The lifecycle of a vegan

Why are some people vegan?  More importantly, why are some people not? This is a talk given by Greg McFarlane at the Living Green Festival in Canberra on 14 October 2012. We would love to hear your comments on this talk. Please email info@veganaustralia.org.au.


Hello. My name is Greg McFarlane and I am helping create a new national organisation, Vegan Australia. I am interested in why people are vegan and, more importantly, why some people are not. In this talk I am going to cover some of the events and influences that shape people's attitudes to other animals and animal products.

Some of the topics I will cover include the fact that people are born vegan, that children have a natural compassion for animals, that 99% of Australians are opposed to cruelty to animals. I will also cover the real and perceived barriers to becoming vegan and the subject of ex-vegans.

Many vegans are asked the question "Why are you vegan?". Less often, non-vegans are asked "Why aren't you vegan?". Vegans may say "I am vegan for animals" or "I am vegan because it is healthier", or "for the environment". Non-vegans may say "We need meat to be healthy" or "It's natural" or "I haven't really thought about it".

If we then ask, "What influenced you to believe such things", vegans will give a range of answers. Some are able to pinpoint the "ah-ah" moment when they made the connection. They may tell you the specific chapter in a book when they became vegan. Or they might have seen a particular movie, read something on the Internet, seen an advertising campaign or been handed a vegan pamphlet.

Non-vegans may find it harder to pin down a particular event that caused them to decide to "become non-vegan". They may not even realise they have been influenced at all or that they even had a choice. They may have been fed animal products all their life, been bombarded by advertisements for fast food, been taught at school about the "four food groups". They may have celebrated religious or cultural festivals by consuming animal products. "It's just normal".

Why am I interested in the reasons people are or aren't vegan? I would like to see the end of injustice in the world. Injustice for humans, other animals and the planet. Injustice comes in many forms. Economic systems cause divisions between the powerful and the disempowered and cause destruction of the environment. There is discrimination directed to people on the grounds of race, sex, sexual orientation, etc. And there is the onslaught of suffering and death directed at non-human animals. All of these issues are important to me, but I only have limited time and I have chosen now to concentrate on the plight of non-human animals. I believe the best way to help animals is to go vegan ourselves and to promote veganism to others.

So what is the best way to promote veganism? What can be done to encourage people to accept that veganism is ethical, healthy and "normal"? One obvious way is to directly promote veganism, with events such as the Living Green Festival. We can also talk to people about veganism and animal rights, hand out pamphlets, hold vegan events, etc. But I am also interested in the more hidden influences that shape people's beliefs. Even someone who claims to have gone vegan while reading chapter five of Skinny Bitch has been influenced throughout their life in positive and negative ways. The trigger that brings them to an awareness of veganism is just the end of a long chain of other influences. We need to discover what these influences are, what forces are behind them and then try to make changes to affect those forces.

I'd like now to quickly mention Vegan Australia. This is a new national campaigning vegan organisation. The first Annual General Meeting is being held next weekend at the Animals Activists Forum in Sydney and I encourage you to attend both events. This talk discusses some of the campaigns that Vegan Australia will implement and the reasoning behind the campaigns. Many of these campaigns are directed at the influences that occur early in people's lives, before they may have even heard the word "vegan". Some campaigns try to make it easier for people after they have become vegan.

Let's start with the earliest influence. That is that people are born vegan. I find this a lovely concept, that while a baby is drinking their mother's milk they are vegan (in a dietary sense). There is plenty of evidence to show that babies can continue to thrive on a vegan diet, and to continue throughout their lives. So it is parental and social influences on the vegan baby that push for the consumption of animal products. During pregnancy, birth and infancy, the health and medical professions have a huge influence on parents. And the unified message from all these professions is that animal products are necessary for a healthy child. Regardless of all the evidence that this is not true, it is still the message presented by these "authorities". So this brings us to one of Vegan Australia's campaigns. We will lobby health and medical authorities to educate the Australian public about the health benefits of vegan diets and to support people in adopting vegan diets. Official dietary advice should reflect a sustainable balanced vegan diet such as the PCRM's Power Plate. The scientific evidence is clear that humans can thrive on a vegan diet. On paper, many health and medical authorities make their recommendations based on scientific evidence. However, some authorities may be influenced by the animal production industries, but if this influence can be made public and that it is in contradiction to the scientific evidence, then we have a case for changing official policy. This could then influence health departments, medical schools, doctors and nutritionists and this changing view of vegan diets would finally filter through to the parents of babies.

