Veganism; dietary choice or substitute religion?

“I am David Butler and I am a farmer”. You could say being a farmer is my primary  ‘self-identification’. I wanted to be a farmer when I was at Primary school and will probably still think of myself as a farmer when I pop my clogs. It’s who I am and all my friends and contacts are made fully aware of this fact! As my wife points out I have an unfortunate tendency to talk about little else at social events without a sharp reminder to do so!

Its estimated there is now approximately 3.5 million British citizens self-identifying as ‘Vegan’. “I am Joe Blogs and I am Vegan”. For many of these dietary converts this self-identity defines who they are and the set of values they want to exhibit. Amongst this number is a quiet majority of vegans who see this as simply a personal dietary choice. I know there are some friends I’ve met who are Vegan but they have never found cause to have to tell me. Millions of Brits are presumably also on a spectrum of alternative dietary choices; low calorie / nil-gluten / low carb / low fat etc etc but again these advocates don’t see this choice as a primary ‘self-identification’. I myself have self-selected quirky dietary restrictions; I’ve now omitted chocolate, crispy snacks, caffeinated drinks, pizzas and booze from my own diet….partly for the challenge of self-restraint and partly because it will make me healthier. You know what though; I have no intention of promoting my own dietary choices to others or self-identifying as anti-coffee, anti-chocolate etc.

I do offer an element of ‘respect’ to Vegans for their self-restraints as someone who really enjoys eating meat and needs this as a component of my diet in order to feel full and satisfied. To then add to this the removal of all dairy; butter, cheese, yogurt, milk and Ice Cream would leave me very unfulfilled in life! I would find it really hard to follow a strict Vegan Diet myself and imagine I would be flipping from a state of hunger to a state of bloatedness as I tried to pack in a huge volume of low calorie food to meet the demands of an active lifestyle. I have no doubt such a regime would leave me feeling totally miserable as I have a Labrador attitude to food.

The concern I have at the moment is that for some Veganism is so much more than a dietary choice. It has become a symbol of a whole set of associated values. The extremist vegan subset have mixed together political, spiritual and moral  inclinations into a Vegan-themed formulation. Ultra left-wing resurgent politics has big links to the growth in veganism.  Suddenly this dietary choice has become something so core-based for individuals it has evolved in to no less than a substitute religion; filling a void created by a more secular society as Christianity continues to look out-dated and wane in popularity. Veganism is more than a dietery choice; it comes with a set of ethics and principals which some feel compelled to spread. By becoming a pseudo-religion extremist vegans are driven to increase the following/community of their sub-set as a key priority.

What is the counter to this trend; what is the response? Does it matter? Yes actually it does because there is plenty of evidence that following a Vegan diet can be bad for your health. As evolved primates it it sensible to fall back on our own genetic design; we have evolved over thousands of years to have a mixed diet including meat. Our evolutionary neighbours, the chimpanzees, mostly eat fruit but they also regularly hunt for meat. Their main prey are red colobus monkeys. The human digestive tract is not that of a herbivore; our teeth are not designed to chew the cud; our forward pointing eyes are those of a hunter/predator. Our ability to eat (and cook) meat has been key to our evolutionary success. To deny this is to deny who we are and how we are designed. There are a multitude of concerns about vegan diets; it is particularly difficult to absorb enough protein (and specifically key amino acids) from a plant based diet. It pains me to say it as an arable grower but there is also evidence an over-reliance on grain-based products such as bread and cereals is linked to poor gut health. There is also particular concern about B12 deficiency in pregnant vegan women (leading to tragic birth defects) and the bone mineral density of those children and breast-feeding mothers consuming an inevitably low-calcium vegan diet. Vegan followers need to understand the risks and potential consequences of their choices and ask themselves if the pointers of evolution support their arguments.

There is also an environmental catch-22. Many vegans have a collective vision of how they would like farms to be run and farmed animals are not part of this picture. Those vegans also presumably want farmers to use less pesticides and fertilisers to grow the crops they eat. What is being overlooked is the sustainability and suitability of mixed farming systems to help meet this second goal. Much of the world’s meat is produced by grass-eating herbivores. Herbivores are also an important component of the ecosystem. If cattle and sheep are lost from farms then so will the grasslands; would the inevitable cultivation of much of this land to grow crops inorganically (lack of manure means artificial fertilisers are used) really be a step forward?

Vegans should also be mindful that there is no such thing as a ‘conscience-free’ diet. Demand for more exotic products such as avocados can result in a bigger carbon footprint for the extra food miles and can cause habitat destruction in those countries less concerned about biodiversity issues in the pursuit of a fast buck. All plant-based production also necessitates the killing of animal pests from billions of attacking insects to birds and mammals such as rabbits and pigeons which graze agricultural crops. To eat we take away habitats from wild animals and there will always be unavoidable pain and suffering to some sentient creature caught in the crossfire. Animal pests are blind as to whether their lunch is organic or conventional; all crops have their ‘fans’ which need to be addressed.

So; all respect to the commited Vegan for their self-control and sacrifice. If your life is more wholesome and fulfilling due to your self-restraint then that’s your choice to make and good for you but don’t assume for one minute your choices are a free pass to a long, healthy life or that you’re giving the planet an impact-free environmental footprint; things are a whole lot more complicated than that.