A few Veganuarys ago a meme made me groan. It depicted dead rodents, bloodied and stiff with rigor mortis, alongside colourful images of tasty-looking fruit and vegetables. “This died,” it said of the rodents, “for this” – “this” being nature’s bounty. “Just because you don’t eat meat does not mean something didn’t die for your food!”
It was posted by a butcher who works exclusively with sustainably reared, native-breed animals, on an account followed by the farmers whose animals populate its impressive counter of dry-aged meat and chickens killed well beyond the 42-day UK average. Yes, if asked, he could probably tell you the name of the cow that T-bone came from.
This year, the burger chain Burger & Beyond went one step further by removing all vegan options from its menu for January, “replacing them with dishes that shine a spotlight on the quality meat available from British farmers & butcheries at a time they need it most”.
The message was intended to be edgy, but it comes across as desperate attention-seeking. It is endemic to the anti-vegan propaganda that spews forth in January, in retaliation against the anti-meat vitriol that peaks at the same time. As is typical of online debates in this age, there is no compromise as each side becomes more entrenched in its binary viewpoint.
The truth is the real enemy of the butchers and restaurants pushing for more sustainable meat isn’t veganism. It is the faceless producers of industrially reared livestock whose products sit on shop shelves and populate fast-food menus.
Vegans would be better off directing their ire there, too, rather than towards the butchers, farmers and consumers who are trying to do things better. The pro-vegan lobby is quick to make broad-brush accusations against meat-eaters so one-sided they can err into inaccuracy, such as Peta’s claim that a vegan diet is “100 per cent cholesterol free”. Humans will never stop eating meat. And the vegans who preach about the evil inherent in consuming animal protein, without conceding that some meat might be worse than others, only affirm meat-eaters’ resolve and further polarise the conversation.
I eat meat, but I also respect the choice of those who cut it out to minimise their impact on the planet. Animal agriculture creates more greenhouse gases than any other industry, including transport, and often abuses the natural world: the Brazil-based company JBS, for example, has been accused of “cattle laundering” – raising cows on illegally deforested Amazonian land, before fattening them on legitimate grazing land. (Because of suspicions over JBS’s links to the practise, Sainsbury’s stopped procuring meat from Brazil in 2021.) Most vegans choose their diet out of genuine concern about an industry that is contributing to the destruction of the planet. They are not the bad guys.
Still, the frustration with Veganuary is understandable. It has become a consumerist project that seems to be rooted in a desire for us to spend, as much as to show care for animals. It doesn’t just push us to cut something out, it prompts us to replace it by buying more: fake meats and pretend cheese so processed it’s hard to know where the plastic wrapping ends and the food begins.
There is another way. Studies show regenerative agriculture, a symbiotic relationship between the land and what we eat involving farming methods that work with nature rather than against it, is possible.
It won’t be easy. Meat-eaters must drastically reduce their consumption, and there needs to be genuine determination to hold the most damaging players in the food industry to account. Income disparities that make the heftier price tag of sustainably reared meat inaccessible to so many must be addressed, perhaps through subsidies funded by the companies causing greatest harm to the planet.
But a good place to start would be for both sides of the Veganuary debate to take a moment to quiet their screaming and realise they have more in common than they care to admit.
[See also: Will Emma Raducanu always be an enigma?]