Going vegan? An opportunity to re-think at the table

By Mariana Hase Ueta

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:

Source: Twitter


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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DIAMOND, Cora. Eating meat and eating people. Philosophy, v. 53, n. 206, p. 465-479, 1978.

HASE-UETA, Mariana. O sabor da prosperidade: diálogos intergeracionais sobre consumo alimentar e impacto ambiental na China e no Brasil. PhD thesis. UNICAMP, Campinas, 2021.

MARQUES, L. Abandonar a carne ou a esperança. Jornal da UNICAMP, Campinas, SP, 10/07/2019. Disponível em: encurtador.com.br/uEUWX. Last accessed: 19 July 2019.

MENSINK, G.; BARBOSA, C.; BRETTSCHNEIDER, A. Prevalence of persons following a vegetarian diet in Germany. Journal of Health Monitoring. 2016 1(2) DOI 10.17886/RKI-GBE-2016-039

MORITZ, J.; TUOMISTO, H.; RYYNÄNEN, T. The transformative innovation potential of cellular agriculture: Political and policy stakeholders’ perceptions of cultured meat in Germany, Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 89, 2022, Pages 54-65,

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SEXTON, Alexandra E.; GARNETT, Tara; LORIMER, Jamie. Vegan food geographies and the rise of Big Veganism. Progress in Human Geography, v. 46, n. 2, p. 605-628, 2022.

SINGER, P. Animal liberation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1973.

Veganuary Campaign Reports. Veganuary, 2022. Last accessed: 07 February 2022, <https://veganuary.com/>

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WEINRICH, R., STRACK, M., NEUGEBAUER, F., 2020. Consumer acceptance of cultured meat in Germany. Meat Sci. 162, 107924. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meatsci.2019.107924.

WILLETT, W. et al. Food in the anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet, London, v. 393, n. 10170, p. 447-492, 2019. 

WRI – WORLD RESOURCE INSTITUTE. Animal-based foods are more resource-intensive than plant-based foods. Washington, DC, 2016. Disponível em: encurtador.com.br/dwDKW. Last accessed: 19 July 2019.

Real, Synthetic, Imagined: Alternative protein sources and visual abjection in popular cinema

By Patrick Weir

In the context of our project “Protein Matters”, I want to look at two films which imagine distinctly dystopian futures: Blade Runner 2049, set in a dystopian future of resource scarcity and a slave class of android “replicant” humans; and The Matrix, a science fiction action film from 1999. In this post, I want to examine how protein fits into these films’ imaginaries. This is to say, how it is produced, consumed and most importantly visualised. I am particularly concerned here with what Julia Kristeva conceptualised as abjection and the abject, and how these concepts can be used to understand protein futures.

Cinema offers an important, yet underdeveloped idea on food futures: that of the aesthetic. How food looks is often as important as how it smells or tastes. Putting these cinematic representations in conversation with Kristeva’s articulation of the abject in her book Powers of Horror, we find the heart of a problem for food scientists and sustainability experts pushing for dietary transitions. Replicability, in terms of protein, needs to be nutritional, sustainable (in economic and environmental terms) but also requires affective and intangible aesthetic qualities which vary across countries, cultures and individuals.

Lily and Lana Wachowski’s 1999 film The Matrix shows us a dystopian future where humans are at war with machines. These have created what humans experience as reality. Yet, reality is in fact a computer program, designed to keep humans docile, plugged in to vats and “grown” as an energy source. A scene shows the characters “freed” from The Matrix in a banal, semi military mess hall setting, eating breakfast.  This breakfast is shown in close up (image 1.)


It’s a single-celled protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals. Everything your body needs. We grow it in a vat.”

(Wachowski, L., & Wachowski, L. (1999). The Matrix. Warner Bros.)

It is precisely the kind of artificial or hybrid nutrition, which exist now as supplements but increasingly we start to see sold as “one stop” type nutritional powders: products such as Huel, Y-Food, and Complete 360 meal.

Image 1. The Matrix, Dir. Wachowski L & Wachowski L, 1999

The issue of aesthetics is fundamentally problematised in The Matrix’s proteome foodstuff which could equally be said to resemble porridge. It is visually unappetising and could just as easily resemble vomit or a similar bodily fluid. “Food loathing,”- Kristeva tells us- “is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection” (Kristeva, 1981: 2). Such bodily substances are the response (a reactive production of a substance associated with disgust; vomit) to our (threatened) loss of distinction between subject and object (or being and not-being, self and other, life and death). 