Another early factor in forming people's attitudes to other animals is that young children are usually compassionate to animals. If you give a child a rabbit and a carrot they will usually play with the rabbit and eat the carrot. Children are upset by scenes of cruelty to animals. Parents recognise this and try to hide these scenes from their children. Parents rarely tell their children where their meat comes from. When they discover that the meat on their plate comes from an animal that is, in many significant ways, the same as the dog or cat that they love, some children refuse to eat any more meat. It seems instinctual in children that we shouldn't treat other animals this way. One way to foster this compassion in children is for schools to include in the curriculum consideration of different ethical approaches to how we relate to other animals, including veganism and rights-based approaches. Vegan Australia will lobby education departments and curriculum boards to make these changes to the education of our children, including honest education about the consequences for animal well-being involved in the production of meat, fish, eggs, dairy foods and other animal products.

A survey carried out on behalf of the Vegan and Vegetarian Society of Queensland showed that 99% of Australians are opposed to animal cruelty. This is a very important point. Just like children, adults also are basically compassionate. They already believe one of the tenets of veganism - that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to animals. This is wonderful news. Most people have already taken the first step to veganism. Most people can empathise with non human animals, especially pets. And I think many people feel guilty about eating meat when they become aware of the cruelty involved in animal production. Vegan advocacy groups need to research how we can make best use of this fact, how we can most effectively guide people to align their "theoretical" opposition to animal cruelty with their behaviour. We hope that Vegan Australia will be able translate this into effective public education campaigns.

Other vegan campaigns could tap into the raised concern by many people for environmental issues and most people's desire to live a long, healthy life.

Let's look at some of the real and perceived barriers to veganism. Barriers are things which might stop some people becoming vegan even if they agree with some of the principles behind veganism. These barriers include common beliefs that a vegan diet is unhealthy, that veganism will not be accepted by their peers, that it can lead to social isolation or is inconvenient. Other beliefs are that vegan food is not appealing, is hard to find or hard to cook and is expensive. Some of these barriers are real, for example it can be more inconvenient to find vegan meals at many restaurants than non-vegan meals. Some of these barriers are perceived, such as that a vegan diet is unhealthy.

So, for those of us seeking to be vegan advocates, we need to look at the reasons behind these barriers and find way to lower them. For example, let's look at the perception that a vegan diet is unhealthy. Where do people get this idea from? If you are a vegan, you may have heard the question "Where do you get your protein from?" or "Where do you get your calcium from?". This gives us a hint as to the sources of these ideas. Advertising, schools and health professionals are three of the main influences on people's beliefs about diet and health. So how can vegan advocates work to change these influences? Once again we can lobby educational institutions to ensure that basic vegan food literacy and skills education is available in all schools in Australia. This would complement the animal ethics education I mentioned before. We can encourage higher education institutions for doctors and dieticians to include instruction on vegan diets. And we can initiate our own vegan health education campaigns. Finally, advertising by the animal industries are of course biased and we should attempt to have advertising of animal products banned on health grounds.

Let's look at the belief that going vegan will cause social and peer pressure issues. In the current strongly anti-vegan climate we live in, for someone to decide to become vegan, they must be willing to accept the risk of these social issues. There are a range of issues, from being confident enough to ask restaurant staff for vegan options, to risking being questioned by friends and family. Just as in other areas of social justice, not everyone is willing to stand out in this way. It seems to be a human trait to want to fit in. So how can vegan advocates handle this? We need to make veganism more mainstream, more acceptable and more convenient. We can make a vegan diet more mainstream by taking advantage of celebrities who have adopted a vegan diet. We can create advertising campaigns which plant the idea that anyone can be a vegan. We can encourage restaurants to have more vegan options on their menus. And so on. These things will bring about a change in the social environment that will make veganism more acceptable to more people.

Finally, I would like to look at the issue of "ex-vegans". It has been reported in the media that the majority of vegetarians return to eating meat. Although the statistics used in this survey are very suspect, the idea that some people "fall off the wagon" should be taken seriously. I have already mentioned some of the reasons people gave for returning to eating meat, such as social pressure. But one reason we must address is declining health. Vegan advocates must use solid nutrition information in their outreach. We need to make sure that whenever someone adopts a vegan diet that they are fully aware of how to meet all their nutritional requirements. The last thing we want is someone getting sick and then blaming it on their vegan diet. The nutritional information we provide must also be easy to understand and provide tasty, appealing options.

I hope I have made some sense today in looking at the influences on people's attitudes to other animals and animal products and given you some insight into how you made your decision to be vegan or non-vegan.

To find out more about Vegan Australia, please sign up to our newsletter at veganaustralia.org.au or come and see me later.

I'd also love to find out your story. If you are vegan, what messages spoke to you most clearly? And if you're not yet vegan, I'm very interested to know what stops your from being vegan. Is it because you haven't really thought about it, or are there other reasons you haven't taken the step to veganism.

Thank you.

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