What’s the deal with Veganism?

This World Vegan Day, we dive into the history of the vegan movement, and talk about where it’s headed

Veganism is a lifestyle choice that has been inviting both admiration and scorn ever since the term came into existence. But there’s no denying that despite its polarising status, the concept has become increasingly popular, in part thanks to social media giving it mainstream exposure and repackaging it as glamorous.

And it makes sense to make the shift. According to research from the University of Oxford, going vegan is the “single biggest way” to reduce your impact on the planet. That’s not all – it’s now common knowledge that the production of meat, milk and eggs is a path strewn with suffering for the animals involved. So in choosing a plant-based diet, you’re helping the planet and many of the creatures that inhabit it.

While veganism might be enjoying its time in the spotlight, it’s far from a recent fad. Try going down the rabbit hole, and you discover that vegetarianism, and veganism, has been practised by various cultures around the world for centuries.

Going back to the roots

The concept of avoiding flesh can be traced back to ancient Indian and eastern Mediterranean cultures. Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (yes, of the triangle theorem fame) wrote about it back in 500 BCE. Followers of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism have also long believed that humans shouldn’t inflict pain on animals.

The idea of veganism as a lifestyle, however, only started taking shape in the 1800s. Prominent figures such as English physician Dr William Lambe and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had chosen to give up on meat, dairy and eggs for ethical reasons, and were among the first to encourage Europeans to do the same.

But the term ‘veganism’ still hadn’t come into existence. It was coined over a century later, in 1944, by an English carpenter named Donald Watson, who wanted to differentiate himself and others like him from vegetarians, who consume animal products such as eggs, dairy and honey. By the time Watson died in 2005, there were 250,000 self-identifying vegans in Britain and 2 million in the US.

A turning tide

There’s no denying that veganism is on the rise. Search data from Google Trends shows a marked increase across the globe in the interest in veganism in recent years.

Moreover, in just the last decade, the number of people in the UK following a plant-based diet rose by 340%. Similarly, in the US, there was a 30-fold increase in vegans — from 290,000 in 2004 to nearly 10 million in 2019. Many celebrities and world-class athletes have also embraced the lifestyle, encouraging others to make the shift themselves.

This rise to fame hasn’t gone unnoticed by big business, which has been quick to cash in. Huge conglomerates such as Nestlé and Kellogg’s are making a foray into the fake-meat market. LA-based Beyond Meat, which makes plant burgers that taste like beef, went public and hit a valuation of 3.4bn USD. Store shelves are lined with vegan foods, cosmetics and clothing, and restaurants are curating menus with the requirements of vegans in mind. What was once a radical lifestyle choice — and often mocked — is steadily finding mass acceptance.

Overall, a growing number of people are opting to eat fewer animal products and more whole plant foods — which can be great steps for health and for the environment.

If you’ve been thinking about making the switch, here’s the best part: you don’t need to go all in. Whether you’re a vegan, a vegetarian, a pescatarian (no meat or poultry, only fish), a flexitarian (eating an occasional piece of meat), or something else, moving toward any plant-based diet is beneficial. And what better time to start than during World Vegan Month?

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