It’s Veganuary. Brace yourself for another toxic food fight

ONE thing that always strikes me is that January is probably not the time to start on a vegan lifestyle. Why begin just at the point in the year when you’re stuck with winter vegetables, fresh produce is dwindling and the chances are to keep yourself interested, you’re going to have to design dishes around imported veg?

That said, I do get it. The over-feasting and indulgence, all that turkey, leaves many of us with the desire to cut back, which is why, though I’ve not signed up to Veganuary, I am cutting the meat and dairy, not for health or ethical reasons, but some emissions guilt of the season. It’s also because in this climate and biodiversity crisis-threatened world, it’s my view that meat is for special days and not every days.

So feel free to bash me for being a veganism-advocate or not being vegan enough. For that’s certainly the way in this food-based culture war – no one is not judged for what they consume, particularly the vegans. Though less than two percent of people in the UK are vegan, the way people go on, you would think that vegans were literally taking over the world and meat-eaters were an endangered species, shamed out of existence by plant eaters. 

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Such a pattern is a general feature of what we describe as culture wars. A minority of people advocate noisily around a way of life or ideology, which kicks against the norm, and the majority who had felt quite comfy that this was just the way things were, have a meltdown, perhaps because someone brought their own vegan sausages to a Christmas gathering.

What concerns me is that this combination of the polarisation of the debate around plant versus meat, and the food industry’s profit-based battle for our consumer cash, is getting in the way of us seriously creating the change needed in our farming and, even more crucially, our food production culture.

It bothers me, for instance, that, although the global food system produces around a third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, it was barely on the agenda at COP26. Food production and land-use is a key issue, coming up fast in the wake of fossil fuels, yet, even outside the conference, in terms of debate, it seems to have been chiefly restricted to a consumer discussion of vegans versus steak-eaters. It was there, in a PETA advert on the side of buses in Glasgow, “You Can’t Be A Meat-Eating Environmentalist”. Well, actually, I would argue, you can – just don’t eat very much of it.

Partly, I suspect, this neglect of agriculture on the agenda at COP26 is because we humans can only deal with one fight at a time, and for many environmentalists, the fossil fuel industry has been the chief target. But also I think it’s because what we eat is such a sensitive and emotional area in all our lives, one that is often coloured by religious tradition and our own sense of health and wellbeing, as well as being part of how we socially come together. We know this is going to be very divisive and are keen to keep it away from our dinner tables.

Advocacy of meat-eating is even gendered and attached to more patriarchal and conservative views. Men’s meat-heavier diets, according to one study, published last year in Plos One, have been found to produce 40 percent more emissions than women’s. Yet, we all have the same research at our disposal, for instance the recent study published in Nature Food which showed that production of meat worldwide causes twice the pollution of production of plant-based foods.

Meanwhile, it feels as if the direction we are heading in is of merely replacing a small section of the global animal food industry with one in which many of the same companies dominate but are focussed on plants, and greenwashing some of those products. That’s hardly ideal. We need to have a more textured, less polarised debate and discussion around this vital issue. And we need to ditch the moralising. Over the past year of vaccine debate and backlash, we’ve learnt a lot about how people react when they have a moralising finger wagged at them.

Plant v meat not only partly mirrors vaccine-approval v anti-vax, but is also fast becoming the new renewables v oil, in which the big question is who is doing the lobbying and getting propaganda across. One paper published last year in the journal Climatic Change studied ten big meat and dairy companies in the United States and found all had contributed to efforts to undermine climate-related policies.

But of course, Scotland is not the United States and farming is not like Big Oil. Small-scale farmers still exist and there are farmers here practising climate-friendlier options like regenerative farming, in which animal and plant are grown alongside.

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Polarisation, I believe is partly a result of our inability to face the complexity of the world we live in, our desire for simple answers. Food should bring us together. This Veganuary let’s get round the table together in the places in which we live and find local answers, ideally with local food producers, in a non-polarised way. Bring your own sausages, any type, if you like.


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