Nobody preaches quite like the converted and, when it comes to certain aspects of our lifestyles, being faced with hard facts can be deeply unsettling.
Do you eat meat and dairy? If so, do you tell everyone you come into contact with about it? Unlikely. Vegans have a reputation for being outspoken about their values and dietary choices, to the point where many feel uncomfortable about what’s on their own plates. But should that prevent us from investigating the reasons behind this increasingly popular lifestyle? For vegans, ignorance is not bliss – it’s inexcusable.
Veganism, which eschews animal products of all kinds, is endorsed by a host of outspoken celebrities and activists. Beyoncé and Jay Z, Brad Pitt, Miley Cyrus, Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Lopez, Bill Clinton – each one a vegan and extremely vocal about it, which can be something of a double-edged sword. Because what each of us puts into our bodies in the form of food and drink is a deeply personal matter, and nobody likes being judged.
Having said that, far too many of us are ignorant regarding the source of what’s on our plates. Children around the world don’t make the connection between the shrink-wrapped packets of rib-eye steaks on the shelves of supermarkets, and the cows and bulls they see in books, on television or on farmland. Many don’t appreciate what’s involved in producing cow’s milk or chicken burgers. What’s actually in those fish cakes we treat ourselves to every now and then? How do the hens that lay our breakfast eggs really live? What happens to the male chicks once they hatch? If you don’t want to know, it’s best not to look. But if you do, uncovering the reality of modern farming methods can shock us to our very cores.
Estimates vary, but animal welfare groups say that, worldwide, more than 70 billion animals are killed each year for food, as well as trillions of fish and other forms of marine life. Just let that sink in for a second or two. Now consider that, in 2016, 400 million fewer animals were killed for food than a decade ago. That’s mainly because more people are making up their minds that vegetarianism and veganism are the way forward.
The reasons for people's switch to purely plant-based diets are varied, and for Dubai resident Keaton Makki, who turned to veganism two years ago, it was very simple. "I peeked behind the curtain," says the 34-year old, "and saw the horrors involved in farming. I'm a dog owner and just thought to myself that there's really no difference between my dog and a cow. Some cultures view dogs as food, and the West reacts in horror because of the way we're conditioned, but that makes no sense to me. I think that if anyone says they love animals, but they're not vegan, what they're really saying is that they love pets."
What was it, though, that pushed him over the edge to rid his life of anything to do with animal products? "I call myself a 'Netflix vegan'," he says. "I watched a documentary called Earthlings, which showed the brutality with which animals are treated. I also watched Cowspiracy, which exposes the environmental destruction caused by the meat and dairy industries – you can't really call yourself an environmentalist if you eat meat."
Makki says that he’s felt the benefits, too. “I feel healthier and lighter; I have more energy and I’m more focused than ever before. But there’s one thing vegans should be taking, and that’s vitamin B12 supplements.” Also known as cobalamin, B12 is found in abundance in dairy products like cheese and eggs, as well as in meat, fish and poultry, and being deficient in it can be serious, often resulting in anaemia and a malfunctioning central nervous system.
“You have to plan ahead when choosing a restaurant,” he adds, “but the UAE is pretty accommodating, and most places have vegan options on their menus. Vegans can be seen as pretty antisocial and difficult, and some have a reputation for being condemnatory of anyone not following their steps. But in the end, it’s not about us; it’s about caring for living creatures.”
The 2005 documentary Earthlings bills itself as the "most violent film in history", presenting a shocking insight into the way humans treat animals in agriculture, the fur trade, circuses and many other scenarios where the sheer lack of compassion or human decency exhibited is enough to bring many viewers to tears. The two-minute trailer is horrifying enough.
“It’s a life-changing film,” says Makki. “And the biggest problem we face is the widespread acceptance of speciesism, which treats animals as objects rather than what they are, which is sentient beings with as much right to be here as any of us.”
Even if animal rights aren’t on your radar, there’s sufficient reason to examine how our food is produced. Consider the case of farmed Norwegian salmon, viewed by some experts as the world’s most toxic foodstuff due to the cocktail of chemicals used in its production. The fish grow more quickly than they do in the wild, and they have around two-thirds more fat in them, which more easily absorbs pesticides and other pollutants. But that’s not the worst of it, because these farmed fish are fed the flesh of fresh fish caught in the almost entirely landlocked Baltic Sea, which is one of the most polluted in the world. Many fish caught in the Baltic are deemed unfit for human consumption, but they end up in the food chain anyway, turned into the pellets fed to the fish that consumers are eating.
The more we look into the way food is produced, the more uncomfortable it can make us. And if you are affected enough to give up meat or fully embrace veganism, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to draw the line. Would you still visit zoos, watch horse racing, and wear leather shoes, silk scarves or lambswool suits? Would you check what’s used to make your cosmetics? Because there’s far more to animal products than chicken drumsticks and fur coats.
One of the main frustrations for people when considering their diets, though, is the seemingly nonsensical advice provided by authorities that we should be able to trust. For instance, the World Health Organization classifies processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens, putting them in the same danger bracket as cigarettes and plutonium, yet the American Cancer Society promotes eating them as part of a healthy diet.
How do we know who’s telling the truth? Often, it’s worth seeing which organisations are sponsoring research and the publication of reports. Would you believe the findings of studies commissioned by the tobacco industry about the effects of smoking? Hardly. But a paper about the health benefits of eggs? Why not? Look at the small print, though, because it might be the egg industry that’s paid for it. It’s been exposed in some countries that politicians have huge conflicts of interest, too, extolling the benefits of foods produced by companies that, once you do some digging around, are revealed to be owned by them.
“I’d had enough of all that conflicting advice,” remarks Dan Barker, a semi-retired British expat in Ras Al Khaimah, who professes a keen interest in nutrition. “So my wife and I decided that we’d cut out all processed foodstuffs and only eat natural things that we know haven’t been sprayed with chemicals or unethically produced. We did miss meat at first, but the more we stuck at it, the more committed we became and neither of us could envisage returning to our past ways. We like not causing harm to the planet or to animals.”
The British Vegan Society, which coined the term vegan in 1944, started with just six members. There are now more than half a million vegans in the United Kingdom, and approximately three million in North America, with practically every other country in the world experiencing significant rises in their ranks. It's a sign of the times that even McDonald's, that bastion of meat products, is about to launch vegan burgers at some of its European branches.
Should you join the vegan army? Last year, Oxford University produced a study that sought to prove what the effects on the planet would be if everyone adopted a plant-based diet. It found that, by the middle of this century, 8.1 million premature deaths would be prevented annually, greenhouse gas emissions would reduce by 70 per cent and up to Dh3.7 billion would be saved in global healthcare costs. Perhaps we all should.