Choice is yours!

It's not a trend, but a lifestyle.Could you be a vegan, asks Lakshmi Palecanda, asshe introduces a way of world based on compassion

Choice is yours!

The first time I heard the term ‘vegan’, I thought I had misheard. Surely that person must have said ‘vegetarian’ and I must have misinterpreted it. Then the term was explained to me. My jaw dropped.
What in the world was this new fad? Turns out, veganism is neither a fad nor is it new.

For every living being, life revolves around food, and Man is no exception. But unlike other living creatures, Man is a thinking and rapidly evolving human being. His discovery and harnessing of fire and farming revolutionised the concept of food, and today’s practices of steaming, sautéing, frying, grilling, baking and broiling have transformed food for him, while all other species on earth are still on a raw-meat or veggies-and-fruit diet.

But Man’s think-ability to contemplate does not stop with wondering what to do with food. His ability to reason has also led him to cogitate on what foods he should eat and why, and that, not only from the health point of view. Somewhere along the way, Man encountered the idea of ethics and scruples, and right and wrong, and that changed the very way in which he thought.

The human species evolved to be omnivorous, which is one reason we climbed to the top of the food chain. However, a number of people have wondered if it is right to use or feed on other species. Is compassion to be extended only within the species, or can it encompass all other creatures as well? Is it only the killing that should be prohibited, or is it the very usage of animals for the benefit of mankind that should stop?

It is this school of thought that led to the practice of vegetarianism and veganism. Vegetarianism is the practice of using only plant-based products for food. In most cases, this also includes the use of milk and milk products like butter, ghee, curds and cheese, and sometimes chicken eggs, too. People who consume milk and milk products are lacto-vegetarians, while those who eat eggs are classified as ovo-lacto-vegetarians.

Off the list

But veganism is something that pushes the envelope a little further. It is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products not only in food, but in general lifestyle as well. This means saying a big fat goodbye to meat, eggs, and dairy milk or milk products. In addition, it also means no more silk, leather products or fur, and using only a few select cosmetics that are completely free of animal products such as bone ash, lard, and even beeswax.

Since veganism can be considered an offshoot of vegetarianism, it shares a common history with it. Historians say that vegetarianism existed during the Indus Valley civilisation. Many Indian philosophers such as Mahavira, poets like Tiruvalluvar, and emperors like Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka were reputed to be vegetarians, as were Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Empedocles and Theophrastus, and Roman poets like Ovid, Seneca the Younger, Plutarch, Plotinus and Porphyry.

But the earliest known vegan was probably Al-Ma’arri, a blind Arab philosopher, poet and writer who lived in the 10th century AD. He opposed violence totally and ate no meat, even avoiding other animal products. His eloquent poem on veganism must surely have converted many a meat-eater in his day.

In the modern Western world, veganism began to gain a firm hold in England and the United States in the 19th century. Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, doctor William Lambe, and self-described socialist James Pierrepont Greaves advocated the boycott of meat, milk and eggs in England, while in the United States, religious reformer Sylvester Graham and philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott, the famous author) propounded the practice of veganism in America. Finally, in 1944, the secretary of the Leicester branch of the Vegetarian Society coined the term ‘vegan’, meaning non-dairy vegetarian, and started a quarterly newsletter called The Vegan News. Recently, interest in veganism has increased, and many specialty stores have opened. Even supermarkets are beginning to stock vegan products.

Today, many people have embraced this practice, including celebrities like Mallika Sherawat, Ayesha Takia, Jacqueline Fernandez, Anne Hathaway, Beyonce, Natalie Portman, Paul McCartney and Alec Baldwin.

No matter where it originated, or who follows it, Veganism has always had its justification rooted in two important arguments — morality and health. And both these arguments can seem pretty convincing.

The ethics of veganism are pretty straight-forward. In 1951, the Vegan Society defined veganism as ‘the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals.’ This links veganism to ahimsa, which is non-harming of all things. Killing animals for meat is destroying another creature’s right to live. Even livestock farms, where animals are bred to be killed for meat, are overcrowded, dirty places where animals are raised simply to put on weight before being killed, often in inhumane ways. While avoiding meat and consuming plant products, as do vegetarians, consuming milk, eggs and honey can be unfair to animals too. As Al-Ma’arri says, to rob unsuspecting birds by taking their eggs is grave injustice, while taking the honey which bees work hard to get, is plain wrong, because they did not store it for others to take. Furthermore, even milch cows and egg-laying chickens are killed once they are too old to be of use.

People often say that they ‘don’t eat anything with a face’, or ‘anything that had a mom’. But for vegans, that is not enough. They argue that it is time for humans to come off the top of the food chain. Says singer-songwriter K D Lang, “We all love animals. Why do we call some ‘pets’ and others ‘dinner’?” The use of animals to produce milk and eggs is also a kind of exploitation, according to vegans. “People are the only animals that drink the milk of the mother of another species,” says Michael A Klaper, an American physician and veganism advocate. “All other animals stop drinking milk altogether after weaning. It is unnatural for a dog to nurse from a mother giraffe; it is just as unnatural for a human being to drink the milk of a cow.”

Even the use of animal derivatives in everyday products exploits animals. Innocuous stuff like toothpaste, paints, cologne and perfume, shampoo and conditioner, wood glue, crayons and soap all have chemical substances derived from animals.

Vegans do not go to circuses, rodeos or riding where animals are used for entertainment either. Some strict vegans don’t even go to the zoo, because animals are being imprisoned there against their will.

