Vegan values

Giving up meat and dairy may sound extreme, but it could be good news for you and the planet argues Claudia Cahalane

Until recently, vegans were seen by the average person as obsessed extremists who take all the fun out of food. But now, with the world food shortage debate gathering pace, veganism may be emerging as the most environmentally sound and ethical diet all round. The food shortage comes in part from the drive for greener transport.

Food crops are being turned into biofuel for vehicles to meet EU targets instead of being used as food. As a consequence, the grain that is available for food is rocketing in price. For example, the cost of rice is up by three quarters.

But the longer running issue is that the grain and water used to feed animals could be used to feed starving people. This is a major problem, and one which vegetarians and vegans have been aware of for quite some time.

Quite simply, the world could feed a lot more people if we just ate the crops in the first place.

What’s the beef?

It takes 8kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef, and cattle expel a huge amount of greenhouse gas, plus huge areas of land are cleared to graze them. For chicken, 2kg of feed produces 1kg of meat.

“If the world adopted a vegetarian diet tomorrow, we could feed twice as many people,” says Rosamund Raha, information officer at the Vegan Society. “On a vegan diet, we could feed three times the number of people. The feed is transported from places like Brazil, so there is a carbon footprint issue too,” Ms Raha adds.

On top of this lack of sustainability in the meat industry, the charity Compassion in World Farming says that farm animals produce 13 billion tonnes of waste every year. Liquid effluent from factory farms often pollutes soils and rivers.

Eating fish has also become unsustainable, with 75 per cent of the world’s fish stocks either exploited or significantly depleted already. And yet 1 billion people around the world reply on fish as their primary source of protein.

Dispelling misconceptions

Less than 1 per cent of Britain is vegan, but there are many aspiring or nearly vegan types and interest in the diet is growing. In January this year, the Vegan Society received three times the number of membership enquiries it usually receives in that period.

However, there is still the misconception that vegans are likely to be anaemic and lack energy, which puts some people off the diet. But in reality, vegans are no more likely to be ill than anyone else.

Examples of super fit vegans are easy to find – one site, The Vegetarian Site, has thriving communities of runners, cyclists and body builders. Member James Meldrum, a 28 year old athlete from Liverpool, has been a vegan and into fitness for eight years. He founded the Vegan Runners club and has just achieved an impressive time of 2hrs 37min at the London marathon.

“There’s a misconception that vegans are ill and pale, but since becoming vegan I’ve never felt better. I train just as hard as my meat eating fellow runners and I recover really well from races,” says Meldrum. “I eat a varied diet and plenty of carbs because I run about 80 miles a week. I don’t think I’ve had a cough or cold since I became vegan,” he adds.

Protect your health

Healthwise, there are many reasons why omitting eggs and dairy is better for your health, according to vegan nutrition expert Tony Bishop Weston of Foods for Life. “Animal products are rich in saturated animal fats, which in excess have been linked to a variety of diseases from certain cancers to heart disease and diabetes,” he says.

“Professor Jon Rhodes from the school of clinical sciences has also linked a bacterium present in cows milk to Crohn’s disease which chronically affects one in 800 people in the UK,” Weston adds. One of the most successful diet books out last year, the New York Times best-seller “Skinny Bitch”, also promoted a vegan lifestyle as the way to lose weight healthily.

Vegan values

For some people, veganism remains an ethical choice, with factory farms still being responsible for the majority of meat output. To them, veganism is a natural step to being as ethical as they think they can be.

To vegans, cows are exploited to continually produce milk and egg production is often considered equally intensive and unnatural. Male cows and chicks are regularly killed at birth because their inability to produce milk and eggs renders them uneconomical – this also happens on free-range farms.

Stretching to veganism makes good sense from an environmental perspective because milk and egg producing animals are bred separately from meat providing animals. “Hence, they take up extra space and produce more emissions,” says the Vegan Society’s Ms Raha.

If you do decide to give it a go, be reassured that people rarely become vegan overnight – it is a journey. Take things at your own pace, that way you will enjoy discovering new foods rather than feeling frustrated by not being to eat certain things.