Environment turning middle-class vegan

03 Oct, 2008 03:16 PM

That the late, great Barry White was vegan might come as a surprise to meat-lovers who equate veganism with malnourished, pasty physiques.

Given the abundance of meat alternatives, vegans can have robust physiques just like the amply proportioned crooner did.

Or they can be wafer-thin if they follow Skinny Bitch, the best-selling weight-loss bible that advocates a vegan diet.

While most people tend to switch to veganism on environmental or humanitarian grounds, vanity, thanks to Skinny Bitch, has also provided inspiration to convert.

The unconventional diet book burst onto the charts last year after Victoria Beckham was seen buying her copy.

The widespread acceptance of vegetarianism has paved the way for veganism to emerge from the shadows as a more accepted alternative lifestyle.

If it attracts women wanting to lose a few kilos, that's OK, says Emily Clark, founder of the Aduki online vegan website.

"The good thing to come out of that is that vegan is no longer a dirty word," she says.

"Traditionally the word vegan has scared mainstream audiences and had that connotation of being weird, skinny, pale and sick."

Vegans steer clear of all meat and also avoid animal byproducts such as milk, eggs, butter, cheese, gelatin, whey and honey.

It sounds like a punishing regime. But, insists Clark, this is not the case.

"There's stuff to replace everything - if you want to have scrambled eggs, then tofu is the perfect replacement," she says.

"You can use faux bacon and you can bake cakes using bicarbonate of soda and olive oil instead of butter."

Mock meat dishes, which are cheaper than their genuine counterparts, include everything from "non-chicken cacciatore" to "chilli non-carne".

Clark, who made the leap from devouring red meat to becoming vegan five years ago, is soon to publish her second vegan cookbook.

It concentrates on vegan soups, with recipes devised by the owners of Fitzroy's Las Vegan Bakery, Michael Linden and Lia Vandersant.

Clark's first, Tempting Tempeh, has sold 1000 copies since its release last August.

Recipes include "rissoles" with garlic mash, "sausage rolls" with Italian tomato salsa, and "steaks" with wasabi mash.

"I've done a spin on meals that people know, so it doesn't seem so crazy," says Clark, whose website receives up to 5000 hits a day.

"Tempeh is a soy food and you can use it grated like mince or cut up in steaks. It has a density to it and takes on whatever flavours you add to it.

"I want to show people that being vegan doesn't mean you are giving up your food luxuries. I probably have a much more interesting diet than most meat eaters."

Isn't it pointless replicating fleshy feasts if vegans are so turned off meat?

"No, most of us didn't give up meat because we didn't like it," she says.

"It's on moral grounds. If you tell people how much water it takes to put the steak on their plate, it stops them in their tracks."

Vegan numbers are believed to have grown over the years, judging by the proliferation of vegan restaurants, cafes and bakeries.

The Vegetarian Network directory (vnv.org.au) lists nearly 50 vegetarian restaurants in Melbourne, some of which are exclusively vegan.

But there is a lack of data on how many Australians are vegetarian, let alone vegan.

The 1995 National Nutrition Survey, published by the Bureau of Statistics, found that 3.7pc of Australians, mostly female, opted for a vegetarian lifestyle.

This included variations of vegetarian, from vegan to ovo-lacto vegetarian, pescatarians (or fish-eating non-meat eaters), to non-red-meat eaters.

Melbourne man Mark Doneddu has been organising World Vegan Day, an annual event that attracted up to 5000 people in Melbourne last year, since 2003.

"When we first started, it was a picnic in the park, with 200 people," he says.

This year, the event will be held in Melbourne at the Abbotsford Convent on Sunday, October 26.

In Britain, about 5pc of the population is vegetarian and 2pc vegan. Using these figures, Donnedu extrapolates that about 1pc of Australians are vegan.

"I think more people are aware of animal treatment than ever before and the awareness of the environment has never been as intensive," he says.

Animal cruelty in the meat, dairy and egg industries remains the prime motivation for many vegans.

The cramped conditions in which chickens are kept, mulesing and slaughtering animals while they are still conscious are among their main concerns.