Alice Walker sums it up best. “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons,” says the American novelist, author of the book The Color Purple. “They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”

But, is a vegan diet healthy? Yes, say a lot of health studies. Vegetarian and vegan diets cause significantly lower rates of ischemic heart disease and cancer. Vegans also have healthier guts, gentler menopause symptoms, lower stress levels and greater weight loss. Vegan diets are rich in dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, Vitamin E, iron and phytochemicals, and have been known to reverse diabetes.

However, there are a few problems with going completely vegan. Veganism relies heavily on soya beans — soy milk, soy cheese, soy protein, soy cereal, tofu and tempeh. Soy is rich in phytoestrogen, and so using too much soy can cause hormone imbalances. Moreover, these soy-based foods are more like fake foods because they contain many ingredients and are highly processed. For example, a non-dairy butter often used by vegans is made with palm fruit oil, canola oil, safflower oil, flax oil, olive oil, salt, natural flavour, pea protein, sunflower lecithin, lactic acid and annatto colour, whereas all real butter contains is… butter.

Healthy, but...

Vegan diets also do not provide some essential vitamins like vitamin A, D, B-12 and K2, and minerals like calcium and iron. Vitamin B-12 is especially important because its deficiency causes severe and irreversible damage, especially to the brain and nervous system. In 2001, a 10-month-old baby died from being fed an exclusively vegan diet. Children on an unbalanced vegan diet are prone to anaemia, rickets or cretinism, while adults may get osteomalacia or hypothyroidism among other things.

But with good planning, vegan diets can be healthy. For instance, nutrition supplements can be taken, that provide essential fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins B 12 and D. In fact, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, dietitians of Canada and the British Dietetic Association regard well-planned vegan diets as appropriate for all stages of life, including infancy and pregnancy.

There is another aspect to veganism — the environmental impact. It is a little acknowledged fact that raising animals for food requires massive amounts of land, food, energy, and water.

According to the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a lot of water and land is used up in growing crops for animals or for grazing livestock. Firstly, the growing demand for meat drives deforestation and destruction of species-rich habitats to increase the land available for agriculture. Animals also consume a lot of water. It takes 683 gallons of water to produce just one gallon of milk, while it takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. But it takes only 244 gallons of water to produce one pound of tofu. Also, huge reserves of grain go to feed livestock, which could otherwise be used to feed humans. Add to all this, the cruelty to the animals themselves, the danger to public health by the overuse of hormones and antibiotics in meat production, and the pollution caused to air and water, veganism seems to be the way to go in the future.

However, this seemingly benign practice has its own problems. There is the problem with malnutrition, but it is something that can be overcome. Then there is the question of ethics. Unfortunately, Death feeding Life is a primary law of Nature, and impossible to stop in its tracks. Even in the production of vegan food, rats, rabbits and other subterranean animals will be killed. Next, while vegetarian and vegan diets do consume fewer resources to produce, they need a large quantity of good quality agricultural land. And let us not forget that huge tracts of poor quality land all around the world, which can sustain only grass, can still support cattle, thus being useful in producing food for a population which is seven billion and counting, worldwide. Also, vegan food, like mock meat, is highly processed, with a lot of additives.

Practically speaking, veganism can pose some difficulties. The main thing is that you have to become more aware of what you are consuming. And you have to be specific about animal products being used. For example, you may not order a meat dish at a restaurant. But you may not be aware that lard or pig fat is used to make pie crusts, and meat stock is used to make soups, even vegetarian soups. However, in the West, the concept of veganism is understood everywhere to some extent or another, so ordering off a menu is relatively painless – just ask for the vegan items they serve. Plus, they have a number of fake meat products, like fake bacon, fake cheese and so on, made with plant-derived products.

As Indians in India, it is actually very easy for us to go vegan in our diet. Delicious vegetarian food is already available, and we only need to make sure that our food has no milk, butter, ghee or paneer in it. Finding it difficult to cook favourite Indian dishes without these? There are some substitutes available. Instead of milk, you could use soy, rice, coconut or almond milk. For paneer, you can substitute tofu. And jaggery can be used instead of honey and sugar, if you suspect that sugar has been refined with animal bone charcoal.

There are also vegan recipes galore from traditional to fusion foods. Why, when I searched online, I hit upon a vegan butter chicken recipe with soy curls and channa almost instantly. There are also delicious recipes for pies, puddings, kheer, cakes and cookies.

Okay, still finding it hard to go vegan in your food? You don’t have to go all out and change your lifestyle completely. Instead, you can act on being more compassionate by going vegan a few days every week, and by cutting down your use of animal products.

As for other products like cosmetics, soaps, perfumes etc, just be sure to look for organic or vegan products. Amar, Colgate and Vicco make vegan toothpaste, Soul Tree makes ayurvedic lipstick and kajal, Kama Ayurveda makes ayurvedic face cream, soap, moisturiser, and so on. You can also order most of these products online.

When it comes to veganism, the bottom line is compassion. It is the wish to live in harmony with other living beings, recognising that though they may not be your equal, they still have a right to life. In this quest, there are bound to be some rough patches and hardships. But the feeling of satisfaction that you get for having done the right thing is immeasurable.

In the words of Gary L Francione, distinguished professor of law at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark: “Veganism is not about giving anything up or losing anything; it is about gaining the peace within yourself that comes from embracing non-violence and refusing to participate in the exploitation of the vulnerable.”

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