The five-letter V word

Following Veganuary, trustee Karen Statham explains why she turned to a plant-based diet but avoids the five-letter V word.

I’ve never been a dedicated follower of fashion, or one to jump on the bandwagon, but it seems I’m currently on trend with my dietary requirement. For over twenty years I haven’t eaten meat and over three years ago I stopped buying dairy products too. So, Veganuary was just the same as any other month for me. Yet, I shy away from labelling myself with the V word now plastered all over billboards as food retailers and supermarkets all cash in on the craze. 

Everyone knows the joke “How can you tell if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you”, but this hasn’t been the case for me - well not until now. I often sneaked the cheese out of the buffet sandwiches, just to avoid the conversation turning to my diet. I also felt, and still do, like I wasn’t a real vegan anyway as, when there’s been no plant-based option, I’ve occasionally just eaten the vegetarian one.

However, the current rise of vegans and media attention to it is changing not only menus but also people’s attitudes towards their own diet and my confidence in explaining my own. Despite the popularity of the diet, a recent BBC article stated that research has shown only drug addicts inspire the same degree of loathing as vegans and the least popular vegans of all are those who cite animal cruelty as their reason. Perverse for a so-called nation of animal lovers…

Many of the recent press articles and documentaries on veganism have focused on the environmental and health benefits such as The Game Changers, a rather annoying Netflix documentary about the benefits of plant-based eating for athletes. Yet, the game changer for me wasn’t learning about how a vegan diet could give me the body of a Roman gladiator – it hasn’t – but learning about the animal cruelty which happens in the dairy industry.

I’ve always loved animals and so my teenage decision to stop eating them was common sense to me. Meat was murder but dairy was different – or so I thought. Naively, I thought cows had to be milked by humans otherwise they would explode or something. Somehow, I never made the connection between cows' milk and motherhood - or perhaps I just didn’t want to. 

Artificially inseminated at around 15 months, then separated from her calf (usually within the first 24 hours after birth), so the calf’s milk can be taken for human consumption; this is the sad life of a mother cow on a standard British dairy farm. If a calf is born male, he is either shot in the head (known as the dairy industry’s dirty secret) or confined in a small pen and raised for veal or sold for beef. If the calf is born female, she enters the dairy industry like her mother and is sent to slaughter at around the age of five when her milk production level declines. A cow’s natural lifespan is 20-25 years.

There is a small rise in ‘Cow with Calf’ dairy farming where calves are kept with their mams to suckle, resulting in less milk taken for human consumption. The Ethical Dairy claims their approach has led to huge reductions in the use of antibiotics, increases in biodiversity and healthier, happier cows. As we aren’t all going to stop consuming dairy, I think their kinder approach to the land and animals should be praised by everyone including vegans. Yet, can taking another mammal’s milk and cutting their life short ever be considered ethical? Ahimsa Dairy, who offer slaughter-free milk, I feel are closer to it.

Whilst the animal welfare issues were the main reason why I switched to a plant-based diet, now the environmental reason is key too. We can’t escape the wealth of scientific studies released over the past couple of years stating that eating a vegan diet could be the “single biggest way” to reduce your environmental impact on the earth.

Until recently I didn’t fully understand the huge impact that animal agriculture has on the planet. We all know cows’ burps are bad for the environment, but I didn’t understand that it is the amount of land, water and other resources that is used to feed them that is so destructive and unsustainable.

The recent documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat has Killed the Planet has, whilst dividing opinion, at least shed light on this. It revealed that a staggering 51% of the UK’s land is given over to grass to feed animals, 19% is for arable farming, 10% is tree covered and only 1% is horticultural. 

It also highlighted that our farm animals are often fed on imported food. The vast majority of all the soya grown where rainforests once stood is used to feed animals. Therefore, eating animals can lead you to indirectly eat far more soya than vegans do.

As one of the most nature depleted countries in the world now importing over half of our food to a population where almost a third of people are obese and almost a third of all food is wasted, it’s clear our land and food is not working for our people, our wildlife or farmers.

The solution many environmentalists suggest makes sense to me. If we had less farmland in our country for feeding farm animals we could have more land for growing organic healthy crops for human consumption and, where crops would not grow, we could transform the land into wild places and woodlands where carbon could be captured, natural flood defences restored, nature could thrive and that people could enjoy. To do this we wouldn’t have to all turn vegan or put farmers out of business - just eat less meat. If farmers were supported by Government policies and subsidies to help them change their land in this sustainable way, we could surely make the landscape work for all.

Whilst healthy eating wasn’t the reason I turned to a plant-based diet it is the reason many people do and a definite benefit. Studies show that vegans tend to have lower body weights, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol. Yet, just because a product is labelled vegan it does not make it always healthy or sustainable (especially if your avocado has flown in from California). Like any diet, it needs to be balanced and planned and preferably sourced from local producers. Chips and crisps clearly aren’t going to give you all the nutrients you need and that’s why I admittedly had a shaky start.

Now as I eat plenty of different fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and pulses and know my dairy-free milk is fortified with supplements (including calcium, protein and B12), I feel healthier than ever and humble that my diet considers animal welfare and reduces my environmental impact on the planet as well as working for my body. So, if that makes me not just a vegan but one of the most loathed vegans you can be - then so be it. I’ve never been a dedicated follower of fashion…