November is World Vegan Month and this year marks 75 years since the foundation of the Vegan Society, things have changed immeasurably in that time.
The Vegan Society was founded in 1944 in the UK as an offshoot of the Vegetarian Society by vegan pioneer Donald Watson and friends, who saw the need to differentiate from not eating meat and not eating products from animals.
The term ‘vegan’ was coined because, according to Watson, it marked the beginning and the end of vegetarianism – taking the first and last two letters from the word vegetarian to form the new term ‘ve-gan’. That is, veganism is vegetarianism, taken to its logical conclusion.
“We can see quite plainly that our present civilization is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilisations were built on the exploitation of slaves.” – Donald Watson
For the decades the society struggled with a public perception of veganism as an extreme lifestyle. However, today you can say that Watson’s ideas have gone mainstream.
World Vegan Month started as World Vegan Day, the 1st of November chosen to coincide with Halloween and to help reinforce the movement as one that chooses life over death of animals for human consumption. With the success of the movement, the day was changed to a week until today we have a full calendar month devoted to the vegan lifestyle.
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Add to that global celebrities’ conversion to a plant-based diet and the lifestyle has become aspirational rather than cultish. Chefs like Alain Passard helped change the perception of vegetarianism and elevate it to a choice that is not only against the exploitation of animals but I also about a love of plant-based ingredients. Opposition to the vegan movement has almost always been predicated on a fact that humans have always eaten meat and that it’s a fundamental and important part of our evolution. That notion has also been challenged recently by scientists who now believe that humans were vegan for the majority of their existence.
Archaeologist Dr Richard Leakey says our prehistoric ancestors started off on a plant-based diet. “You can’t tear flesh by hand, you can’t tear hide by hand, and we wouldn’t have been able to deal with the food sources that required those large canines”.
The theory suggests that humans turned to eating meat out of necessity rather than choice. Even as recently as the Neolithic period, when humans were already farming, it is thought that meat was a very rare feasting food. Our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzee eats largely a plant-based diet, only rarely, if ever consuming meat. It would seem to substantiate the claim that plant-based digestion dictated 200,000 years of human gut evolution.
Humans are thought to have been more opportunistic meat consumers, scavengers who were able to prize the marrow from the bones of carrion using primitive tools. Some credit this protein-rich product directly with an evolutionary spike, an anomalous fact that saw the human brain double in size in just 2 million years.