A Brief History Of Veganism – Know Your Roots!
November 1 is World Vegan Day, a celebration of people who don’t eat meat. Or eggs. Or cheese. Or mayonnaise. Or honey. Or whey. Or gelatin. Or anything that comes from or includes an animal. Nor do they use any clothing, accessory or object made from an animal. No leather, no wool, no pearls, no ivory-keyed pianos. The animal-free holiday began in 1994, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vegan Society.
Veganism is an extreme form of vegetarianism, and though the term was coined in 1944, the concept of flesh avoidance can be traced back to ancient Indian and eastern Mediterranean societies. Vegetarianism was first mentioned by the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras of Samos around 500 BCE.
In addition to his theorem about right triangles, Pythagoras promoted benevolence among all species, including humans. Followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism also advocated vegetarianism, believing that humans should not inflict pain on other animals.
The meatless lifestyle never really caught on in the West, although it would sometimes pop up during health crazes and religious revivals. The Ephrata Cloister, a strict religious sect founded in 1732 in Pennsylvania, advocated vegetarianism — as well as celibacy. The 18th-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham believed that animal suffering was just as serious as human suffering, and likened the idea of human superiority to racism.
The first vegetarian society was formed in 1847 in England. Three years later, Rev. Sylvester Graham, the inventor of Graham crackers, co-founded the American Vegetarian Society. Graham was a Presbyterian minister and his followers, called Grahamites, obeyed his instructions for a virtuous life: vegetarianism, temperance, abstinence, and frequent bathing.
In November 1944, a British woodworker named Donald Watson announced that because vegetarians ate dairy and eggs, he was going to create a new term called “vegan,” to describe people who did not. Tuberculosis had been found in 40% of Britain’s dairy cows the year before, and Watson used this to his advantage, claiming that it proved the vegan lifestyle protected people from tainted food.
Three months after coining the term, he issued a formal explanation of the way the word should be pronounced: “Veegan, not Veejan,” he wrote in his new Vegan Society
newsletter, which had 25 subscribers. By the time Watson died at age 95 in 2005, there were 250,000 self-identifying vegans in Britain and 2 million in the U.S. Moby, Woody Harrelson and Fiona Apple are vegans. So is Dennis Kucinich.
Strict veganism prohibits the use of animal products, even if it isn’t food, but like any lifestyle choice that ends in “-ism,” there are plenty of people who cheat. Vitamin B12 is found almost entirely in animal products, so many vegans eat fortified food or take a vitamin to get the right amount.
And while American vegetarianism has broken free of its philosophical and religious roots, becoming an accepted health choice — many restaurants offer vegetarian options and most dinner party planners now ask “is anyone vegetarian?” before planning the menu — veganism is still tied to the animal-rights movement and is out there on the fringe.
Vegans can be as strict or lax as they want to be in their food choices: the International Vegetarian Union’s website includes vegan-friendly reminders about baking pans greased with animal fat, grain cereals that include animal-based glycerin, and sugar refined with bone charcoal.
Then there’s raw veganism, which is an offshoot of veganism in which none of the food can be cooked. Take that a step further and you get “mono meals,” the idea that the stomach should only digest one type of food at a time. Basically, if you eat it, there is probably someone else out there who won’t.
The History Of Veganism
Plant-based foods have been domesticated since the earliest phases of agriculture. In addition to grains, vegetables and legumes were cultivated, as evidenced by the cave paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet in Southern France. In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer writes about his family’s ethical decisions around food.
While his mother was a lifetime vegetarian, his father and uncle regularly hunted and ate meat. “From the first moment I ever looked at a cow, I felt nauseated and furious with it. It was exactly as if the only reason a monster could exist was as if it were the size of a dwarf.” After being diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, Foer’s mother became an advocate for plant-based foods. In her 2000 book Eating Animals, she writes about her experience as a vegan.
Veganism, philosophy or practice that eschews animal products, had a huge cultural impact in ancient Rome. Roman emperors hunted and ate boars, cats, hares, leopards, and partridges. They also regularly ate ostriches, llamas, giraffes, squirrels, oxen, dogs, and even chinchillas.
By the 5th century, Roman abbesses were forbidden to celebrate Easter for fear that the food would be too expensive. However, the concept of vegetarianism did not spread across the Mediterranean until later. In the 11th century, Fecundus of Canosa, a Christian monk, began the development of a diet based on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. His book, De Laude Nutritionibus, included a series of recipes that could be prepared for every meal.
Veganism In Ancient Societies
While “vegan” is certainly a modern invention, ancient civilizations have been promoting a version of meatless eating for thousands of years. The Hindus of South Asia, for example, began their vegetarianism tradition thousands of years ago. The Vaishnavism religion is one example.
Many ancient Indian texts discuss their belief that God created humans with a strong desire to eat meat and that by keeping away from that desire, humans would not go hungry. But when the creator does not exist, humans will eat plants instead of meat, according to the Hindu belief. “Animal sacrifice” is one reason why Hindu people avoid eating meat. When human beings realize that they can satisfy their hunger without the eating of animal flesh, human sacrifices stop.
