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Forking the talk: Have vegan ethics nosedived?

Fran Bernhardt

Let’s face it vegans, things are changing. No longer are we a tiny minority in the corner, tarred with the mung bean eating, cabbage-smelling, unwell-looking stereotype of our former comrades. No longer do we have to expect not to be able to eat at most restaurants. And no longer do we miss out on cheese and cookies and burgers. We are literally having our cake and eating it…Or are we?

I really want to get behind this whole new world of veganism but there’s something amiss for me. Like most people who take up this utterly impossible sounding but honourable challenge to cut out animal products from their lifestyle, it was for a number of carefully considered reasons. I had decided that the planet, my health, animal welfare and society mattered more tome than a moment of indulgence (no matter how delicious and well marketed). You see, the thing is, at its core, my decision was about prioritising what I consider to be important: my ethics and values. I wanted to use the little bit of power I hold to show corporations I was willing to invest in more ethical choices every day, with the hope that it might shift their behaviour too. I like to think of it as voting with my fork.

So, you might see why some of the glistening new products that line supermarket shelves from companies jumping on the vegan bandwagon hasn’t filled me with joy. Plastic-wrapped, super-processed, soya Frankenstein creations flown in from the other side of the world. I struggle to see which of my ethical boxes this is supposed to tick. Because the truth is, it only ticks the very basics of veganism. And so, it fails to understand the reason why most people have turned to veganism in the first place: compassion. It contains no animal products directly. But how much carbon was pumped out of the planes to fly it over? Or single-use plastic to wrap it? Or biodiverse forests home to so many animals knocked down to grow the palm oil? Or disease-causing sugar, salt and chemicals used to cover up the lack of flavour?

Now this is probably the part of the article where I’m supposed to be providing you with answers but I’m afraid when it comes to food, it’s complicated. And much as I would love to sit over your shoulder and help you make choices every mealtime, let’s face it, that would quickly get tiresome for both of us. What I do know is that we need to start questioning what is in our food as well as what isn’t. Veganism might have been enough if it meant we were eating plates of fresh, minimally processed, local, organic plants, but sadly most vegan meals rarely look like that.

I believe it is possible to truly have our cake and eat it, but it requires a lot of questioning, research and creativity. We must continue to remind ourselves why we went vegan and ask whether what we are investing in really stands up to our ethical standards. Otherwise we may find our diet which we strove so hard to adapt is entirely misaligned with the very reason we changed it in the first place.

Written by: Fran Bernhardt: a chef, blogger and the Sugar Smart Campaign Coordinator at Sustain. On the 5th November 2019 Fran chaired an ‘Eating in a climate and nature emergency’ panel session and delivered a practical workshop making energy balls at the Student Eats conference (Sheffield students’ union)