Like many people who switch to veganism on environmental grounds, Donnedu easily rattles off statistics to support his arguments against meat production.

Last year, more than 5 million pigs, 8 million cows, 33 million sheep and 460 million chickens were slaughtered in Australia, according to livestock figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

"The amount of water you save on a plant-based diet is enormous," Donnedu says.

"The CSIRO put out research saying it takes 50,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef as opposed to only 500 litres to produce a kilo of potatoes. Corn is 560 litres a kilo."

Another report published by the CSIRO last year, The Balancing Act, concluded that replacing meat with pasta and beans would have the biggest effect on reducing a person's carbon footprint.

Australia's meat-products industry accounts for 91 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, according to the report. This compares with the 80.4 megatonnes attributable to the nation's transport industry.

A vegan diet can dramatically reduce a person's carbon footprint, but can it also erode the nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy?

"If you have followed a vegan diet all your life, there is some evidence that your body seems to be able to change the amount it wants to absorb out of food," says Aloysa Hourigan, senior nutritionist at Nutrition Australia.

"But it is difficult if a large meat-eater switches to a vegan diet."

The main problem seems to be our bodies' ability to extract adequate amounts of vitamin B12, which makes red blood cells, and minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc, from plant-based foods.

"Vegans need to eat a wide range of foods. They need to eat legumes, nuts and a range of grains such as oats, wheat and rye every day," says Hourigan.

"If you don't balance your diet well, you might find your appetite is not satisfied so then you go looking for more."

Las Vegan's Vandersant and Linden seem to have perfected the art of vegan cuisine. Such is their reputation that the couple fed the crew of the Sea Shepherd's ship - the Steve Irwin - last February when it refuelled in Melbourne.

"Vegans are so grateful and people who aren't vegan are surprised our food tastes so good," says Vandersant, a former meat-eater.

"If you've got a meat-eating background, I think that's a really good thing to bring into vegan cooking. I cook the same way as I used to cook meat but I just don't put meat in there."

Her husband, Linden, whose form of protest against animal cruelty was to bake vegan muffins "instead of throwing red paint at people", has built a reputation as the finest vegan baker in Melbourne.

"He uses orange juice, oil and baking powder and you don't miss the butter or eggs in it," says Vandersant.

Paul Watson, anti-whaling protester and Sea Shepherd captain, says: "Veganism is the most ecologically positive lifestyle we can adopt."

He estimates half the 33-member crew are vegans and the other half generally convert after eating vegan meals on board.

Watson has been vegetarian since 1979 but is limited by his wheat and soy allergies. He was raised in Friday Harbour fishing village in Washington and began sabotaging fishing trap lines at the age of 10.

"I used to witness the seal hunt when I was young and was appalled at the cruelty," he says.

He says commercial fishing stocks would not be so depleted if livestock were fed a vegetarian diet, and says the pig is "the largest aquatic predator on the planet right now".

Equally he rates meat production over cars as the biggest greenhouse gas emitter.

"A vegan riding a Hummer contributes less to greenhouse gas emissions than a meat eater riding a bicycle," he says. "In 1980, no one knew what a vegan was - they thought they were from the planet Vega. It is the way of the future. If you watch Star Trek, they were all vegetarians."

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3/10/2008 4:57:44 AM

Good article. People are starting to talk a lot about going green lately and so awareness of the vegan lifestyle is slowly rising. But it's funny to see the people who are so resistant to change. They will recycle, they will take the bus instead of a car, they'll shop with their own canvas bags, but they think veganism is a step-too-far. I think many people just over-complicate it. It's actually extremely easy and rewarding being vegan. And imagine if everyone just had one vegetarian day a week!! That would add up to a 5-10% reduction in the nation's emissions output!!
3/10/2008 8:23:01 AM

The food is far from being punishing! There is a vegetarian/vagan restaurant in Melbourne that people queue up to find a seat for while others nearby have plenty of room! As a long-term vegetarian and now vegan, I can say that I never go to the doctor, I enjoy cooking and the flavours and food is creative and exotic and tasty. There is a broad range of foods available - not having meat/dairy opens up Nature's pantry!
3/10/2008 8:55:42 AM