Eating only plants seems unusual today, but the practice of abstaining from killing animals dates back to the Neolithic Era. The first known vegetarian dietary culture dates back more than 7,000 years. The Egyptians of the time were vegetarians, who ate no animal products. Fast-forward about 10,000 years to the Pueblo Indians.
The Pueblo I Chaco Canyon, founded around 1000 BCE in New Mexico, was a tightly-knit society of agrarian farmers who were conscious of their impact on the environment. Pueblo men would remove their facial hair, and women would wear their hair short. They used seeds from cactus as food and relied on corn, squash, and beans for sustenance.
The Modern-Day Vegan
Today, vegetarianism is a more popular diet than ever, with more people than ever being concerned about the treatment of animals. But vegans are on the rise too. Despite some reports of a dip in the number of vegetarians in America, the number of vegans actually rose in 2017, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
That means there are more people than ever following an animal-free diet. Though most vegans follow this diet for moral or religious reasons, there are many reasons beyond those. Some studies link veganism with lower cholesterol levels.
Fast-forward 2,000 years, to 18th century England, George Bernard Shaw, a high-society socialite, wrote the Animal Farm in a satirical fashion, imagining the results of a government-sanctioned system of animal “selective breeding.” In France, the ultra-rich philosopher and philosopher of agriculture Baron de Coubertin began promoting physical fitness as a way of life in the late 19th century.
Through the school of La Varenne, in Le Mans, Coubertin became familiar with modern farming practices, including milk and eggs from hens treated with hormones. In 1908, Coubertin made the radical and provocative claim that it was possible to achieve immortality through milk consumption.
How To Be A Good Vegan
For many years, I did not consider myself to be a vegan because I couldn’t sustain my very restricted diet, which included no seafood or products that come from a factory farm. My only source of dairy was non-dairy ice cream made by Nestle, and my obsession with Coke was bad enough.
If it wasn’t for the health benefits of a vegan diet, I couldn’t have survived. As I continued my research, I began to realize that being a vegan was not just about diet, but also more about culture and ethics. More importantly, it is about being kind to and respecting other living beings, starting with other animals.
Today, animal-free eating is more of an intellectual idea than it was in the 70s when the dairy industry lobbied the American public to start eating cheese, cream and yogurt. Luckily, there was a backlash. The word vegan itself, the vegetarian equivalent of conscientious objector, was coined in 1944, by Donald Watson of the Vegan Society. Watson saw that vegans were viewed by others as odd because they did not consume animal products.
He proposed that the word stood for a positive, affirmative, firm rejection of not only dairy products but all animal products. Some vegans promote veganism to promote compassion for humans, animals and the environment. And as most people already know, animals suffer from exploitation on factory farms, where they are confined in barren environments.
Challenges Of Being Vegan
The main challenge to veganism is the demand for animal products. In the modern industrialized world, millions of consumers have become accustomed to the taste, texture, and availability of animal-derived foods. Even eating out is a challenge.
Most non-vegan restaurants serve meats, eggs, dairy, and other animal-derived foods that make total healthful vegetarianism difficult. Many vegan diets are difficult to maintain, especially when out of the house. For many people, eating vegan can be a challenge. Consider veganism if you wish to make a lifestyle change, and are willing to learn and adjust to veganism. There is no need to become vegan overnight; you can incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet gradually.
Besides the moral aspect of veganism, such as not causing unnecessary suffering, there are practical problems, which can become rather difficult, and even frightening. For instance, while it’s almost unheard of for a vegan to eat bread or milk, and even more rare to consume ice cream, the international diet still contains animal products.
Hence, the search for healthy substitutes is never-ending. These replacements are also commonly seen as health hazards since they can cause allergies or nutritional deficiencies. A study conducted by the World Health Organization revealed that in 2015, 816 million people were suffering from non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases.
Why Are People Vegan?
As the common saying goes, people become vegetarian for health, animal welfare and ecology. But I think there are a few more reasons. As with all good thinkers, Adam Smith once said: “Economy makes people virtuous.” Veganism can be interpreted as a “virtuous economy.”
Consumers can easily identify the source of their food – either as the meat, dairy, or egg industry or as an individual farmer or large conglomerate. These are all ethical industries that strive to be environmentally and socially responsible. Consumer activism is on the rise, and recently a company has been trying to force vegans to accept GMO products (yes, that’s right, Monsanto, the company most responsible for our meat, dairy and egg supply, is trying to get “vegetarian” label on their products).
In the early twentieth century, people began to develop and maintain complex relationships with food. You didn’t eat animals. You didn’t wear animals. Your family didn’t eat animals. Yet people still killed and ate animals. Despite the purported “greater good” of eating meat, people were deeply conflicted.
It was not hard to explain why these non-vegetarians and vegetarians would prefer not to eat the flesh of other animals. Unlike mammalian meat (think cows, sheep, and goats), plants do not have nerves. You cannot smell, feel, or taste the same thing twice. Because of their complexity, humans are no more like plants than they are like bacteria. When one thing is inherently different from another, our diets will often reflect the difference.
