Sometimes when I say I’m vegetarian or vegan, I think people who aren’t take that as a criticism – or assume that I intended it as such. The other week someone called himself a ‘filthy meat eater’; we were discussing getting takeaway, and I’d said that Chinese was often good for me because many places do a range of bean-curd dishes. So let’s get this out the way. I’m a vegetarian-leaning-vegan because that’s what I’ve been called to do. If you are, to adapt an already apocryphal phrase, happy to eat it as long as you can, that’s fine by me.
So why am I vegan(ish)? What is a vegan anyway and what does ‘ish’ mean? Basic terminology, since this gets confused quite often: a vegetarian doesn’t eat meat. Has it got a brain? If yes, don’t feed it, or parts of it, to a vegetarian. (Some parts are sneaky – sweets don’t look like they contain bits of pig or cow, but many have gelatine in. Some people are pescatarians, eating fish but not other kinds of meat.) Vegans, generally, don’t eat meat or animal products. What counts as an animal product will vary, but to be on the safe side, assume that milk (and all milk products), eggs, and honey are included. (A freegan doesn’t buy those things, but will eat them if they’d go to waste otherwise.) What someone actually eats will depend on the motives for adopting their diet; if in doubt, ask.
I began vegan in the summer of 2011, having been vegetarian since my teens. I was at Yearly Meeting at Canterbury, and we were working on issues around climate change; I was repeatedly desperate for something I could do, since there’s a limit to how much a person with a chronic illness in rented accommodation on a very limited budget can do about their carbon footprint. The only thing I really have complete control over is food, I said. And I can’t even buy that without plastic packaging. But I suppose I could go vegan.
This was ironic, in that only a few months before I’d been heard to say to a vegan friend, “oh, I could never be vegan, it must be so hard!” Well, I’m here to report that it is and it isn’t. At home it’s fairly easy. I live alone, don’t buy milk, cheese, or eggs, and don’t have them in the house, so I don’t use them. Soy milk is easy to buy, store, and use, although it’s worth shopping around for the best brand; soy cheese is weird and icky, so I ignore it; egg replacer comes in a box and lasts forever, so that’s no problem. I do buy local honey, because after consideration I’ve decided that this is the best way to support our bee population. I don’t have a moral problem with the concept of eating milk and eggs (I’ve heard it argued that it’s wrong, because cow’s milk is for baby cows; when I was a baby, my mother had spare milk and gave it away and I was fine, so sharing seems reasonable in moderation – the problem with milk here and now is quantity and method). Sometimes I’ll have a craving for eggs (probably a vitamin or fat deficiency, since I don’t actually like them); I cure this by going down to our local organic city farm, luckily within walking distance, and buying a box of six organic eggs. It’s local, it’s organic, and they’d be keeping chickens anyway for educational purposes, so this is close enough for me. If it wasn’t, or wasn’t an option for some other reason, I’d try a week of vitamin B supplements and some plant oils with omega 3 and 6 to see if that cured the craving.
What’s hard is eating out. You’re stuck on a station and need to eat something. Unless boiled sweets will do, it’s probably got to be a cheese sandwich or a muffin with egg in it. You’re going to see a film and want to meet your friends and eat near the cinema. If the Harvester’s Just Salad isn’t enough (because it’s a cold day and you want something warm, or you don’t consider pumpkin seeds in the topping to be a complete protein content), it’s probably got to be something with cheese in. In Leeds we’re lucky enough to have two whole vegetarian cafes with good vegan options, but in many places it’s a baked potato with baked beans (please hold the butter!) or nothing. In these cases I find that I am usually led to make sensible compromises.
Does it really lower my carbon footprint? I don’t know, although experts tell me it probably helps a bit. Isn’t soy just as bad? Well, it seems more efficient to eat it directly than to feed it to cows and then eat them. Aren’t you short of protein? No, plenty of plants contain protein and humans don’t need as much as many people seem to think.
Is God really calling me to do this? I think so. The act of asking questions allows me to raise awareness about the issue. A while ago a Friend made soup for our lunch, and when I asked whether it was vegan she went, oh dear, I did put a little butter in it. I ate the soup anyway, but next time she might fry the onions in olive oil instead. If we’re to deal with climate change we need big changes as well as small ones – governments! landlords! supermarkets! get on it! – but if we can make lots of small changes they will both help a little directly and help to strength our case, prove that we believe this is the right path and that we’re committed to it, and thereby help indirectly with the big changes.