19/01/2014 18:45 GMT | Updated 21/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Abolish Your Meat Habit in 2014

Oprah Winfrey once said that the start of a new year offers "another chance for us to get it right". One way that we can "get it right" in the year ahead - whether our goal is to improve our health, reduce our ecological footprint or help end the exploitation of others - is to stop eating animals.

We're off to a good start. A flurry of reports so far this New Year has focused on the "rise of the vegan". From speculative journalists taking up Veganuary - going vegan for January - to long-term vegan investments, such as the arrival of the German supermarket chain Veganz, which will be opening its first UK outpost in 2014, offering shoppers more than 6,000 vegan products, it's clear that vegan eating is generating quite a buzz these days.

And the data seem to confirm the buzz. Searches for the word "vegan" in the UK have shot up by 30 %t in the past month, according to Google Trends. In addition, a YouGov survey released late last year found that meat is falling out of favour with young people: one in six 18 to 24-year-olds now identify themselves as vegetarians, making them three times more likely to eschew meat compared to the national average.

And some of today's biggest power players are trending vegan. Former US vice president Al Gore joined his old boss, Bill Clinton, by dropping meat, along with eggs and dairy products, late last year. And Bill Gates and Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone are backing Beyond Meat, whose vegan mock meats taste like the real thing but don't wreak havoc on the environment as meat production does.

More people have become aware of the cruelty that animals used by the meat industry endure. They want to stop eating meat when they learn that animals raised for food are crammed by the thousands into filthy windowless sheds or wire cages, have their tails or a portion of their beaks cut off without any pain relief and are killed by being hung upside down and having their throats cut - often while they're still conscious. Undercover investigations have exposed routine abuses of pigs, cows, chickens and other animals who are raised and killed for their flesh - even on supposedly "high-welfare" farms, dispelling the myth that any meat can be "humane".

We've also learned so much about the other beings with whom we share the planet - and the more we know about them, the harder it is to justify killing them for a hamburger. Twenty years ago, some people assumed that fish don't feel pain. We know now that fish not only feel pain but also use tools and have impressive long-term memories. An article published last year even found that guppies like to hang out with 'ugly' friends in order to make themselves look more attractive to potential mates.

Many animal behaviourists consider pigs to be smarter than three-year-old humans, and people who've spent time with these animals have discovered that they enjoy listening to music, playing with footballs and getting massages. Pigs can even play video games.

Chickens' cognitive abilities are in some ways more advanced than those of cats, dogs and even some primates. They have more than 30 types of vocalisations, and mother hens teach these calls to their chicks by clucking softly to them while sitting on the eggs. The chicks chirp back from inside their shells.

Like us, cows have best friends - and they become distressed when they are separated from them. They hold grudges against other cows who treat them badly, and they shed tears when their loved ones die or are taken away.

In addition, the health benefits of going vegan have never been clearer. Studies have shown that vegetarians weigh less and live longer than meat-eaters do, and they are a third less likely to develop heart disease and about 40% less likely to get cancer than meat-eaters are. Other research shows that strict vegetarians score significantly better on mood scales and have lower instances of depression, anxiety and other negative feelings - food for thought this January.

And finally, there's no longer any doubt that the meat industry is a top contributor to the most serious environmental problems that we have, including climate change, water depletion, fossil-fuel use, chemical use and deforestation. UN officials say that everyone will have to go vegan eventually in order to alleviate hunger, fuel poverty and the worst effects of climate change.

We may not be able to right all the world's wrongs, but when it comes to what we put on our plates, we all have the opportunity to get it right three times a day, simply by eating vegan. World Week for the Abolition of Meat, 18 to 26 January, would be a great time to start.