Veganism attracts plenty of criticism and some people even claim to hate vegans. But vegans’ contribution to public discourse on our relationship with proteins shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Nov. 1 is World Vegan Day and Canada is home to about 470,000 vegans, according to a recent Dalhousie University survey. (Even though some believe that number has increased significantly in recent years, it hasn’t.)
Veganism is an overwhelming commitment and anyone who has lived the lifestyle will tell you it’s amazingly difficult. Beyond not eating animal proteins, a vegan won’t purchase, wear or use leather, fur or any animal products.
The dedication to the lifestyle is to be admired, really.
And the recent rise of plant-based dieting has allowed vegans to be more open about their passion for their way of life.
Many other well-known personalities practise this lifestyle. They include the world’s number-one tennis player, Novak Djokovic, world champion Formula One race car driver Lewis Hamilton, National Football League star Tom Brady, and former boxer Mike Tyson. These men play sports that require strength, stamina and perseverance.
An endless list of well-known female celebrities also are vegans, among them climate activist Greta Thunberg, tennis legend Venus Williams and TV show host Ellen DeGeneres.
While some vegans can be preachy and sanctimonious, the narrative linked to veganism is deeply rooted in social justice. A study on veganism released a few years ago suggested that vegans experience discrimination and bias similar to that faced by ethnic and religious minorities. This may seem extreme from a meat eater’s perspective but it’s easy to see how this group of consumers can feel that way, given various social media posts and mass media comments.
Canadians have earned the option of putting meat on the table. Many of our culinary traditions and recipes are based on meat. Vegans believe we should all forfeit that hard-earned privilege and go plant-based. For vegans, meat is murder, plain and simple. Vegans fundamentally believe animals have rights and should not be exploited for human consumption, full stop.
But 91 percent of Canadians can’t live without meat and cheese most of the time.
Nature has given us wealth, prosperity and lots of good food. All kinds of animals have had a place in our diets for centuries and we just accept that.
But in the next several decades, an evolved society might consider the concept of exploiting animals for food as completely barbaric. It’s not far-fetched and the seemingly endless food recalls certainly don’t build a strong case for meat.
Vegans have been marginalized for decades, mostly in silence. Now, consumers are seeing the planet on their dinner plates and wonder if they can do something about climate change. Despite how unclear sustainability-related metrics remain, veganism is an attractive solution, easy to understand and implement.
Animal welfare is the other critical issue driving this agenda. Farmers have been advocating and educating city dwellers for a few years, trying to make farming more transparent and visible, only to realize that urbanites don’t like what they see. To the uneducated eye, farming represents senseless cruelty towards animals.
But while veganism is becoming more mainstream and normalized in Canada, that’s not necessarily so elsewhere. Far from it, actually. In many industrialized countries, such as France and Australia, vegans are constantly and openly criticized.
However, whether we like it or not, we owe a lot to vegans. They remind us of how critical food diversity is to all of us.
But most of us don’t know much about veganism. Many feel that veganism is about imposing strict dietary limits while promoting a cult-like movement. For some, especially on social media, it’s a quest to squash whoever doesn’t share vegan values.
Beyond that nonsense lies a path towards an interesting future for proteins. We’re on the cusp of a new chapter with proteins. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have deliberately targeted flexitarians, not vegetarians or vegans, with their meat alternatives. In fact, having more options seems to have built bridges between dietary preferences.
It’s no longer awkward for vegans to roam among omnivores since most of us are now exposed to products vegans can eat. The overpowering plant-based rhetoric has democratized the notion of protein, making us more aware.
Vegans, though, need a different public relations strategy that fits with the times, since fear and guilt are just not acceptable.
Recent studies suggest vegans are becoming more socially influential. Flexitarians are more likely to consider a vegan as a reliable source of information.
While vegans need to recognize that the market is becoming more inclusive, meat industry culprits also need to acknowledge and respect the alternatives.
In the end, the food industry will achieve more growth by innovating to cater to a variety of market segments. More choice is desirable for everyone.
The path to protein plurality will be riddled with stumbling blocks. Respecting vegans is a good start.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.