How growing popularity of vegan movement has its own contradictions
A recent veganism conclave highlighted the growing popularity of the movement as well as its inner contradictions.
So vegans are used to being greeted with diatribes about how difficult they are. It’s true that many are passionate about their cause, as anyone operating from a strong ethical position is, and can fairly expect strong resistance. Yet veganism seems to evoke a defensive hostility that can make it a rather lonely position to take.
Which explains the happy excitement at the first Vegan India Conference which took place in New Delhi earlier this month. Almost 450 vegans in one place (the Suryaa hotel) with no need to explain or argue! Elaborate lunch menus, catered by the Suryaa’s chefs with vegan guidance, where they could eat everything!
And so much proof that they were growing in numbers! “Raise your hands for Vegans!” shouted Palak Mehta of Vegan First, one of the organisers, and the happy crowd shot up fingers in a V-sign: Victory and Vegans!
As vegans tucked into palak tofu, mockmeat kurchan and coconut milk ice-cream they could chat with global pioneers like Seth Tibbott, creator of Tofurkey, a turkey alternative that’s a staple of Thanksgiving jokes (great publicity, he says cheerfully). Or Dr.Susianto Tseng, Indonesian founder of the World Vegan Organisation and expert on tempeh, the fermented soybean product. Or Keegan Kuhn, producer of Cowspiracy, a documentary on the impact of livestock farming that managed to make Greenpeace look inadequate on climate change activism.
One person who couldn’t show up, but sent a video of support was the BJP MP Maneka Gandhi. The long-term animal rights activist explained how one of the reasons for India’s milk obsession was the misconception that Krishna drank milk: “As somebody who has written a Hindu names book and has researched this for years and years, there is nothing written about Krishna drinking milk… He was a shepherd only because it was representative of a simple, idyllic way of life.”
Mehta was ecstatic at the response to the event. “We first planned a B2B event, because we knew there were many companies making vegan products and they could get to know and learn from each other.” These include Gowma, which makes artificial leather, Tangelo, which makes vegan ice-creams, Grain Chef that promotes millets, and several others, and also services like Veg Voyages, which organises vegan adventure tours.
But Mehta says they realised there was as much interest in a B2C event, and just a place for vegans to connect. Speakers volunteered to talk about cruelty-free beauty products and how to start your own vegan business. There were workshops on making vegan products at home, a screening of Cowspiracy and the release of a video, along with a dance performance, about cruelty to animals.
All the bonhomie perhaps papered over the fact that there were three distinct groups whose interests intersected on veganism, but not necessarily other issues. One was animal rights activists, focussed on preventing animal exploitation and the inevitable cruelty that ensues. Another were health advocates, greatly bolstered in recent years by the popularity of vegan diets among film stars, models and sports stars like Virat Kohli. And the third were environmentalists driven by the unsustainable costs of raising livestock for meat consumption.
Some differences did come up. One environmental activist criticised the plastic packaging being used for many of the new vegan products. Another rather startlingly questioned why vegan products were being created at all “because aren’t you just encouraging people to consume more?” But beyond such unanswerable questions lay a spectrum of issues that needed more engagement.
For example, there’s the aversion many on the health side have to any kind of processed product. Yet food companies have formidable skills in re-engineering foods, and by developing more plant based foods they could avert considerable animal suffering. Chinese vegans enthusiastically showing off mock-meat products that were astonishingly close to meat (and tasty) were greeted with aversion from Indians who couldn’t see the point – yet, mock-meat can really reduce livestock farming in a big way.
Oddly missing too was more discussion on how traditional Indian foods fit so well into vegan diets. While soy products featured a lot, there was little discussion about the huge range of Indian dals and the dishes made from them. An American vegan mentioned how jackfruit burgers were being sold abroad, but not that the jackfruit probably came from India— just one of many ingredients, like banana flower or lotus roots, that Indian cooks have used to mimic meats. Almond milk was abundant at the event, but not cashew milk, which is a much more Indian and sustainable product.
Perhaps the biggest missing issue was reductionism, which argues that really serious reduction in livestock farming and abuse, and its environmental costs, can only be made by persuading people to eat less meat, rather than go entirely vegan. It’s a pragmatic argument, yet one that runs against the grain for really passionate vegans.
For her part Mehta acknowledges its importance and says that such issues could feature at future events. “Next year we might need to do a three to four day event. This was just a start, to show how much is happening with the vegan movement and how our numbers are growing so fast!”.