Food for thought

First published in the January/February 2020 edition of ILM
Published:  18 February, 2020
Isabella Griffiths

By the time you are reading this, Veganuary 2020, the campaign to encourage consumers to switch to a plant-based diet during the month of January, will have almost come to an end, and if the media hype is to be believed, with a record uptake (around 350,000 people are said to have signed up to the initiative in the UK at the start of January). We will have to wait for the final stats to get a clearer picture of the ultimate response, not just in the UK, but globally, as the official campaign was also launched in Germany, the U.S. and Chile for the first time.

I admit, I am rather cynical about the influx of New Year’s ‘fads’ which we seem to be inundated with at the start of each year, though I have no problem with peoples’ choice to go vegan per se. I, too, enjoy the odd vegan meal as part of a balanced diet, and not just in January. What I do take issue with, however, is how this initiative is being exploited by mainstream supermarkets, restaurants and fast food chains, which are rushing to launch vegan products to cash in on the hype and to great media fanfare.

Global chains such as McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Wagamama and supermarkets such as Aldi and M&S are falling over themselves to launch their vegan burgers, meatless meatballs or ‘watermelon tuna’, in what is so obviously purely a sales and marketing ploy - you do not see the same kind of zeal when it comes to promoting fresh produce, which also includes meat, as part of a healthy diet.

There is nothing wrong with supermarkets diversifying their ranges with vegan options, or restaurants expanding their menus, but the disproportionate publicity Veganuary generates also feeds yet more headlines about Veganism being the be-all or end-all solution to fighting climate change, and I’m afraid this is where the debate falls short for me. I am not sure whether supermarkets are just ignorant to the potential damage they cause the meat supply chain and livestock farmers with such campaigns, or whether they just do not care, but it sure seems very one-sided and adds to the demonisation of the meat industry, and therefore impacts the leather trade, too.

The meat industry, and by default the leather sector, have become the scapegoats for the climate crisis, even though this is a far more complex and multi-faceted problem which cannot be solved by simply going vegan or taking part in Veganuary for a month, even if the general hype has us believe this. But then again, what do we expect when the propaganda machine is mainly fed by vacuous soundbites?

Last year, the leather industry finally stepped up its game and started to call out fake news and misinformation that is damaging to its reputation – maybe 2020 should be the year the leather trade sought cross-industry collaboration with the meat and livestock sector and fought the battle together, as both go hand in hand, defending both industries’ quality and welfare standards, the nutritional value of protein-rich meat, sustainability efforts and ultimately the fact that some grasslands are simply unable to sustain crops or other plant growth and that millions of people across the world depend on livestock farming or they would die of hunger or live in poverty.

As consumers, we - thankfully - have a choice to eat meat or not, to be vegan or carnivorous, to use leather products or not. But retailers and restaurants also have a responsibility to provide that choice and to contribute to a balanced debate, instead of hijacking it for short-lived, and short-sighted, profit.

Isabella Griffiths, Editor