Starting the year with the #Veganuary challenge is an excellent opportunity to rethink values and practices at the table and set plans and hopes for the year ahead. But after a couple of months, it is also time to critically assess how these ideas relate to and impact our lives throughout the year. Veganuary is an annual awareness-raising event that seeks to drive participants’ food consumption change by encouraging a vegan diet for a month-long period. During the event, participants are encouraged not only to shift towards plant-based diets for the first month of the year but also to gain awareness more generally of the benefits of these dietary shifts, both at an individual level but also the broader scale environmental benefits, to their societies and the planet at large.
For those not familiar with the details of this challenge, Veganuary is a non-profit organization founded in England and Wales in 2014, which has been engaged in a worldwide effort to encourage people to go vegan for the month of January, with a view to this being a starting point for as many of these individuals to persist with this lifestyle change as possible.
The UK Vegan Society’s definition of veganism is:
“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” (UK Vegan Society, 2022)
In the present blog post, I will – through the Veganuary challenge – discuss two main issues regarding the vegan movement: (1) the challenges brought by new actors joining and supporting the movement; (2) the spatiality of this movement and the new narratives that emerge in the global context.
“Big Veganism” on the rise?
In 2021 Veganuary engaged 57 major companies to undertake the challenge in the workplaces, coinciding with the launch of more than 825 new vegan products and menu options in their key campaign countries. They also count with a significant media presence and capillarity: 224 million people were reached through Veganuary social media channels. Their work throughout the year focuses on promoting veganism by supporting people and businesses through partnerships with the corporate world, including restaurants, supermarkets, and food retailers, to move to a plant-based diet. The three central values behind the push for food consumption changes are (1) preventing animal suffering, (2) protecting the environment, and (3) improving the health of people.
Even though the expansion of the vegan movement has been celebrated, it has not come without critics. From one perspective, the engagement of more companies and the expansion of the products available in the market could be seen as making it easier for more people to join the movement. However, it also poses the critical question of how the movement is being transformed by having these new industry actors joining the cause.
According to Sexton et al. (2022), Big Veganism consists of the movement to turn vegan consumption and production mainstream:
“This model is grounded in the prevalent neoliberal politics of individual food choice and carnist food cultures, in which fetishized, often expensive products are marketed primarily to privileged audiences, that celebrate white ‘shredded’ bodies and the welfare of charismatic animals (Harper, 2012; Wright, 2015; Doyle, 2016).” (Sexton et al., p.2, 2022)
Vegan spatiality and the emergence of new global narratives
As more actors from the industry joined the movement, it raised questions about who would be the legitimate actors to lead the vegan cause forward. Still, according to the authors, the term “corporate veganism” has been criticized as erasing and neutralizing the anti-establishment aim of the movement. Ultimately, it questions if the vegan movement promotes a disruption in the current food system and, in this way represents a wider transformation, or if it just caters to the capitalist logic of opening new market opportunities to be explored, and in this way only reproducing new kinds of “greenwashing.” “These tensions are about who veganism is for, but they also raise questions about who is deemed to be a legitimate agent of change on behalf of the vegan cause, and at what scale.” (Sexton et al., p.6, 2022)
The six official country chapters of the organization, in the UK, US, Germany, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, are partnered with organizations that run additional Veganuary campaigns in Sweden, Italy, India, France, Switzerland, Singapore, Australia, and South Africa. The organization is, then, global in scope.
This year 629,351 people from 228 countries and territories took part in the challenge. This shows that more people engaged compared to the 2021 campaign when more than 582,000 people registered on the website.
Number of participants in the Veganuary Challenge (2014-2022); veganuary.com, chart done by the author
Even though veganism seems to have a pretty straightforward definition (as stated at the beginning of this post), the values behind it and the ways in which it is put into action are very context-oriented. The circulation of vegetarian-related ideas in the global context creates different “vegetarianisms” depending on the meanings involved in each cultural reality (Hase-Ueta, 2021). In this way, the communication and engagement strategies are a great challenge to the global expansion of the movement.
However, in opposition to the critique that vegan praxis focus more on the individual rather than the systemic level, the Veganuary challenge has been pushing for global expansion, and in this mission, it had also to craft new narratives that engage with different audiences and also invite people to get together and think about common issues that affect them, as I am going to describe below.
From interspecies relations to zoonotic securitization
The communication and engagement of the vegan movements with the broader public have been changing over recent years. From the cornerstone of animal welfare and animal liberation (Singer, 1973; Diamond, 1978), the movement has included new agendas.
The environmental agenda joins the cause as meat has been considered a resource-intensive product with high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and water footprints (WRI, 2016). Likewise, this is linked explicitly to other environmentally destructive processes like deforestation (Marques, 2019) and, in this way, is an unavoidable driver of climate change.
The Report on Sustainable Diets published by EAT-Lancet Commission (Willet, 2019) recognizes that a sustainable diet would count with low consumption of animal products. Vegan campaigns have been quick to incorporate sustainability issues as a central factor in consumers’ motivation and decision-making in the reduction and cessation of consumption of animal products.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, another issue has increasingly occupied the landscape in the debate on veganism and consumer attitudes to sustainable food transitions: the general fear of zoonotic diseases. This process has stoked particularly the way affective economies of fear, amplified by COVID-19, have been used in good and bad faith by security and securitizing actors, healthcare professionals, and governmental/NGOs, along with the “development industry” more generally.
The way(s) in which COVID-19 is seen in the popular imagination was constructed by a variety of strategies and tactics, and one of its many origin narratives suggests that it is linked to a zoonotic event. This opens up a broader field of how we come to conceive of zoonosis as a potential security threat and, crucially, two further questions: what can/must be done in order to mitigate these risks once they are established as threat images, and who does it fall to, in terms of recourse, jurisdictionally speaking, for example.
This also brings attention to the dangers in the meat industry and its risks of contamination. Since 2020 this issue has been increasingly part of the discussion, and vegan campaigns have been advocating that veganism would be a way of making food systems safer and more resilient against zoonotic risks, as it is possible to see in their 2021 statement:
“Industrial scale animal farming is a leading driver of climate change, deforestation and species loss, as well as being a significant cause of pollution. It drastically increases the risk of global pandemics and antibiotic resistance while being responsible for the deaths of billions of sentient animals each year. The current way we produce food is highly inefficient, unsustainable and won’t allow us to feed a growing global population. That is why we advocate for a change towards more plant-based alternatives and ultimately, a vegan world.” (Veganuary, 2021 – emphasis in bold is mine)
It is also possible to see this issue being brought about by people engaging and promoting the Veganuary campaign on their social media channels:
Veganuary is a challenge that invites us to not only re-think what we eat but also how we relate to the world through the food that we choose to have at our tables. At our tables, we can become aware of the global entanglements and inequalities that are part of the current food system and the tensions and potentialities that new actors bring to the movement. Finally, in the context of the pandemic, Veganuary also raised awareness of the securitization of food systems and the zoonotic threat of conventional meat production. In this way, going vegan could mean not only an individual consumer choice but a way to make food systems safer and more resilient.
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