While your at it why don't we bypass our God given nature and produce all foods artificially? Reminds me of the athiest arguing with God so God challanged him to prove his theory so he got a handfull of dirt and God said ah ah that is mine make your own.
3/10/2008 9:31:27 AM

Excellent article. I went vegetarian 13 years ago, then vegan 5 years later. I've had two wonderful healthy vegan pregnancies in my late 30s, with no iron deficiency, and our now 7 and 5 year old boys are thriving, very smart and full of energy. They have been told the gentle truth about animal products from an early age and I have been careful to spare them the gruesome details (that most adults can't deal with). There are so many wonderful books and websites with really good info on nutrition, environmental, health and recipes. We have a really tasty varied plentiful diet, that includes treats like soy icecream and dark chocolate. It is a truly wonderful life-affirming choice!
3/10/2008 12:15:02 PM

Poor old barry. He did that to himself & didn't enjoy the wonders of bacon. As for emissions after 3 days camping living only on beans you didn't want to be anywhere near mine. Skinny bitches might be less bitchy with a bit of lamb roast. You know it makes sense, i am THE FARMER and you're not.
3/10/2008 1:18:33 PM

Great article. It's really encouraging to see such positive comment getting out there. There really are so many good reasons for moving towards the vegan diet/lifestyle. There may be cattle and sheep farmers who potentially feel threatened by this movement, but I would recommend studying up on the genuine science of climate change. (see http://www.control.com.au/bi2007/ 2810Brook.pdf ) and understanding that there is a huge ground swell of support for helping those on the land shift their practices to more carbon friendly ventures. I doubt it would require much encouragement form both sides of the rural/urban divide for the Government to see the long term benefit of early assistance in the transition. There will be $$ in creating carbon sinks, ie indigenous revegetation, which also helps drought proof regional areas if done correctly, and more $$ soon in burgeoning alternative drawdown schemes. Terra Preta, or Agri- Charcoal storage industries for instance. These have the potential to attract huge investment from carbon offset and credit schemes. The major advantage to farmers of these activities is that they have a greater resiliency in the uncertain weather and economic conditions we expect to look forward to. So ultimately this change in product demand is an opportunity to redevelop our farming communities - revitalize them and reinvest in them.
3/10/2008 2:52:48 PM

Thank you for writing this article. Hope lots of people read this and hope that many more people become aware that by simply changing our diets to vegetarian or vegan we can we drastically reduce our greenhouse gases and curb global warming.
3/10/2008 4:07:42 PM

Yes vegan is no longer a dirty word and pretty soon we will all benefit from that with reduced public health spending and climate change mitigation. however, it's not all about 'replacing meat'. There is easily enough protein available from nutritious, whole and natural food. Age old diets in South America, Middle East and Asia show this well, although today disease and pollution is on the rise because affluence is associated with meat. An interesting book to read is the China Study which shows the direct and exact correlation between the vegetarian (read: vegan) diet and good health... and meat diet and disease. Farmers would do well to encourage us to take up good health practices such as vegetarianism and veganism, and themselves switch to sustainable forms of agriculture that do not waste and destroy immesurable amounts of water, food and land. "Livestock's Long Shadow" (search google) documents this well and was produced by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.
3/10/2008 4:39:24 PM

The problem with veganism is the chance of putting on weight! You end up eating more because the food tastes better. Coopers beer is my staple vegan treat!
Renata Jayne
3/10/2008 9:21:22 PM

Going veggo is easy and the only thing you miss out on is eating cruetly, depression, fear, pesticides, chemicals, hormones and umm....cruelty! Why should a being have to die for any human? They feel pain, love their kids and don't deserve to be intensely farmed or "organicly" farmed for our stomachs and plates! Argue all you like, eating meat is cruel and veggies rule!!
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Sorry did i get it wrong..? Rankins Springs is still open..?!
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No doubt a few frosted Freddies out there who will wish they had taken a closer look at the AGC
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Matthew, I was wondering if you had followed up this story with the farmer after the whole