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Brighton VegFest – veganism has never been so popular. © https://sussexvegan.com

Is veganism the new normal?

With veganism on the rise, HOT sent along special correspondent Shelley Feldman – co-proprietor of the late lamented vegan cake shop 1066 Cake Stand – to check out the Brighton edition of VegFest, the UK’s biggest vegan festival.

In late March I attended the two-day Brighton Vegfest on its 10th anniversary. Held twice a year – the autumn event is in the Olympia venue in London – Vegfest is the UK’s largest celebration of all things vegan, a two-day extravaganza of food, entertainment, stalls, activism and lifestyle.

I took along three friends – another long-term vegan like myself, a more recent vegan (but life vegetarian), and a meat eater.

Along with the stalls promoting vegan food, including amazing chocolate, dairy-free cheese and locally produced gin, the festival offers talks and seminars covering activism and how to best represent and advocate for the vegan lifestyle. The most surprising piece of activism though, was a planned anti vegan protest featuring an anti-vegan activist eating a raw pig’s head. More of that later.

The first thing that strikes you about Vegfest is the size. These days it is housed in the Brighton Centre, a venue with space for 4,500 visitors. Every square inch of this space was used, with separate areas for performance and discussion, cookery demonstrations, vegan organic growing information, a kids’ space, health and mature zones, plus an activists’ hub and fitness zones. All this tells you that VegFest is not a niche event.

In the event the show attracted 7,100 visitors over the two days, in addition to the 700 exhibiting staff and workers, the organisers report.

VegFest attests to the growing popularity of veganism. 2018 was dubbed Year of the Vegan in the national media, and with an estimated 600,000 adherents in the UK, veganism may be the new normal (source Ipsos Mori survey, commissioned by The Vegan Society, 2018, and The Food & You surveys, organised by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the National Centre for Social Science Research).

Vegan goodies (photo: Sussex Vegan).

Vegan goodies (photo: Sussex Vegan).

Huge numbers

In Brighton there were certainly huge numbers of people queuing to get in, paying an average of £8 each for a day ticket. For years the main sponsor of the festival has been Yaoh, a company devoted to hemp based-products. This year they were joined by Encona, a chilli sauce company whose products can be found in major supermarkets. What is interesting about Encona is that it is by no means a vegan business – a visit to their website reveals all manner of meat-based recipes. Encona, then, have decided there is a ‘vegan pound,’ and that there is a business case to try to exploit it.

Perhaps the popularity of Vegfest in an ‘alternative’ city like Brighton is to be expected, but Vegfest also packs out London Olympia, and there are plenty of other vegan food and lifestyle events across the country. A visit to the vegan societies’ what’s-on pages shows there are events across the country, from Harlow in Essex to Edinburgh, via Bridlington and Newcastle.

Veganism as a market has certainly grown. In the old days of the 1960s a good friend told me that her parents could only buy soya milk on prescription from the chemist. When we talked, in the 1990s, she thought she had it made, because the local co-op sold an own brand soya milk that she could buy even in her small Essex town.

stalls downstairs 350Fastforward to 2019 and at Vegfest, and plenty of other places, you will find an array of plant-based milks to go in your soyachino or oatmilk latte.

Wandering around Vegfest, though, it soon became clear that, although food is important (very important), it’s far from being the only area of interest.

One of the stallholders I spoke to at length was Marc of VeggiePets, an online shop selling vegan cat and dog food and associated products like biodegradable poop bags, herbal shampoos and chews. VeggiePets has been running since 2003 and boasts the widest selection of vegan cat and dog food in Europe.

We spoke about the potentially contentious nature of selling vegan cat and dog food. When people discover you are vegan, there are often two killer points that they insist on sharing:

  • They once knew a vegan who looked super unhealthy
  • It’s not okay to impose your veganism on children or animals.

No cats killed

Telling people, over a glass of wine, that you feed your cat vegan food is not going to win you any friends, but it is something Marc deals with on a regular basis. He pointed out that he has been selling vegan cat food for 16 years. In that time he has actually sold more cat food than dog food, and, as he said, in our social media age, “If, during that time I had killed even one cat, people would know about it”. I think he makes a good point.

He also told me that taurine (the thingy that makes cats ‘obligatory carnivores’) is added to pretty much all meat-based cat food – presumably because it’s not good enough quality on its own to be sold as a complete food without it. Also, he said, this manufactured taurine is completely vegan. Realistically, he added, the idea that the highly processed bits of meat that go into cat and dog food in any way matches what they might eat in the wild is a bit crazy. Cats can be vicious, but they are unlikely to attack, kill and rip open a cow with even the sharpest claws.

While wandering about, the meat-eater with us stopped and had a long chat with Sea Shepherds, a radical activist organisation who take to the seas to protect habitats and species from over fishing.

Afterwards I asked the meat-eater how he felt about what he had heard, and if he felt pressured by listening to such extreme animal rights types. He said no, he had found it really interesting and that the spokesperson had explained everything in a really clear and fair way.

