Image: Climate Emergency - Melbourne climate march from John Enlart's Flickr PhotoStream

On the limits of Veganuary and the Climate Emergency

The popularity of Veganuary continues to grow. Around a quarter of a million people trying out a plant-based diet for the first few weeks of January in 2019 and even more people are expected to join in January 2020. Popular bakers Greggs introduced a new range of vegan sausage rolls in 2019 and have attracted renewed media interest in their latest launch; the vegan steak bake. This was previewed to consumers with a dramatic build-up to ‘the drop’ in Greggs stores  (much as we might expect a store ‘drop’ for release of a music album). Other fast-food chains have been swift to catch up. KFC, Pizza Hut, Costa, Wagamama are amongst other big-name brands now producing vegan burgers, toastie’s, curries and burritos. In many ways, these marketing methods and the normalisation of vegan options across an array of fast food stores give some indication of the younger mainstream audiences that are being targeted. Can we assume that this represents a significant shift in thinking about sustainable living and personal environmental footprints?

It is impossible to ignore the role of social media in the popularisation of meat-free diets. Young YouTubers such as Niomi Smart are the public face of veganism as a healthy and also clearly aspirational option for affluent millennials. Smart’s popular videos feature “What I eat in a Day”. She shows viewers how to make Matcha tea, granola with organic berries and fruit flavoured water (before moving on to making vegan menu choices over dinner in Notting Hill restaurant Farmacy).

But there are clearly bigger issues at stake. In addition to the health benefits of reducing meat in your diet, the plant-based diet is being promoted as an important way of reducing your carbon footprint. Indeed, the IPCC report recommends moving away from land-intensive animal products. In the latest issue of the New Scientist, a small experiment explored the carbon footprint of the diets of 19 people. These included meat-eaters, vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians who were monitored over 2 weeks. While some found the shift relatively easy, others struggled with lack of meat, fish and dairy which provide essential nutrients. There was also a high incidence of people turning to quick, unhealthy vegan ready meals (potentially high in sugar and salt) instead of making the effort to find new recipes to cook at home.

While we might assume that The Vegan Society is positive about the renewed interest in cutting down on animal products there have been reports of members being unhappy at the idea of the “part-time vegan”. Veganism, after all, is about more than trendy lifestyle choices. For members, this represents a deep-rooted philosophy of living. Vegans thus seek to exclude as far as is practicable, “all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose… In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals” (The Vegan Society, 2008).

Certainly, IPCC Climatologist Hans-Otto Pörtner, recommends that it is beneficial for people to consume less meat not only for climate health but human health. We may however still be far from a situation where meals in the public sector (schools, hospitals, care homes) are plant-based by default (one of the key goals of Vegan Society campaign Catering for Everyone).

In terms of meat consumption, Australians are the second biggest meat-eaters (after the United States). Currently, the country is the focus of global media attention with uncontrolled wildfires spreading unabated in the hottest year since records began. Bushfires have already caused significant damage to human life, property and wildlife with audiences witnessing the devastation through mainstream media reports and notably also social media posts and videos. The film of a thirsty koala bear stopping a cyclist for water has gone viral on Instagram and the link between meat-eating, the climate emergency and Australia bushfire crisis was made explicit by angry vegans. They criticised hardware store giant Bunnings for raising money for firefighters through a nationwide sausage sizzle barbeque on the grounds that eating meat is a contributory cause of climate change which is the root cause of the fires.

Harrowing media reports and news of the enormous toll on wildlife (a billion animals are estimated to have died) have attracted the attention of high profile celebrity climate activists.  In light of his $500,000 donation to Australian wildlife rescue, Formula 1 Champion, Lewis Hamilton urged people to turn to a vegan diet. Joaquin Phoenix, who is currently nominated for several Oscars for his role in Joker has also drawn attention to the role of meat and dairy industries in a climate emergency. Phoenix believes this message has been under publicised in environmental communication about climate change.

Yet the advice circulating to consumers remains ambiguous. Some experts argue for a completely vegan diet, others advise to simply buy local or grass-fed meat and many such as Patrick Holden, Director of the Sustainable Food Trust advocate that we look instead at what he sees as “the root of the climate change problem”  our fossil fuel consumption, this is where we need to take the most urgent action.

It remains to be seen whether the links made between climate emergency, on-screen environmental disasters and diet do help to bring about sustained behaviour change in terms of increased citizen responsibility. It is of course entirely possible that for many people, veganism is simply another passing fad in the commodification of sustainable living.