My New Year Resolution: to be vegan for January
The start of a new year is a great symbolic opportunity to start again. The old year - and the old way of doing things - is over. By new habits, starting now, you can make an almost perfect future become reality.
Well, that's the theory at least. In practice, of course, it's much more difficult. I have been making New Year Resolutions since I was a teenager: get fit, eat more healthily, be more disciplined. When you reach my age, you begin to realise that life is always going to be a struggle to do better: it never gets easy. A better resolution could be to simply "keep trying to do better", and that's one that can usefully be re-used year after year.
That said, I am starting this New Year with the same, short, specific resolution that I successfully completed last year: I am going vegan for the month of January. I'm doing this as part of a campaign known as Veganuary (www.veganuary.com). The organisers aim to introduce novices to the concept of veganism: it's relatively easy to commit to a strict eating regime for just a month, especially with the support of the Veganuary team online, with helpful recipes and shopping ideas. The idea is to demonstrate how easy it is to be vegan: around half of those who do Veganuary decide to become long term vegans.
For those who aren't clear, the definition of a vegan is someone who does not eat or use animal products in any form. That means sticking to a plant-based diet, avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs and honey, as well as products like leather and anything that's been tested on animals. Veganism has been growing rapidly in recent years: there are around three times as many vegans now compared to ten years ago. Vegans are still a small part of the population (around 1%), while vegetarians (people who avoid meat, but eat dairy products and eggs) make up around another 3%. But if the trend continues, avoiding meat is going to become increasingly mainstream: in some countries, such as Australia and Israel, over 10% of the population are vegetarian or vegan.
In the past, the main reason for people to go vegan was concern about animal welfare, but there are two newer justifications for a vegan lifestyle that have convinced many more people to make the change.
First, a plant-based diet is better for the environment. If everyone stopped eating meat, the reduction in greenhouse gases would be greater than everyone stopping driving cars. The high levels of cereal production needed to feed yard-based cattle used for meat production in many countries is a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction. While the world's human population has doubled since the 1960s, world meat production has quadrupled. There were nearly five times as many tonnes of pig produced in 2013 compared to 1961, while world chicken production has increased by nearly 13 times. This trend is continuing: it's predicted that by 2050 world meat production will have almost doubled again, as the Western taste for meat, eggs and dairy products grows in developing countries. This increased production will continue to contribute to global warming, pollution, deforestation, land degradation, water scarcity and species extinction. Many people who worry about the environment feel that by taking a personal stance against meat eating, they can make a difference.
The second new justification for veganism is that a plant based diet is better for human health. Compared to the general population, vegans are leaner, and have lower BMIs and lower percentages of body fat. They are less likely to get weight-related diseases such as diabetes, they have a reduced risk of heart disease and they have lower cholesterol, blood pressure and reduced mortality rates.
Furthermore, recent research has suggested that eating certain processed meat products (such as bacon, ham and sausages) is as likely to cause cancer of the bowel as smoking is to cause cancer of the lungs.
My own long term view is less extreme than a typical committed vegan: I am happy to eat the products of animals as long as they have had good lives, and as long as they have not suffered fear, pain or distress at the end of their lives. In Ireland, I believe that most cattle and sheep fit into that category, but in most countries, the production of all meat has become so intensified that most farm animals do not have a life worth living. Most of the world's pigs live short, tedious, frustrated lives in stark surroundings. Meat production isn't the only problem area: over 80% of the world's dairy cows never see a green field. Egg production is worse again.
Thanks to recent progress in our understanding of brains, we know that animals share similar consciousness as ourselves, yet the worst intensive farming systems treat them as if they were inanimate objects, devoid of sensation. The industrial scale over-intensification of livestock production globally has been described as one of the worst crimes in human history.
In Europe and in Ireland, animal welfare is largely treated with respect, but I wish I could say the same for the rest of the world.
I'll be a full time vegan all January, and after that? I'll let you know.