While veganism has come to prominence in media circles, its effects have not yet been met with the same uptake in our dietary habits as a nation, writes Noel Bardon.
The rise of veganism in western countries has led many to question the possible environmental and social consequences of the relatively new dietary choice. The discourse has been markedly divisive, with meat eaters and vegans refusing to cede ground in the forum of public debate. Each side claims the diet they support tends to incur benefits to both human health and the global ecosystems. Many of those who are undecided can be led by celebrity influence, tabloid headlines and unreliable internet content within mass media circles.
Veganism is a diet which is devoid of meat and differs from vegetarianism in that its adherents not only abstain from meat, but also from many other animal products, including but not limited to, eggs, dairy, leather, beeswax and wool. The reasons commonly cited for such changes in diet, tend to be those of environmentalism, animal welfare, ethics and purported benefits to health. Some followers argue the lifestyle led by those in the movement is one of sustainability for a growing population and that the modern way of life has deviated too far away from that in which mankind evolved. Vegans claim that the land used to grow crops that are fed to animals would be better used to grow human edible greens, potentially alleviating pressure on the global food supply chain. The role of animals within society is another point of contention. Vegans believe it to be unethical for humans to slaughter, exploit or hold captive any animals on the grounds of cruelty, even within current animal welfare regulatory framework existent in practically all developed nations.
Non vegans dispute these points, alluding to the land use benefits associated with animal agriculture, the unsuitability of many regions to support widespread crop farming, as well as the low levels of many nutrients necessary for disease prevention found in plant tissue in comparison with animal products. It can reasonably be argued that the land grazed by Irish ruminants provides more than just protein and calories. There is the filtration of rainwater, the recycling of nutrients, sequestration of carbon and the provision of a habitat for biodiversity. A lesser stated fact concerning crop production can also be made in reference to the vegan argument; arable farming is not without its harming of animals. Pests and non-pest alike are subject to death or suffering through conventional cropping, whether they be slugs on cabbages, aphids on cereals or rodent pests in crop storage areas.
The figures surrounding the topic can have poor reliability, as many are published by bodies with a vested interest in the issue. Bord Bia estimates the proportion of vegans and vegetarians in the Irish population to be 2% and 8% respectively. This may appear to be a figure of only minor significance; however, veganism has seen a great expansion in the last number of years. An approximation of the growth of veganism in the US has been suggested as a six-fold increase in followers of the lifestyle. Such increases have, thus far, forced change to only minor elements of the food supply chain. Vegan restaurants are becoming more numerous in affluent areas of the country and meat substitutes can be seen on the shelves of many retailers.
The pressing concern amongst the farming community, regarding the vegan movement, is the increase in intimidation of producers by vegan activists. The recent invasion of a piggery in Co Westmeath brought the reality of such incidents which are prominent in the UK and continental Europe close to home. Although not necessarily representative of the entire vegan body, these experiences create unwelcome attitudes of fear, suspicion and loathing against the movement.
Ireland’s animal production system has not seen major challenges to suppliers caused by the shift in consumer attitudes inspired by veganism. Levels of dairy and meat consumption are still relatively high, and the outlet of agri-food exports appears likely to alleviate any other similar minor societal changes in this respect. Moving forward, it would be of mutual benefit for a common ground of constructive progress to be found between Irish farmers and vegans, in the hopes of bolstering animal welfare regulations, whilst allowing the industry to continue along its path of sustainability.