This concern is also relevant to the huge market in fitness products for high protein supplements which has seen them expand in type to also be produced and sold as literal “food substitutes”.  These supplements turned substitutes are almost all sold in the form of dehydrated powders to which one must add water or milk, resulting in a liquid food replacement.  

This shows that what is frequently ignored when we consider these supplements or replacements is the issue of aesthetics, or appearance. What do these synthetic substitutes look like? This is a question not only of philosophy but also consumerism/marketing of alternative proteins. It is true that these are two dystopian science fiction films and unsurprising that their protein alternatives appear as they do. I believe this highlights the issues in question though, rather than detracting from it.

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is set in a future where there exists a differentiation between humans and a slave class of replicants/synthetics. These are indistinguishable from humans, without technological devices to check this, and hence are able to attempt escape and live lives amongst humans. The film suggests that this flaw is limited to older models and has been corrected in the newer generations. However, due to this indistinguishable appearance and their experiences as slaves, they must be firmly kept as controllable, in the category of the non-human.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017 dir. Denis Villeneuve)

The film’s opening sequence features a character, Sapper Morton, who is one such AWOL replicant. His now free life is that of an apparently peaceful borderline hermit, living in an irradiated landscape as a “protein farmer”. This farm consists of a basic, smallholding complex (Image 2.). Within this he grows a synthetic “crop”, a worm-like grub, which he shows to another character as he describes the farming process.


This is a protein farm. Wallace design.

Sapper fishes a clod off his boot and pulls off a single wriggling WORM

Sapper (cont’d)

It only takes the one to start. Parthenogenic Strain. Constant doubling. They’ll fill as much dirt as you can get wet.”

(KOSOVE, A. A., et al. (2018). Blade Runner 2049.)

The visual economy of the film and the place of the protein-worm within it implies some catastrophic climatic event which has rendered the earth, or vast swathes of it, unviable for cultivation of human crops, and water to irrigate them with. The insect-like, synthetic protein is, again, shown to the audience, without commentary as to the antecedent events which have rendered it necessary.

If synthesis in this manner offers a way out of dietary and food supply drivers of the ecological crisis, then the protein imaginary in Blade Runner 2049 is visually less appealing than that of the Matrix. More concerningly, the image of the protein-worm is taken negatively to represent technology being used to survive, not prevent the disaster.  I will return to the notion of insect consumption as a potential protein replacement later, as while it is represented ex negativo in the film, this is just one fictional interpretation of it.

Food consumption is a deeply embedded, complex practice in many cultures, even if it appears simple for example in Western industrial meat production and consumption supply chains. The idea that one can solve a problem by simply “swapping out” one constituent part of the industry and replace it with another (i.e. swap out animal meat/protein, swap in alternative, synthetic protein) is not as simple as it seems. 

To get humans to accept any such shift in their protein consumption away from whatever previous staples such as meat and pork, fish, shellfish, and other animal-based foods, either to a plant based or entirely synthetic alternative, we face not just production and scale problems, but profound aesthetic and cultural ones too. I hope the vignettes in these films have demonstrated, that for many, and considering the timeframes we are working with, the shift away from animal based protein consumption would seem to be only acceptable to consumers, if the replacement is, as far as possible, created in the image of the creatures they are replacing.

This, as we know, barely kicks the can down the road. For those on, or moving towards vegetable/plant-based diets, their protein must come from somewhere. Overarching all of this is the problem these cinematic texts outline: That any ideas around food substitution/dietary shifts must by necessity (under our current paradigm anyway, one which I believe is part of the problem) follow a kind of Anthropocentrism. The Matrix and Blade Runner both demonstrate this clearly: Humans have an idea of what protein looks like; and what it tastes like. It is important to mention that this is not a world of absolutes. They have an ideal of what protein looks and tastes like. And this ideal is represented in negativo in movies scene as mentioned before. Humans seem to have established a contemporary spectrum of what is acceptable as a protein alternative to their ideal. This idea of ideal types and the gap between world and object is responsible for this world where insects fall into the category of the inedible, the disgusting, the abject.

