health-related. The first is particularly about products that are protein-staples of the vegan or vegetarian cupboard: soy. Soya milk, tofu, tempeh, soy spreads, soy yoghurt. I find soy problematic because I don't believe that soy beans grown in North America, transported across the ocean, and processed to within an inch of their lives to make tofu can really have a lower carbon footprint - or be better for me - than a chicken breast from an ethics-conscious farm in Oxfordshire. Most soy products in the supermarket don't have their country of origin printed on the packaging, so I don't know whether my soy beans originate from France, or from the Midwest. The big environmental picture is persuasive; but I'd like to know how this interacts with eating local produce. Somebody somewhere has got to have a messy algorithm for this.

My second reservation is about health, and I think I can best sum it up in the words of another refrain: 'everything in moderation - including moderation.' One evening last summer I was talking to my biochemist sister about the explosion of vegan writers in social media. She pointed out that a number of successful vegan bloggers underwent their dietary conversions following health problems and poor diets. Deliciously Ella had severe postural orthostatic tachycardia, while Naturally Sassy - a ballet dancer - snacked daily on crisps and chocolate. 'It's no wonder she felt terrible,' E observed pithily. Both these ladies have excluded meat and dairy from their diets, and are now apparently in rude health, while Naturally Sassy also cuts out wheat and gluten. Their diets clearly work brilliantly for them as individuals; but should everyone else follow suit?

Buckwheat. Soak and blitz for gluten-free,
high-protein 'buckwheat porridge'.
Preoccupation with eating the right, 'healthy, natural' food has become something of a cultural fixation in recent years, while the vast array of 'healthy, natural' dietary supplements remain unregulated. The term 'orthorexia' has even been coined to describe an obsession with healthy diet. While attention to diet is commendable - not least in the interests of making ethical and health-promoting choices about what we consume - there's some evidence that this can backfire. For example, more people than ever before believe they have some kind of lactose or gluten intolerance. On the one hand (thanks, capitalism), this has resulted in a proliferation of products that cater for people with genuine specialist needs. But on the other, people are systematically and sometimes unnecessarily cutting out major food groups.

When we cut these out of our diets unnecessarily, our gut adjusts, and the less able we are to tolerate wheat or gluten or dairy when we try them again. We find ourselves with a diet that's soy-centric or sweet potato-centric rather than meat-centric. Suddenly the environmental and health risks associated with consuming too much of one thing become about consuming too much of some other thing. Demand for water-glugging milk-alternative almonds, for example, is currently aggregating California's drought. Lurching from one extreme to another in search of the magic diet that will fix everything, we miss the simplicity of the middle way. 'Mostly plants,' said Michael Pollan. Mostly plants. Read that how you will.
Michael Pollan

So it's a little bit six-of-one and half-a-dozen-of-the-other, but I was determined to give Vegan November a shot. As I type, I'm six days in. I don't believe we all have to become vegan in order to make a dramatic difference to man-made climate change, or to increase our vegetable intake: a few vegan meals a week would make a significant contribution to both. I'm using World Vegan Month as an excuse to eat a more varied diet, rather than a more constricted one; to expand my cooking repertoire, eat well, and find out more about the food industry. I'll let you know how I get on.

1 comment:

  1. My brother is vegan and I'm on the Loaded Gun Diet so we celebrated this day with some quinoa and a burger.

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