Veganism has dramatically grown in popularity over the last 10 years, fuelled and aided largely by very passionate individuals and communities, writes Young Farmer Juliette Tompkins.
I can remember questioning the meaning of the word whilst I was at school, but the vegan movement now seems to be everywhere.
There’s not a week that goes by without veganism dominating the headlines, but the increase in its popularity is causing alarming damage to public perception of the UK agricultural industry.
Growing up in rural Suffolk in a farming family, avoiding meat was never an option, or something that even crossed my mind.
I came across a few vegetarians at school but it was never something that stood out to me. University was very much the same.
It has only really been in the last five years that the vegan movement has really frustrated me.
A few close friends of mine, who all experienced a rural upbringing (albeit not on a farm) have opened my eyes to the world of veganism on a personal level, and I am lucky to know them well enough that I have been able to really understand the reasons that veganism is becoming so popular.
After University they moved to London and their understanding of country life and farming was soon replaced with vegan food outlets and avocados (this isn’t a personal hit on avocados, I love an avocado as much as the next person).
I’d gone to visit my friends one weekend when “Oh, I’m vegan, didn’t you know?” obviously made me ask why. “I watched a documentary on Netflix. You should watch it, it’s shocking to see how some animals are treated and how bad farming is for the environment”.
I genuinely have no issue with people being vegan and will respect anyone’s beliefs if they go about them peacefully and are prepared to hear the truth, but when someone’s veganism is due to a crooked documentary or false ‘facts’, and is teamed with abuse or protests that stop farmers from going about their business, that’s where I have something to say.
Misinformed and hypocritical
After spending the weekend trying to convince them that UK farming supports some of the highest welfare standards in the world, and that avoiding meat isn’t the only answer to saving the polar bears, they were still having none of it, so I watched the documentary.
I found myself getting more and more frustrated with every minute that passed, infuriated that this was being broadcast to potentially thousands of viewers each day, brain-washing them that all livestock farms were like the few on the film.
To those who don’t fully understand farming or have any connection to the industry, I can genuinely understand why these documentaries could be believed.
The emotive language, the figures, the ‘facts’ and the ‘specialists’ are all presented to the viewer so convincingly that unless you know the facts through being involved in the industry, you may not think to question it.
And this is the challenge that the industry faces. How can we possibly explain the truth or reverse the rumours and lies on a large scale when documentaries like this can be viewed online by millions?!
International organisations that use celebrities to draw in support (we all know the campaign against wool with the fake injured lamb) are often so far from the truth that it is actually painful to digest.
Using footage of foreign practices and horrifying conditions to falsely illustrate UK farming, or to caption the image of a spray-marked lamb with a false heart-wrenching story about how it has been ‘labelled for slaughter’, when in actual fact it is an identifier to match it to its mother for its own welfare - how can this be allowed to happen?
These examples are shared far and wide by naïve vegans who think they are doing good, when instead they are spreading incredible lies and damaging an industry which farmers are doing their best to protect and defend.
There are good eggs and bad eggs in every walk of life, but UK farmers really do care about their livestock. Breeding, caring for and producing livestock is their job, livelihood and passion, as well as their hobby.
Livestock farming is a 24/7 commitment, not to mention incredibly straining, and many simply wouldn’t do it if they didn’t have a genuine care and love for their animals and their industry.
The ideological fantasy that livestock would roam free in the countryside and live happily ever after if farmers didn’t send them to an abattoir is just absurd. The livestock simply wouldn’t be there if the farmers didn’t breed them and the fields would be empty.
How can we attempt to change the opinion of those who don’t want to hear the truth? This is the challenge that the agricultural industry faces, and it is only getting more difficult as the tide we are swimming against becomes stronger.
Farmers do more than just feed the ever-growing population – farmers are contributing to biodiversity and looking after the environment, as well as contributing hugely to the rural economy.
Vegans are guilty of generalising all farmers and livestock producers through lack of understanding, but the ‘anti-vegan brigade’ can also be very guilty of generalising all vegans.
Not all vegans are completely blinkered to the reality of meat production, they just simply do not like eating animal products. If they do this is in a peaceful way and can respect a difference of opinion alongside accepting the reality, there should be no reason for hostility and meat-eaters should respect this.
This more reasonable understanding has led to another phenomenon – the flexitarian – which in some ways is more hypocritical then veganism. Some flexitarians have taken it upon themselves to understand food production and the environmental impacts of importing.
These individuals choose to reduce their meat consumption (mainly for environmental reasons), and source their food more responsibly, often buying British produce wherever possible; and it is to these people that I take my hat off and for whom I have utmost respect. Genuinely.
However, the flexitarian or vegan who preaches to meat eaters about the negatives of consuming animal products, making them feel guilty for doing so, but has little understanding of the industry itself – how can they expect farmers not to hit back?
The flexitarians who are anti-meat for half of the week, but buy imported pork for their bacon sandwich on a Saturday morning – how does that work?
For the little meat you do eat, the least you can do is ensure it is British and promotes higher animal welfare and fewer food miles!
Or if environmental concerns are the reason for leading a ‘greener’ lifestyle, then why focus on the consumption of only meat and animal products?
Why is it ok to import avocados and other foods from thousands of miles away, rather than support British agriculture?
Passion or aggression?
There’s no doubt that vegans are very passionate people - to follow such a strict diet demonstrates that enough – but standing up for what you believe in can often go too far.
I am tired of vegan protests reaching the news for the wrong reasons; too regularly I see stories on social media of protests in supermarkets; vegans blocking the meat aisle wearing cow and pig masks with strongly emotive posters and signs.
Why should people be made to feel guilty for eating meat, and why can’t vegans respect other people’s lifestyle choices?
Aggressive and provoking behaviour, damage to property, defacing butcher’s shops, stopping lorries from entering abattoirs, letting cattle out of fields to ‘roam free’.
The individuals who do this should be held accountable, and it is beyond frustration that this is allowed to happen repeatedly to people who are just trying to earn a living.
If the lies and false portrayal of the industry isn’t enough for them, why are such dramatic actions the next step to make their voices heard?
Working in an abattoir does not make anyone a murderer, owning or working in a butchery and being a livestock haulier does not make someone a bad person. To accuse someone of murder is incredibly offensive and malicious, and should not be used flippantly.
For a group of people who are supposed to promote kindness and compassion, they have a very aggressive way of showing it!
Mutual understanding and respect
Each and every person should educate themselves on the farming industry and food production – that includes the vegans, the vegetarians, the flexitarians, and the devout meat-eaters of society.
Before judging, before preaching, before sharing the passionately worded articles, take a step back and understand it fully, consider your own actions and lifestyle, and for goodness sake don’t be a hypocrite!
Look at where your food comes from, reduce food waste and try to have a respectful conversation without being aggressive. If it gets beyond a point where the other person wants to listen, just leave it there – you simply won’t change the opinions of some people no matter how hard you try.
I strongly believe that I have helped those I know to better understand UK farming and have taught them to think twice before hanging on every word of an emotive post on social media or a twisted online documentary.
Equally, I have listened to their concerns about the environment and have made a conscious effort to lead a greener lifestyle myself, whilst still eating meat and drinking milk.
Being passionate about a cause you believe in and portraying an entire industry unfairly are two very different things, and we need to do everything we can to make the differences clearer and combat the lies.