Take this example for instance: During the colonisation of the New World many prisoners were deported from Europe, particularly around present day New England and Maine. Colonial prison regimes, while harsh, held to a common belief at the time: that the feeding of lobster to prisoners was forbidden, on the grounds that it constituted a cruel and unusual punishment, as the creature was being considered so repellent, and outside the idea of “food” at the time, as to be unfit for feeding to those, even on the lowest societal rungs.

Lobster today is considered a costly delicacy rather than an insectoid-like, abject “non-food. Does this give a glimpse of possibility into how an affective element required in a broader consumption shift might work for protein futures?  Insects, have been touted for some time now as protein rich replacements for their “higher” animal counterparts. This raises few to no cultural issues in some parts of the world where insects either form a regular constituent of the diet or an increase of this by necessity would not pose problems.

In cultures where insects have not been part of food and dietary cultures, either due to aesthetic considerations but also simply because of a lack of sufficiently nutritious species in them in the environment to make this feasible, such a shift would be more problematic.  Proposing insects in cultures unfamiliar with them now as a protein rich food could hope to meet scepticism, and often disgust.

Any need in the future to shift from one animal protein to another will have to overcome several obstacles. It will need to fill the economic, social and cultural space currently occupied in food consumption by animal protein, ideally at similar or lower cost and certainly with a lower environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. It will also require a reduction in other damaging environmental processes of the current agrilogistic models of land use, in both meat and plant based protein production. Finally, and this is far from a consensus, any future shift would require the replacement protein to address, possibly on a culture by culture basis, its aesthetic appearance vis e vis existing protein consumption imaginaries. In popular cultural imaginaries of the future (often found in cinema, literature and television), I believe we can find useful resources with which to address these questions.

Dr. Patrick Weir

Postdoctoral Researcher,

Protein Matters


Dr. Frank I. Müller

I am a human geographer who focuses on urban geography.

I am an urban geographer and a Research fellow in the EU’s Marie Sklodowska Curie Program, on a project titled: Weaponizing Social Housing in Rio de Janeiro and Medellín.  My research focuses on housing and securitization in urban Latin America and beyond.  I explore emerging forms of governability in the urban peripheries of Medellin and Rio de Janerio.  While my project is located at the  University of Amsterdam, I am Visiting Scholar in the Weatherhead Scholars Program at Harvard University, from 2021-23.

At Protein Matters, I am Co-PI, Supervising and coordinating the individual research projects, taking a specific interest in the securitization of global food protein production chains.

A research project that looks into the geographies of food industries and takes a specific interest in understanding how these link to the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases. Protein Matters is funded by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung.

Zoonoses – diseases that originate from animals and spread to human populations, such as rabies, SARS, or borreliosis – are usually considered to being a health problem (Corona is just the youngest candidate). However, they have also become a complex governmental and security issue. Travel restrictions, increased state surveillance and intensified policing activities are proof of this move to “securitize” zoonotic threats within today’s globalized world.

Zoonoses are a matter of security in other ways: Throughout human history, societies needed to organize sufficient and healthy nutrition for their members, and governments have thus been responsible for guaranteeing food security, e.g. by introducing quality standards or regulating prices. With increasing population density, food security does not only mean to provide enough food for everyone. The problem lies in the close proximity of humans and livestock in parts of the meat production chains, which increases the risk of spreading diseases across the globe.

The supply of protein matters with growing mass production of meat as one important driver of nutritional health, yet also of novel viruses, ever changing bacteria and of climate change. Given an increasing public awareness of alternative and economically feasible supply chains based on non-animal dietary protein, the implementation of regulatory frameworks for alternative proteins is a key strategy to reduce risks of food-production-borne pathogens.

The USA and the EU represent geopolitical powers with influential positions regarding the scalability of industrialized animal agriculture and dietary protein production that have spread around the globe. Therefore, we are specifically interested in the governmental strategies that are deployed in the EU and the USA to legitimize and create public support for containment policies and regulations. Based on an analysis of past and current outbreaks of zoonotic epidemics and their impacts on protein supply chains in the EU and the USA, we explore the communication strategies, industrial innovations, private sector cooperations and lobbies that drive public awareness for the link between agroindustry and zoonoses.