Veganism and politics – a conversation
People become vegetarian or vegan for a number of reasons, but usually it is due to ethical reasons (e.g. treatment of animals), environmental reasons (e.g. burping cows) or health reasons – in many countries, dietary recommendations nowadays often include reducing meat consumption.
But sometimes there are other reasons. Below is a conversation between two vegans that highlights some of these. Read on.
The conversation is between Martyn [ML] and Lowana [LV].
I’m not sure when I became a pacifist, probably when I turned up at Greenpeace London meetings in 1977. I think I was more involved in environmental stuff before that. I became completely vegetarian in 1983 but I had only been eating meat and similar stuff very occasionally for a few months before that.
My involvement in politics and the first demonstration I was on was in November 1968. That was about the Vietnam war. Via that, I became involved in the Peace Pledge Union. That was the first time I ever met any vegetarians; the only vegan I knew at that stage seemed very strange to me. Then in 1973/74 I got to know Ronnie Lee who went on to start the Animal Liberation Front.
I became vegetarian on 26th January 1970.
I celebrated 50 years of pacifist activities in November 2018 and then the next year, on 26th January 2019, I turned vegan, so I’m now been vegan for almost three and a half years.
I became a vegetarian for a number of reasons, which include that you can produce more food with a vegetarian diet than a carnivore one. While from an anarchist perspective I’m not prepared to let somebody else kill animals for me if I’m not prepared to do it myself. But I’d actually read a book by Roger Moody on factory farming and that influenced my decision too.
I think I probably became vegetarian because I became involved with environmental groups and peace groups where it seemed most people were vegetarian (note that that isn’t the case in Iceland, where I live now) and I also had a boyfriend who was vegetarian. But my main reason for turning vegetarian was that I didn’t like the idea of killing animals so I could eat them and I didn’t want others to do that for me either.
Once I was at a meeting in Reykjavik and the others were saying that veganism is a lifestyle. I said “No it’s not, it’s political” (thinking of how all the vegetarians and vegans I knew in the UK were political) to which the others chorused “No, it’s a lifestyle”. Which points out the difference between here and the UK.
I think it was basically when I was in Cambridge that I turned vegetarian but in reality I was always more vegan than vegetarian because I didn’t drink milk and never ate yoghurt. I just didn’t really have the typical vegetarian diet compared to other people. I’m not sure when I became completely vegan as I was 95% vegan for so long.
My political friends were mostly vegetarian. Vegans just didn’t exist. In pacifist circles, being vegetarian was the norm.
When I became a vegetarian I got one piece of advice, which was from my friend Neil Collins, and that was instead of eating meat and two veg, I should think of meals as being three veg.
Unlike the present era, there was not much said about the health benefits of becoming vegetarian.
Yes, there were some health stores, but they were few and far between. And a lot of people thought they were just used by cranks. It was only in such stores that one could find foods such as dried bananas. They were also one of the few places where one could buy naturist periodicals [in the 1950s/1960s], which coloured the way some people regarded them.
Once, during a holiday in Chester during 1970, I went into a cafe and asked for a cheese roll which they didn’t have, and that is how I landed up explaining it was like a cheese burger but without the corpse.
But we did have the Diwana Bhel Poori Indian restaurant in Drummond Street which had recently opened and is still going. It is in the same street as a vegetarian restaurant that Gandhi used while he lived in the city, but that restaurant is long gone.
I read many years ago the autobiography of Gandhi: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. In it he writes about the different diets he had had at various times. He eventually became a fruitarian. Gandhi actually became interested in vegetarian issues while living in London.
At the time I became Vegie there was the Vegetarian Society and the Vegan society, which had been started in mid 1944 by Eva Batt.
Though I had no direct contact with either of them until the mid 1970s.
What were your experiences at the time?
I didn’t find it difficult. I met some people and I got given a vegetarian cookbook by a flatmate in Richmond. I also borrowed vegetarian cookery books at the library.
One of the most well-known cookbooks while I was young was produced by Cranks.
Cranks vegetarian restaurant used to be in Leicester Square, but I never visited it.
There were a couple of vegetarian cookbooks which I purchased at the time, but there were very few which one could buy during that period.
There is also a fascinating book called The Vegetable Passion which gives a history of vegetarianism, including Adolf Hitler, and is quite interesting to read as well.
I bought the Food for Thought Cookbook that came out in 1987 – Food for Thought was a vegetarian restaurant in Covent Garden which I went to sometimes – and have since veganized one of the recipes I used to use when I was vegetarian. It is often easy to veganize recipes. There’s also Healthy Eating for the New Age by Joyce D’Silva; published in 1980, it was one of the first vegan cookbooks and has a number of recipes that I still use.
I think also I became vegetarian as I was reading a wide variety of periodicals which I haven’t seen in years, such as the magazine Commune which I last saw in the early seventies.
There was also WIN magazine which was produced by the War Resisters League in New York.
Thus I read a lot about resistance to the Vietnam war, and many other ideas which were what we would now refer to as alternative.
When I became Vegetarian my mother just didn’t know how to cope with it. Ronnie Lee had something of the same experience with his mother when he became Vegan.
In Iceland there has been an upsurge in veganism, especially the vegan cafes and restaurants that have opened within the last 3-4 years. Reykjavik also boasts the largest vegan shop in the world, though the population of the whole of Iceland is a mere 376,000.
And I gather that in Sweden – which has a lot of vegans – more and more dairy farmers are now growing oats and selling them for human consumption (to the Swedish company Oatly, for example) rather them feeding the oats to the livestock they were raising.
For me, becoming vegetarian and then Vegan is an aspect of my nonviolent philosophy, and that is very much to the fore.
While for many people it is to do with animal rights, health issues, and taking very practical action to deal with climate change.
One singular advantage of a vegan diet is that it means that more food can be grown, which means less pressure upon the land and thus far less deforestation, thus preventing the factors which are major causes of war.
This goes hand in hand with cutting food aid and should help with creating more food self-sufficiency, while the development of urban orchards, city centre greenhouses and more allotments will negate the need for food banks.
I remember the Freedom from Hunger campaign which existed during the 1960s, and the impact that seeing photographs of pot-bellied starving children in the middle of the Biafra war had on people. Thus it was totally logical for me to become vegetarian as a way to counter global starvation.
… End of conversation …
Martyn and Lowana are both long-term activists. Martyn is principally anarcho-pacifist and an anti-nuclear power campaigner while Lowana is mainly an environmentalist and pacifist who is also concerned about feminist issues.