Dear Burnet News Club members,
My name is Jonny Hazell and I’ve been working on environmental issues for the last 10 years. I’m particularly interested in how we as individuals can live in ways that do not make our planet a worse place to live for other people, plants and animals. This is how I got interested in veganism, as what we choose to eat can have a big effect on the environment.
When did people start becoming vegans and what made them start this diet?
From: The darkshadow| Ben Jonson Primary School
This is a very interesting question to which there is no single answer. It is thought that our earliest human ancestors, people who lived over 3.5 million years ago, were mostly vegetarian. The reasoning being that human hands and teeth were not well suited to tearing a carcass into food and this was a time before people developed stone tools like spears for hunting or knives for cutting.
More recently, veganism developed out of vegetarianism. Vegetarians do not eat anything that requires killing a live animal but will eat things that come from live animals like eggs, milk and cheese. Vegans don’t eat any animal products at all, not even honey as the bees have had to work to produce it! The earliest vegetarians that we know about were in India around 8000 years ago. Their vegetarianism stemmed from their religion, Jainism, which includes a belief in reincarnation. As people might be reincarnated as animals, they don’t kill animals for the same reason that they don’t kill people.
This belief, that animal life is worth the same as human life, is what motivated vegetarians in Europe from the 18th century onwards and veganism developed as an extension of this belief. The first organisation in England for people who had chosen to be vegetarians, was formed in 1847. Within this organisation there were some people who went beyond vegetarianism, and chose not to eat any food that came from animals. Initially they were known as ‘strict vegetarians’, until 1944, when the term vegan was coined to describe people who ate no animal products at all.
If everyone turned vegan, we would be the largest consumer of greens in the world; leaving herbivores nothing to eat. Wouldn’t that count as cruelty as well?
From: OriginallyCurious | Michael Faraday School
Actually one of the major arguments in favour of vegan diets is the benefit it would have for wild animals. At the moment, lots of land is used to grow plants that are then fed to animals that are then killed for food. Because animals use up some of the energy and nutrition in this food for growing and moving around, we would require less land and farming to feed everyone if people just ate the plants instead.
Growing food to feed to animals has two consequences for wild animals and the planet as a whole. The first is that the more land is used for agriculture (crops), the less there is for wild animals. There is a particular problem with growing soya beans in Brazil to feed to farm animals around the world. As demand for meat grows, farmers are cutting down the Amazon rain forest to grow more soya beans. The second consequence is that most plants that are grown for food have lots of chemicals like fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. The production of these chemicals requires energy which contributes to global warming and the chemicals themselves kill the plants and insects that wild animals eat. So actually everyone being vegan would be good for all animals.
"I think part of the environmental, ethical and health problems associated with Western diets comes from the fact that we are ever less connected with the food we eat."
Jonny Hazell, Policy Researcher
Why won’t the government encourage/ discourage veganism rather than doing nothing?
From: AgentKitty | St Peter's Primary School
It is unusual for any government to promote one diet over another. Typically they see what you eat as your choice, and not something that government should get involved with. How would you feel if the government told you that you couldn’t eat your favourite food any more?
The exception to this is where the government thinks that something is unhealthy and should be discouraged. This is why there is now a tax on sugary drinks to try to get drinks’ manufacturers to put less sugar in their drinks and to try to get people to buy fewer of these drinks. If it were to become clear that eating meat is unhealthy (there is some evidence that eating some types of meat is associated with an increased risk of particular cancers), then the government might look to discourage meat consumption.
Since no modern Western diets seem to maintain perfect balance with nature, ethics or health, how do you think we can reach a diet with perfect equilibrium?
From: Moonlight Sonata| Graveney School
I think your question contains the answer - we need to look at non-western diets! The first time I tried being vegetarian was when I went on holiday to India where many people are vegetarian for religious reasons.
More generally, I think part of the environmental, ethical and health problems associated with Western diets comes from the fact that we are ever less connected with the food we eat. When people buy ready-made food, either from a restaurant, take-away or supermarket, they are relying on the business to have made good choices about whether their ingredients have been sourced from producers who respect the environment and not put too much salt, sugar or other potentially harmful additives to the food. Unfortunately, because the first priority of any business is to make a profit, they often make compromises on these decisions. So if people were to buy more of their own ingredients and cook for themselves more, this would certainly help with some of the negative health outcomes of Western diets, and if they took an interest in where there food had come from and what standards it had been produced to, this would help with some of the environmental and ethical concerns too.
Would the earth be able to sustain everyone being vegans, would there be any environmental, economic or health problems with the vegan diet at such a large scale, or is the vegan diet sustainable for all?
From: Blueleopard | Faringdon Community College
As I said in my answer to originally curious, the earth would certainly be better able to sustain everyone as vegans than meat eaters because it takes fewer resources to meet everyone’s nutritional and energy needs using plants than animals.
From a health perspective, there are some nutrients, like iron, that meat is particularly rich in. So vegans have to be careful that they eat the right variety of plants to ensure they get all the nutrients they need. But the only nutrient that you can only get from animals is vitamin B12 so vegans have to ensure they eat food fortified with this vitamin or take dietary supplements.
The economic impacts of everyone going vegan are harder to predict. In terms of how many people are directly employed as farm workers, it is possible that this would decrease as farming pigs and chickens requires more people than growing wheat or other cereals. But growing fruit and vegetables also requires lots of people, especially when it comes to harvest time. There are also the indirect effects to consider. For example, one of Britain’s most famous areas is the Lake District in the north of England. Lots of people go there as tourists, which provides employment for all the people that work in the hotels and restaurants that these tourists sleep and eat in. The Lake District looks the way it does because of all the sheep that live there and the people that own the sheep building stone walls and maintaining the hedges and other parts of their farms. So if people stopped eating lamb, how might this change the landscape and what would that mean for the economy of that area? It is probably best to be open-minded about likely economic impacts because there are so many potential consequences it would be impossible to make a definite calculation.