Climate change has made "plant-based" eating all the rage. But the reality is that every choice to consume that we make has drawbacksby Hephzibah Anderson / December 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
In November 1944, more than five years into a devastating war whose tall shadow had long breached the nation’s pantries thanks to rationing, half a dozen men and women gathered in Leicester, united by their belief that it was morally imperative to abstain from much of the food their countryfolk craved: not just meat but dairy products, too. As their group’s first secretary—a 34-year-old pacifist woodwork teacher named Donald Watson—wrote soon after, they were “not easily scared by criticism, and filled with the spirit of pioneers.” In the years to come, their self-denying diet became the butt of jokes, the bane of foodies and then abruptly, in the second decade of a new millennium, a juggernaut trend that has multinationals competing for market share.
Back then, though, the six didn’t know what to call themselves. Having split from their milk-moustached comrades in the Vegetarian Society, they needed something catchier than “non-dairy vegetarians.” They could have become “vitans,” “benevores” or the distinctly Atwood-ian sounding “dairybans,” all of which were suggested at that inaugural meeting; instead they settled on “vegans,” no more than a pointed shortening of vegetarians, but a placeholder moniker that stuck. Or at least, stuck until very recently, with the emergence of a rival descriptor for their diet: plant-based.
The two terms are not interchangeable. While the older term denotes a way of living, in which compassion towards animals dictates not only what is eaten, but what is worn and used—leather, silk, even pearls are forbidden—the newer term is about ingredients alone. Nevertheless, “plant-based” rebranding has helped veganism conquer social media, woo supermarkets and carve in-roads into the fast-food business.
The old vegan movement always had a joyless, hair-shirt vibe, and was perceived as being powered by dogmatists ever ready to go on the attack. As the old joke runs, “How do you know if someone’s vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” Traditionally, most people’s perception of vegan cuisine extends to lentil burgers, lentil pie, lentil bolognese…
But now, suddenly, vegan food has managed to restyle itself as being at once indulgent and healthy, becoming positively aspirational in the process. It’s “proper banging” thanks to the likes of the BBC’s “dirty vegan” skateboarder and celebrity chef Matt Pritchard and yet also “clean.” To combat the reality of its…