Comment & Analysis
Mar 22, 2018

Does Veganism Mean Victory?

The creation of a vegan society is a telling sign of the changing place of veganism in our society, writes Ciannait Khan.

Ciannait KhanOpinion Editor
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Amanda Cliffe for The University Times

Trinity finally gained its very own Vegan Society. Because of the politics at the heart of the issue, there have been several failed attempts over the years to get recognition for a society of this order. Apart from societies affiliated with external parties, politics aren’t welcomed by the Central Societies Committee (CSC) – just ask Dublin University Gender Equality Society. This also goes for politics as contentious as veganism was recently considered to be.

I’m not sure what’s changed for the CSC, but their turnaround certainly falls in step with evolving attitudes towards veganism in general. It wasn’t very long ago that vegans were considered to be the near epitome of radicalism. Recently, however, veganism has gone from being fringe to trendy, with the likes of the Happy Pear twins eclipsing angry teenagers protesting outside McDonalds as the faces of the movement.

In some ways, this spells hope for the vegan cause, and I personally feel a society concerned with animal welfare within Trinity is long overdue. I can’t help but wonder, though, if this more lax attitude is actually reflective of something a little less promising for veganism as a whole.

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I was once convinced that society was destined towards veganism. A few years ago, you would have found me writing in this newspaper about the inevitability of a future largely free from animal products. Like many others, I believed this change would come about as a natural consequence of a world increasingly concerned with humanitarian values and ethical treatment for all living things.

Maybe this was always a simplistic narrative. But I also think our priorities have begun to shift, and new items on our society-wide agenda have meant that issues like animal welfare have, once again, fallen to the back of the queue.

It’s undeniable that, over the last century or so, we have become more and more attuned to the needs of animals

It’s undeniable that, over the last century or so, we have become more and more attuned to the needs of animals. Even where we do use animals for our own benefit, people are generally in favour of efforts to minimise harm and devise more humane systems. For a while, then, it seemed that ceasing to use animals at all, except where absolutely necessary, might be the general direction we were headed.

But veganism, despite its origins, has acquired a host of new connotations that aren’t directly linked to animal welfare. While this may have always been the case to some extent, its soaring popularity has certainly brought these other dimensions very much to the fore.

It’s very common, for example, to advocate for veganism on the basis of health rather than politics. In fact, lots of people don’t even identify as “vegan” anymore, opting instead for the less political term “plant-based”.

But these days, the alternative diet market is increasingly oversaturated. Growing in prominence at the moment are diets such as raw, paleo, keto, gluten-free, and WAPF, each one of them naturally claiming to be healthier and more sensible than the last.

When not being propelled by moral values, veganism seems to get lost in this mix. Being associated with what many consider to be superficial and pseudoscientific trends also doesn’t help veganism’s already somewhat fraught image.

Greater awareness about our food system and the endless ethical implications it poses has also muddied the water for veganism in a lot of ways. Reducing harm to animals is a very worthy cause, but there are also so many other issues now urgently vying for our attention.

As one commentator in the Irish Times recently pointed out, many popular vegan foods come with drawbacks of their own, with the environmental impact of products such as quinoa and avocados cited as examples. Even foods that seem innocent aren’t exempt: it takes, for example, over a gallon of water to produce a single almond nut, which raises serious questions about the superiority of almond milk to dairy. Then there’s soy – long a vegan favourite, it is notoriously monopolised by the formidable Monsanto, one of the world’s most vilified companies.

Compounding these are the many, many other problems inherent in our food system. From environmental concerns about packaging to the ubiquity of harmful products like palm oil, it’s hard to know where to start when it comes to being a responsible and conscientious consumer.

This doesn’t necessarily undermine the merits of veganism, but it certainly means that making the “right” choice is a lot less clear cut.

The reality that our global food system is in crisis has begun to hit the public consciousness

Even more broadly speaking, the reality that our global food system is in crisis has begun to hit the public consciousness. At some point in the alarmingly near future, there might simply not be enough food to feed our booming world population. Of course, these concerns are in many ways a core part of vegan ideology. After all, animal farming is, in so many ways, highly inefficient.

But veganism may find itself struggling against, or at least competing with, the many other approaches people are proposing to meet a similar end. These include other diets, but also an increased emphasis on local farming, and even a greater openness towards biotech solutions. Lab-grown meat, for example, is a possibility that excites many, and while it’s unlikely to be available in any sustainable capacity any time soon, it could potentially complicate the vegan cause.

In addition to this, the last few years have seen the nuanced nature of inequality in our society thrown into sharp relief. While it may have once been difficult for the untrained eye to discern the more subtle inequalities entrenched in everyday life, the floodgates of conversation around issues like sexism and racism have now successfully opened up.

The myth that we live in a progressive and fair society has been very much dispelled for most. And it feels as if, where there was once maybe a gap in the market for animals to come to the fore, there’s now renewed focus on other, more human, issues. Of course, it shouldn’t be a competition, but people are, naturally enough, going to have priorities.

None of this is to say that veganism won’t continue to gain traction. Certainly in Dublin, there seems to be growing demand for this particular niche in the food market. DU Vegan Society plays an important part in this, but the path ahead is going to be long and winding.

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