Veganism: What’s it all about anyway?

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Vegan stereotypes are perpetuated everywhere in popular culture, which often portrays vegans as teenage bearded hipsters with rich parents. Well, what exactly is a vegan anyway? It seems to me that there is a lot of hate directed towards them, but not many people seem to really understand it. I certainly didn’t. You can therefore understand the shock I felt when my girlfriend told me she was going vegan. We all know someone who’s tried it, and came back to their senses after losing about 10 kilos and looking like Christian Bale in The Machinist. I imagined this was the fate that would befall her, and patiently waited for her to give up on the whole thing and join with me on a visit to the nearest steakhouse.

Three months passed and I was beginning to get a little nervous – she hadn’t shown any signs of giving up. In fact it was almost the opposite. Now she was referring to meat as ‘animal flesh’ and milk as ‘calf’s milk’. This was getting out of hand, it wouldn’t be long until she started walking around in bare feet and talking about living off the grid. I decided to find out what this was all about, so we had a chat over coffee (hers with soy milk), and talked about it. We discussed the ethics, about how cruelly animals are treated, and she showed me a few clips of animals in factory farms. Of course, I dismissed them, as she was only showing me the most extreme footage (I thought) of the food industry for shock value.

Industrial milk production. Credit: Alamy

However we then started talking about how animal agriculture affects the environment and this is where I started really listening. She showed me some facts she had found out about the impact, which I just couldn’t get out of my head. When I got home I went to confirm these, and found that it takes 25000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of beef (for comparison it takes 600 litres to produce 1 kilo of potatoes). I also found out that around 80% of deforestation is caused to make grazing land for cattle, or to grow crops like soy to sell to western nations for animal feed. And as if that wasn’t enough I also found out that the greenhouse gases emitted from animal agriculture is greater than all forms of transport in the world combined. Suddenly I felt ridiculous that I was doing things like recycling when the impact from that really pales in comparison to going on a vegan diet. To seal the deal we sat down and watched a documentary called Cowspiracy which talks about the effect our diet has on the environment and I was sold.

Dutch super trawler fishing 30 miles off the coast of Mauritania. Credit: Greenpeace

However, what was I now going to do with this information? Surely just going vegan myself would not have a big impact on the grand scheme of things. I decided to sleep on it and just see how things would go. The next day I kept thinking about these terrifying statistics I’d been told. Surely they couldn’t be right? How could almost everyone around me be so indifferent to the whole thing, especially if we are literally destroying this planet through what we put into our mouths? I decided to do my own research… only to find that these facts were indeed correct. I looked at footage of animals being slaughtered, well killed, lets be clear about one thing, they don’t get treats or belly rubs in an abattoir. So now I was at a crossroads. I didn’t want to give up a large portion of my diet, and become a hemp-wearing, condescending vegan, but I also didn’t want to pay people to kill these animals. I didn’t want baby cows to be ripped from their mothers so there would be more milk for humans. I didn’t want antibiotics to be used on livestock so we can house them in small spaces in the order of thousands, increasing the risk of developing new deadly diseases immune to antibiotics, which are our last line of defence. I also didn’t want our oceans to be empty of fish by 2048, or have no rain forests left to absorb carbon dioxide.

76,000 free range chickens in Leicestershire. Credit: Andrew Fox for The Telegraph

So I bit the bullet. I took the plunge. I decided from that day onward I would no longer contribute to the suffering of billions and the death of the planet as we know it. This was going to be hard… except it wasn’t. I found that soy milk was just as good as cow’s milk. I found that there are a million ways to prepare tofu and almost all of them taste amazing. I found that you can make burgers from chickpeas, soy, portabello mushrooms, lentils, and other non-animal flesh sources. And guess what? They tasted pretty good. I will admit that they didn’t taste like a burger made from a cow, but they did taste really good in a different kind of way. I learned that the only supplement I needed to take was vitamin B12 which was in a packet of multivitamins I picked up for £1.50 from Tesco. I found my acne decreasing and my energy levels rising. Of course, I occasionally went out and bought some meat or cheese, but this gradually stopped happening over a few months. I went vegan a month before my May exams and still managed to get a First overall that year despite the huge lifestyle change.

If there was one thing I regretted, it was that I didn’t do it sooner, that someone had told me about this before. That is the greatest gift my girlfriend has ever given me, and its the same gift I am giving to you now. If you take anything away from this article, I just want you to know that behind that vegan stereotype is simply a human being muddling through life and doing their best to reduce the amount of harm caused to others.

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Part time engineer, part time animal activist.

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