Eating plants seems to be all the rage these days, from bearded hipsters choosing avocado toast over bacon sandwiches to middle aged women ditching sausage casseroles in favour of quinoa salads. The big question is, what on Earth is happening? What ever happened to good ol’ meat and two veg?
Well, as a plant-munching sociologist myself, I think I might be able to give you a half-decent explanation as to why people are ‘going vegan’ and living ‘life on the veg’.
There are three main reasons why people are increasingly choosing plant-based foods over animal-based ones, and these are Ethics, Health and Environment.
Let’s start with ethics… It’s nothing new that people are considering the ethical implications of breeding, slaughtering and eating other animals for food, but we’re living in a time now where digital media, scientific advancements and tweeting philosophers are finally getting the ethics of eating animals into household conversations.
At the same time, the ethical implications are arguably worse than they ever have been, with record numbers of animals being slaughtered (around 4,000 per second worldwide) and the worst conditions of factory farming in history. Meat used to be a luxury item – even in the richest countries – but it has become a staple food and a symbol of economic development. Meat might be cheaper than ever, but it’s actually costing us a great deal in terms of public health, environmental destruction and our relationship to nature and other species. You could say it’s costing us the Earth – but we’ll get onto that.
The vanguard of the compassionate plant-munchers – the ethical vegans – have lead the way to a lifestyle free from animal cruelty with innovate plant-meats, mouth-watering vegan recipes, and by showing the world how fast, strong, beautiful and uh, annoying they can be (we’re not all annoying, promise).
Vegans can be quick to point out that – for most of us living in economically developed countries – changing our diet to one free from animal suffering, pain and death is an achievable goal, so why wouldn’t we? The best summary of the ethical argument for veganism is perhaps the quote from philosopher Jeramy Bentham, who wrote, “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” I won’t get into the whole philosophy of ethics here (though I’d love to), but if you want to consider this question more you can do so here and here.
The next big reason: Health. This is a pretty big one to get into, but as a summary of the link between consuming animal products and health, scientists have overwhelmingly linked higher meat, dairy and egg consumption to higher mortality, finding causal links to many cancers, heart disease and diabetes. They have found the inverse relationship with a plant-based diet, finding not only lower cases of such diseases but even finding some cancers, heart disease and diabetes can be reversed by following a whole foods plant-based diet. There are a few great documentaries that explore this relationship, the most recommendable of which probably being What The Health (available on Netflix), closely followed by Forks Over Knives.
There is plenty of academic literature that constitutes these findings (careful with the ones funded by Meat and Dairy Councils), and a fantastic book How Not To Die written by internationally-renowned nutritional expert and physician Dr. Michael Greger. You can also grab the Greger-approved recipe book for longevity here. The health aspect of plant-based eating has probably been one of the key driving forces for the growth of veganism over recent years, with wide media coverage of its benefits and WHO’s announcement in 2015 that processed meats cause cancer.
The final big reason why people are increasingly trading hot dogs for falafel shawarmas… the Environment.
It has come to light in recent years that animal agriculture is the main cause of global warming greenhouse gases, species extinction, deforestation, ocean dead zones and fresh water use. Animal agriculture actually produces more greenhouse gases and carbon emissions than all global transportation combined. If you’re keen to find out a little bit more about the environmental impact of an animal-based versus a vegetarian or vegan diet, I would strongly recommend the documentary Cowspiracy (also on Netflix).
So there’s the short(ish), not-so-sweet answer to “Why plant-based?”. A diet made up of plant-foods is kinder to animals, it’s better for us and it’s a great deal better for our planet. Change doesn’t have to happen overnight, but every journey has to begin with a first step. If you’re ready to take that step, here are some resources to help you.