On New Year's Day 2016, I watched (sobbed my way through) Cowspiracy for the first time. For anyone who hasn't seen it, the premise is that animal agriculture is destroying the planet and no one is prepared to do anything about it. It is responsible for more than 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (transportation exhaust only accounts for 13%). It is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution and habitat destruction. In a world facing a global food and water shortage, we use 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1lb of beef (more fun facts here).
This is before you even go into the cruelty of animal agriculture. The only way to keep cows producing milk is for them to be in a constant cycle of forced impregnation, then having their calves taken away - calves that they mourn the loss of. Male chicks, useless for eggs, are crushed or gassed at birth. Why do we outrage over Korea's dog meat trade, while killing six million animals for food every hour? You can get on your high horse and say "well I only buy free range/organic" but the thing is, you're still contributing to the killing of a living thing, and I don't know if that can ever be ethical.
Since I watched Cowspiracy I'd been cutting meat out of my diet, and this month I decided to take the plunge and sign up for Veganuary. And I wasn't the only one; this year, almost 60,000 people signed up to go vegan for a month, resulting in an estimated five million animal free meals being eaten.
So as a former guilty meat eater, I thought I'd sum up the key things I learnt by going vegan for 31 days.
The reason vegans talk about being vegan is so much is probably because you're asked about it all the time. You'd be surprised how often food comes up in conversation - people asking about your weekend, offering you a biscuit, meeting friends for dinner... When it comes up that you are vegan, it's hardly ever accepted at face value; people have to ask why. In the context of my Veganuary challenge, I was also asked "how's veganism going?" on a daily basis by my friends, colleagues and housemates, which makes being quiet about it pretty difficult (says the woman who's voluntarily written a blog about veganism, I do see the irony).
You'll become more inventive in the kitchen. Normally, I hate cooking. It takes at least half an hour to prepare something, half an hour to clean up and you only get to actually eat (the fun bit) for 10 minutes. This means I tend to stick to a few dishes I can do on autopilot while watching Gilmore Girls. However, being a vegan encouraged me to actually put some thought into my meals and be a bit more adventurous. This month I've experimented with new ingredients, new dishes, vegan baking, and it's actually been pretty fun.
Vegan substitutes for butter just aren't as good. Sorry. Although maybe the added happy feelings you get by knowing that no cows have suffered for you to have some butter on your toast makes it taste a bit nicer?
It's hard being a vegan with a nut allergy. A lot of vegan substitutes, such as milk and cheese, are made with nuts, and the go-to vegan snack suggestion is always "have a bag of nuts!!!". This isn't an option to me as I can't be bothered to spend a night in A&E with anaphylactic shock. There is definitely info out there on nut-free vegan recipes, but it just requires some extra thought.
Eating out isn't as hard as you might think. A lot of restaurants are really good at providing vegan menus now, or can at least make modifications to dishes so they are vegan. Most vegetarian meals can be made vegan by removing a sauce, cheese topping etc. If they can't do that, it means the food isn't made on site, which is probably a bit of a bad sign anyway!
London is a vegan heaven. Sorry to those of you who don't live in the capital, but there are truly so many vegan options around here. From bakeries to street food to the first ever vegan chicken shop, if you're willing to travel there's a whole range of options to choose from, and no need to feel like you're missing out.
You'll (probably) lose weight. This doesn't really apply if your vegan diet is just bread and Oreos. However, the average Veganuary participant loses 6lbs throughout the month. I don't weigh myself, however I can tell that I've definitely lost a bit this month. Little things like turning down biscuits in the office and not having cheese on pizza all add up! Obviously this isn't an automatically good thing, but if you are looking to lose weight then a vegan diet could be a good place to start.
Am I going to continue veganism? At home I definitely will, and out and about I'm going to try and carry on as best I can. But one thing I learnt this month is that being vegan doesn't mean being perfect. Just because you gave into temptation and ordered a hungover Dominos, or had a bit of your friend's chocolate birthday cake, doesn't mean you aren't a vegan. And in terms of caring for the planet and the animals that live on it, being vegan most of the time - even just some of the time - is far better than not doing it at all.
The fact is that our animal-focused diets are just not sustainable. There's that quote in The Age of Stupid: "Why didn't we save ourselves, when we had the chance?". I have a feeling that when our grandchildren or great-grandchildren are mostly vegan (whether that's through environmental necessity or because they're simply more woke than us) they'll all be baffled we weren't stopping animal agriculture sooner.