I was invited to talk for five minutes about what made me go vegan and my experience of the recent growth in the market for vegan products.
In 1989, when I was in my mid-20s, I was knocking about in a small town which had a cattle market. There were some lads sitting on a wall, one of whom had a long cane, and as the cows were being unloaded from the trucks and doing what frightened animals do, then slipping over in what frightened animals do, his job was to whack them hard till they got up. No malice, but time was money and the cows’ bodies were money. I went back to where I was staying and the dinner on offer was beef stew. No options. I went without, for one night only, I thought, but I haven’t eaten meat in the 33 years since. (I say I haven’t eaten meat, but I like Benjamin Zephaniah’s New Year’s resolution to stop saying that and, instead, tell people he doesn’t eat animals. They’re not meat.)
After that one night of abstinence, when I went out I usually had a choice. Thanks to the pioneers there was the vegetarian option. By no means everywhere, but it was doable if you liked chips, and I loved chips.
I can’t say I loved animals. I’ve never been very comfortable around them, never had pets, to the annoyance of my children. I certainly was not sentimental about them, but I recognised that pigs, cows and sheep are fellow mammals and I knew I didn’t want to be imprisoned or beaten or have my children taken away – to who knows what fate? Better not to know.
Just over 11 years ago I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals and finally grasped not only the brutality of the egg and dairy industries but the environmental degradation they cause. I went vegan. Again, when I ate out I had a choice – not that there were many vegan options in 2011 but there were many more vegetarian options, and usually one could be veganised by removing the most expensive ingredient without reducing the price.
We all know times have changed. I’ve just been back in Glasgow and there are, off the top of my head, 5 pubs in the city centre serving only vegan food and drink. All sorts of people congregate in them not just because the food is excellent but because the vibe is so good.
The recent explosion of the vegan market makes it much easier to live in a way that respects our fellow animals, including our fellow human animals, all over the world. We can buy shoes made from corn and sugar cane, get our Omega 3 straight from the algae like fish do. Eating vegan at home is easy and can be very inexpensive and delicious. In fact, when you go to a party you’re warned to make sure you get some of the vegan food before the carnivores finish it off.
I should, of course, say omnivores and that is appropriate because if they don’t stop and take a look around they will devour everything. Greenpeace recently calculated that 71% of agricultural land in the EU is used to grow food for livestock. Even if you subtract the grassland from that astonishing figure you’re still left with 63% of arable land being used to produce animal feed instead of food for human consumption. Cruelty and pollution aside, it’s an incredibly inefficient way to get your calories. If the planet was a busy tube carriage, carnivores would be the manspreaders – quite possibly decent people, unaware of what they’re doing, but taking space from everyone else nevertheless.
So the huge expansion of the vegan market is good – essential – for all of us – vegans, animals and the people who eat animals, and I hope soon to see a menu with spare ribs labelled as the Cruelty option, leg of lamb as the Theft option, and good old traditional beef stew as the Climate Changer’s special.