Why I won’t be doing Veganuary this year – or ever again

My main gripe is that the issue of our broken food system has never been binary – it’s not as simple as meat bad, plants good

Hannah Twiggs
Thursday 29 December 2022 15:35 GMT
Piers Morgan eats steak in front of vegan activist

Brace yourselves, I’m about to start an argument. For several years, I – like 620,000 other people as of 2022 – have participated in Veganuary, as well as made efforts to eat less meat and incorporate more plant-based recipes into my diet. And I, like 620,000 other people, have felt pretty smug about it.

Every January, I’ve made the pilgrimage to the plant-based aisle at the supermarket to fill my basket with mounds of vegetables, tofu, seitan, cans of jackfruit, vegan mince, oat milk and all manner of alternatives. After pretty much emptying my wallet at the till, I’d head home, recreate all of my favourite meat dishes and ensure to virtue signal on Instagram so all of my 800 followers know what a good woke Millennial I am.

Come 1 February, you’d most likely find me indulging in some kind of fried chicken-based takeaway as a reward. Or possibly steak. Definitely cheese.

I’m sure many of its participants take Veganuary far more seriously than that, but I’m also certain that I’m not the only one to take the term flexitarian way too liberally. It’s hard to know where the important and educational environmental movement ends and self-righteous performance art begins. And after working in food and speaking to professionals on both sides of the debate, I’ve decided I will no longer be taking part.

Before I get into the meat of the matter (unfortunate pun not entirely intended), if you’re against the slaughter of animals for human consumption, there’s nothing I can say in 800 words to change that noble belief, nor would I want to. The same goes for if you eschew it on medical grounds. But if it’s for “THE ENVIRONMENT!”, I have a bone to pick with you (there I go again).

My main gripe is that the issue of our broken food system has never been binary. It’s not as simple as meat bad, plants good. I wish it were, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. Yes, mass veganism will have a profound impact on climate change and is the single biggest action you can take as an individual, but it won’t save the planet – not on its own. That’s a dangerous narrative. A more collaborative and moderate approach is needed.

That must include regenerative agriculture. Also known as Regenuary (do you sense the theme?), it encourages people to eat only local, seasonal meat and vegetables that have been farmed, where possible, using techniques that improve biodiversity and restore soil health. This is one of the biggest issues facing our food system in the UK, but it’s oddly absent in the Veganuary marketing campaign.

A 2019 report by the Environment Agency found that intensive agriculture has caused our soils to lose 40-60 per cent of their carbon, putting 4 million hectares (almost half the farmable land in the UK) at risk, and costing £1.2bn every year. Given that soil holds three times as much carbon as the atmosphere while delivering 95 per cent of global food, it’s a cause that should at least get its own month, no?

It’s widely accepted among farming and scientific communities that regenerative agriculture helps the environment, reduces carbon emissions and improves animal welfare, and livestock plays an essential part in this. Whereas in monocultural, industrial farming, poor soil health results in a reliance on artificial fertilisers, healthy soil that’s supported naturally by grazing animals can help capture huge amounts of carbon and promote biodiversity, ultimately reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s putting it simply and like veganism, is hardly new, but it is an effective solution that has a part to play in fixing our food system.

The “movement”, of course, is in its infancy, but 10 years ago so was Veganuary and now that’s set to be worth $65bn by 2030. At this stage, the majority of people will still be priced out. For example, beef mince from The Ethical Butcher, which runs Regenuary, is £6.50, whereas you could get it as low as £1.80 from Aldi as long as you didn’t care about its provenance. Meanwhile, vegan mince costs £3-4, but many of the most popular proteins used in plant-based alternatives aren’t grown in the northern hemisphere and so have a long gas-guzzling journey to your plate.

The environmental footprint – whether you argue it’s large or small – of veganism is a well-beaten drum, but it does raise an important point. Farming anything in excess to meet the demands of a surging population is going to negatively impact the environment unless we learn how to work with the land and use all the resources at our disposal – including animals.

Studies show that a vegan world would use 75 per cent less farmland, which sounds great on paper but unless we switch from high impact to low intensity farming techniques, we’re going to have the same problems. Sustainability is simply not enough. We don’t want to “sustain” what we have, we need to “regenerate” what we’ve lost. This is why I won’t be supporting Veganuary – it’s no longer fit for purpose.

Needless to say, the waters are already muddy. We haven’t even addressed the fact that food waste contributes 8-10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, or that humanity today is dependent on just three grains – corn, wheat and rice – for half the calories we consume, and those grains will be extinct in 50 years. But I think we can all agree that we really don’t need any more mixed messaging, another movement or another month to raise awareness of something that is pretty obvious by this point.

We just need to get on with it – together. If you’re a vegan, you’re part of the solution. If you’re someone who sources your meat from regenerative farms, you’re part of the solution too. And if you’re someone like me, who does a bit of both, that’s fine as well.

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