Many people have become vegetarian in the past few decades because of concerns about the environment. Many animals are killed to make leather products. Animal farming is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases, and much of the meat we eat comes from animals who are fed antibiotics, hormones, and growth stimulants.
The meat that is not replaced by the human consumption of plant products causes a large carbon footprint. Many people have become vegans to help animals. Abattoirs are places where animals are killed for meat, fish, and dairy products. Animals who are used for fur are usually killed in a factory, and rarely seen by the public. From slaughterhouses, meat, milk, and other animal products are sent to supermarkets, convenience stores, and restaurants.
Our usage of products derived from animals is both pervasive and ethically questionable. Researchers have determined that farming is one of the most harmful industries to the environment. In 2008, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations issued a report, which noted that meat production uses up 70 percent of our freshwater supply.
We raise more animals than any other species on the planet, and that use comes at an environmental cost. Before we started using animals for food, the majority of wild animals were herded in terms of a hundred or more into holding pens and feedlots where they spent their lives in cages that were regulated by the length of their chains.
How Did The Vegan Diet Begin?
Trace it back further, and you might hear that it began as a result of food restrictions. In ancient India, it was not uncommon to consume meat only on special occasions, but people also supported an age-old system of trade that included killing the sacrificial animal.
There were no refrigerators or freezers, so livestock was slaughtered based on what would be best for the consumer. Through the ages, Western society gradually began to shift in a more carnivorous direction, which is why meat-eating in the U.S. is the third leading cause of death. It’s not just “traditional” meat. You can easily avoid honey and dairy, soy and egg, milk, chicken and fish (it would not be surprising to discover some households in America who don’t use chicken or fish).
The number of vegans worldwide has quadrupled since 1997. One reason for this growing number of people on the diet is the resurgence of interest in herbal medicine. In the 19th century, both Theodor von Holst and Sir John Hutchinson advocated the use of cannabis and opium for medicinal purposes. Both also endorsed the “healing power of animal flesh.”
By the 1870s, cannabis and opium smoking were prescribed as cures for constipation, schizophrenia, and insanity, and some American medicinal colleges even offered courses in smoking and processing cannabis. By the 1880s, Dutch pharmacologists had joined the trend and, using data from Indian medicines, had begun to advocate a plant-based diet as an antidote to diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and liver and kidney disease.
What Is The Root Of Vegan?
According to Quora user Peter, the root of the word “vegan” means “ashamed of one’s selfish desire to have a lot of what one lacks.” Another way to look at veganism is that it is a choice to abstain from having meat or any animal product for any reason, and the choice to make that choice, or avoid doing so, is a matter of ethical behaviour.
“Veganism is an ethical and personal choice to lead a life that is compatible with the non-human animals and other living beings with whom we share the world,” is a definition by the Vegan Society. “The philosophy is based on the idea that the moral rightness of one’s actions should be judged by how much they bring about ‘the greatest good for the greatest number,’ rather than by one’s own comfort and convenience,” said the World Vegan Organization.
More than just avoiding all animal products, veganism has its roots in reverence for life. According to vegan websites, in the Bible, a non-animal god was created for each of the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The worshippers of those religions, vegetarians and non-vegetarians, have not only debated the dietary restrictions of non-animals, but they’ve also fought over who was right and who was wrong.
In 2014, American medical anthropologist Clifford Geertz popularized the phrase, “meat-eating discourse,” referring to the “bizarre” religious belief that living beings (animals) have souls, and that animals are no more than commodities.
Today’s vegan products are vegan because they have been derived from plants and not animal-based sources. It started with the Dutch and Danish settlers, and the English in 1569. They considered their foods humane, compassionate and free from the cruel ways of animals in confinement.
They named it “veganism.” The founder of the New York Vegetarian Society was English physician and science lecturer Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). He too, observed that he could sustain life without slaughtering animals. Schweitzer discussed the subject in his book “The Meadows of Plenty,” published in 1944.
Everything we do, whether we’re conscious of it or not, comes from the animal kingdom. When we use an electric drill, we use a motor built from animal parts. When we drive a car, we use a complex system of gears and pistons, gears and bolts, wheels and tires, to move a metal contraption that will one day hurtle us down the road.
Whether we love it or hate it, we’re dependent on animals. And for much of human history, we’ve loved it. Our relationship with animals as pets and food was often mutual, if sometimes confusing and skewed. The ape with its leathery skin and leathery teeth was our affectionate pet. The cow with its milk and fat used to be our sustenance.
Despite the negative connotation, eating animals is more often a choice than a necessity. It can be a liberating experience to stop eating, and even to try not to think about it. People who have gone vegan often attest to how freeing it is. Won’t you join the herd and create a new category of identity – vegan?
Let the world know what you eat, how you live, and how you treat other humans. You might eventually become a vegan; now that’s a wild-card! It depends on how you feel about a plant-based diet, the plant-based diet itself, your own culture and perspective, how much time and money you can dedicate to the pursuit, and of course, your willingness to get your money’s worth out of it.
I trust you enjoyed reading the article about A Brief History Of Veganism – Know Your Roots. Please stay tuned. There are more blog posts to come very shortly.
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Here are the links to some of my favourite articles:
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