Modern fad or bloodless revolution? I look at the surprising history of vegetarianism, veganism and the compassionate diet in the West.

            Veganism is defined by The Vegan Society as ‘a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.’ Those adhering to the lifestyle seek to exclude all animal products, including meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey. They also refuse to condone products such as leather and any tested on animals. Similarly, vegetarians do not consume meat or fish and they may also reject other by-products of slaughter. On today’s social media, new platforms of communication have enabled more people than ever before to connect with these lifestyles; on Instagram alone, #WhatVegansEat, which promotes an awareness of the variety one can find in a vegan diet, has over three million, five hundred posts. Amazed by this, I started to wonder what it was like to be vegetarian or vegan pre-Instagram, and where it all began.

            A quick Google search later and I was overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of results. One of the most comprehensive resources I saw was BiteSizeVegan’s three part YouTube series on the history of veganism. Each video is approximately half an hour in length and presented in a very relaxed, entertaining manner. I’ve embedded a link to the first episode below for you to enjoy. Food historian and journalist Stephanie Butler also makes some very interesting points in her article ‘Beans and Greens: The History of Vegetarianism’ for History. She begins by discussing vegetarianism in Ancient Greece, made famous by the philosopher Pythagoras.  Indeed, Butler notes that ‘a meatless diet was referred to as a “Pythagorean Diet” for years, up until the modern vegetarian movement began in the mid-1800s.’ She goes on to note, however, that while Pythagoras may have been an early proponent of the meat-free diet, humans have been vegetarians ‘since well before recorded history.’ Most anthropologists, she argues, agree that early humans would have eaten a predominantly plant-based diet because, after all, ‘plants can’t run away.’ Butler also points to evidence in our digestive systems which resemble those of herbivores closer than carnivorous animals. She says that, yes, ‘Prehistoric man ate meat, of course, but plants formed the basis of his diet.’

Furthermore, Butler also comments upon one of the key differences between the occasionally meatless Prehistoric diet and the “Pythagorean Diet”; that is to say that Pythagoras and many of his followers practiced vegetarianism for several reasons, mainly due to religious and ethical objections, in contrast to Prehistoric man. ‘Pythagoras believed all living beings had souls,’ writes Butler, ‘Animals were no exception, so meat and fish were banished from his table.’

Creator of the ‘Pythagorean Diet’ and key influence on many following generations.

A strange side note mentioned by Butler is that Pythagoras also banished the bean from his table, as he believed that beans and humans were made from the same material… However, after his death, ‘the edict against beans was lifted,’ and his followers continued to eat a meatless diet. Butler writes that the principles of Pythagoras influenced generations of academics and religious thinkers, including the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who became a vegetarian in 1812. ‘It was a group of these like-minded individuals’ suggests Butler, ‘who founded the Vegetarian Society in England in the mid-1800s.’

As some of the first vegetarians to be known as such, their ideals of vegetarianism were closely linked to the virtues of temperance, abstinence and self-control. They saw lust, drunkenness and ‘general hooliganism’ as the result of a diet too rich in meat products. Butler lists notable early vegetarians as Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi and Amos Bronson Alcott, a reformer and father of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott.

20th November, 1931. The autumnal social meeting of London Vegetarian Society at Chelsea Town Hall, featuring Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Henry S. Salt.

Butler asserts, however, that ‘it was not until the 1960s that vegetarianism moved into the mainstream.’ Following this, the movement picked up momentum in the 1970s when Francis Moore Lappe wrote her book Diet For a Small Planet. In it, she advocates a meatless diet not just for ethical or moral reasons, but because ‘plant-based foods have much less impact on the environment than meat does.’ Lappe is considered ground-breaking by many vegetarians and vegans today who refuse to eat animal products due to environmental anxieties. A list of some of these anxieties may be found here.

During the 1980s and 1990s, it has been suggested that vegetarianism was given a major impetus as the disastrous impact humanity was having upon the planet became increasingly apparent. The Vegetarian Society, in the History section of their website, notes that ‘environmental issues dominated the headlines and were for a time foregrounded in politics.’ Many began to see vegetarianism and veganism as part of the process of change and conservation of resources; sentiments which were strengthened by the outbreak of ‘Mad Cow Disease’ and cases of meat products infected with Lysteria and Salmonella. ‘Consequently’, they suggest, ‘consumption of meat has plummeted, as many in the West have turned to Vegetarianism as a safe and healthy alternative.’

And, as the millions of people posting under #WhatVegansEat demonstrate, another major draw factor is that a compassionate diet can also be incredibly versatile, guilt-free and delicious.

For more information about vegetarianism and veganism at The University of Winchester, and some delicious meat-free recipes, why not visit the VegSoc Facebook page.

Alternatively, visit The Vegan Society or The Vegetarian Society for more information on compassionate eating in the wider world. If you’re new to all of this, but want to do your bit for the environment, or to improve your health, the Meat Free Monday campaign is a great place to begin your journey.

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