By: Stuart White 20-01-2020
Halfway through a month sometimes referred to ‘Vegan-uary’, let’s start this week with a joke.
Q. How do you know if somebody is a vegan?
A. Because they tell you!
Like all good humour, it stems from its large grain of truth and bingo, I’ve just made an unconscious pun, two if you also count ‘stems’! Vegans are the epitome of the old adage ‘there’s none so pure as the reformed’. In other words, when someone has seen the light – be it finding Jesus, given up nicotine or alcohol, lost a massive amount of weight or discovered the joys of naturism – they just can’t wait to spread the word and try and convert their friends, family, neighbour and work colleagues.
Veganism has been around for decades, if not centuries, but for the longest time was considered a fringe diet. In the ‘70s, for example, the buzzword was ‘macrobiotic’, an extreme form of vegetarianism, definitely on the eccentric side of eating, something more to inspire pity or poke fun at than to be considered as a serious dietary option. Such diets, with their associations with religious piety and monkish self-deprivation, therefore became a legitimate target for mockery. Consider the episode of Blackadder when his pious aunt and uncle come to stay and decree that not only do they eat no flesh, the food of the Satan, but everything must be consumed raw, cooking being another device of the devil! Fair game, you see – oops, another pun.
For those of you confused about the terms ‘vegan’ and ’vegetarian’, the difference is principally that vegans will eat no dairy or animal-related products, so not just no meat, milk or cheese but eggs and even honey and gelatin. Formerly such diets were chosen for their perceived health benefits or simply an aversion to killing animals for food but in recent years this has changed. New-age vegans now quote the destruction of the planet as the driving reason behind the need to convert and oh dear, in come those inadvertent puns again because obviously when I say ‘driving’ you shouldn’t be doing that in a machine that uses fossil fuels and when I say ‘convert’ that also references the catalytic device that converts the harmful exhaust gases to less toxic emissions or indeed to the process of converting the evil combustion engine to one run on batteries. Consider this extract from this week’s journal, ‘Science’.
‘Selling your car and skipping flights will dramatically reduce your personal carbon footprint, but if you want to holistically help the planet, then going vegan is your best bet. The environmental impact of eating meat and dairy products is unrivalled among human activities, the authors argue, and foods like hamburgers, yogurt, and chicken wings don’t even play a meaningful role in the global diet. While dairy and meat products take up 83% of global farmland, they provide just 18% of human calories and 37% of global protein, the report found. If people stopped eating these foods, farmland would be reduced by 75%, allowing ecosystems around the world to recover from deforestation and other forms of harm, while still generating enough food to feed all of humanity.’
Now like all such statistics, they need to be unpacked a little to understand them better. Dietary experts consider that in a healthy diet adults should get 45-65% of their calories from carbohydrates, 20-35 percent from fat, and 10-35% from protein. So, the figure of dairy and meat products providing 18% of calories consumed in our diets is right on the button and 37% of protein actually exceeds our requirements.
As for the quoted 83% of global farmland, this is truly where the saying attributed to Mark Twain of ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ seems apposite. Certainly cattle, sheep and goats are all roamers and ideally need space to graze, but beef cattle is often raised on cramped feed lots in much the same way that most poultry consumed is from battery-farmed birds raised squashed together, sardine-style, in small cages. In addition, the term ‘farmland’ is misleading. Technically, any patch of land where farming is carried out can be classified as ‘farmland’ but there is a big difference between general and arable farmland. Hardy cattle breeds, farmed goats and even sheep can be successfully reared on scrubland or rocky hillsides, land completely unsuitable for arable crop production so another way of looking at these would be sensible land usage.
The claim that veganism is healthier than a partially carnivorous diet is also questionable. Meat provides minerals including iron and zinc and vitamin B12, while dairy products are rich in calcium for healthy teeth and bones and fish is an excellent source of Omega 3 fatty acids as well as other minerals. On a vegan diet these vital trace elements would need to be sourced elsewhere, since most vitamins and minerals are only found in particular plant sources and not in sufficient quantity to supply the daily requirements of a healthy body.
The answer for some is the new ‘flexi-tarian’ option, cutting down on animal products and going veggie or vegan a couple of times a week but that’s a form of fence-sitting, rather like deciding to walk to work twice a week but take the air-conditioned, gas-guzzlling car the other It makes you feel purer but you’re faking it, aren’t you!
Perhaps Vegan-uary should be replaced by Fib-ruary? At least we’d be being honest!