Cookery class (photo: Sussex Vegan).

Cookery class (photo: Sussex Vegan).

He said the part that he found most interesting was that Sea Shepherds are actually invited into some countries by governments who want to protect their own waters and shorelines against illegal over-fishing so that native, non invasive fishing can continue to feed local communities.

He said he was surprised that such a radical seeming group would be prepared to condone any kind of fishing, and it was food for thought. He said he had had an interesting day, and, though he had no plans to change his lifestyle, was quite happy to listen to other ideas and ways of living.

Leaving VegFest for the day our group saw around 30 people on the pavement outside the Brighton Centre, several with animal rights t-shirts and hoodies, or holding small placards. There were also a couple of police officers speaking with the crowd.

Pig-headed

It seemed a bit extreme to have police for what looked like a very small protest, and we went closer to take a photo. The photographer came back looking quite uncomfortable and informed us that they had a pig’s head. None of us wanted to take a second look, and there was no chance to ask the protesters about their tactics. We left, confused and discussing what felt like a really strange happening.

Assuming it was a piece of radical vegan activism we discussed whether it was an effective tactic to get people to really think and make the connection between the ‘meat on their plate’ and the reality of a dead animal that had once lived and had the capacity for pain, pleasure and social interaction.

Overall, despite our different backgrounds, we none of us felt it was an effective protest. Perhaps meat eaters who don’t want to think about this reality can be open to the charge of inconsistency, but shocking and upsetting people is rarely the way to open a dialogue, and can instead be a good way of building barriers, anger and resentment, not what I would call moral behaviour. Plus, it was a pig’s head, so had the scope to offend two major religious groups. Pig meat is not halal and it is certainly not kosher! Even if the protesters didn’t think that was important, again, it didn’t seem that as a tactic it could be especially effective either.

Milling around at the anti-vegan protest.

Milling around at the anti-vegan protest.

Only later did we discover that it was in fact an anti vegan protest. Although the police had been expecting around 30 protesters, in the event only three turned up, including a well-known anti vegan activist and YouTuber Sv3rige [sic], who has traveled all over the world pulling the same stunt.

His message – based, he says, on his own experience – is that eating a vegan diet is unhealthy. Perhaps he needed some lessons in how to eat vegan, as all the vegans I know, including myself, enjoy normal levels of health. And anyway it is hard to imagine why eating raw meat might persuade a vegan to give it up, making it seem more like an attack than a protest, and maybe even a hate crime!

And eating raw pig meat is actually a pretty dangerous stunt, leaving the consumer at risk of tapeworm and infection which can be fatal. Not a great advert for the healthfulness of a meat-based diet.

“We knew about the planned protest and were expecting 30 protesters,” said Tim Barford, the VegfestUK founder and manager. “Three turned up, which was slightly sad for them and reminiscent of a Nigel Farage march…they proceeded to upset kids and members of the public, and with that in mind, the police arrived, gave them a warning and sent them packing. What was interesting was that we had meat-eating members of the public saying that this revolting spectacle had encouraged them to give up eating meat – so it seems the anti vegan protest actually encouraged people to go vegan.”

So, is veganism the new normal? There is still a way to go, but when Greggs the bakers are saying that their new vegan sausage roll is their biggest seller, and people are taking the trouble to protest against us, it does kind of feel like we have arrived!

VegfestUK will be taking a break from Brighton in 2020, with plans for a possible return in 2021, the organisers say. In the meantime, the focus will be on two upcoming events at Olympia, namely VegfestUK London on 26 and 27 October and the brand-new Plant Powered Expo on 1 and 2 February 2020.

For more information visit: sussexvegan.com

 

Posted 16:08 Monday, Apr 8, 2019 In: Lifestyle

5 Comments

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  1. Ms.Doubtfire

    Kim Stallwood needs to be very careful in his recommendations – cats should never be fed a vegan diet and can fall seriously ill if fed this diet. Cats are carnivores and require a meat or fish based diet. The RSPCA have warned pet owners that they could face prosecution if they feed their cats this inappropriate diet. The horrendous outbreak of mad cow disease was caused by feeding vegatrian cattle animal based foodstuffs. So before you make these statements promoting veganism read up on it first.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Thursday, Apr 18, 2019 @ 09:15

  2. Kim Stallwood

    Thank you, Shelley, for a great article about the Brighton Vegfest. Veganism is clearly getting the attention that it deserves. And not before time! I have been a vegan since 1976 after working in a chicken slaughterhouse. There’s no excuse not to be vegan. Everyone benefits when living as a vegan. Veganism is good for people’s health (people suffering with B12 are more likely to be meat, egg and dairy eaters than not). It’s good for the planet because the animal industrial complex is a major source of pollution and contributor to climate change. And, of course, being vegan is good for the animals. If anyone is concerned with pulling lettuces out of the ground, well, they should be vegan because the amount of crops grown and eaten by vegans is considerably less than those who eat meat, eggs, and dairy. Animal foods are grossly inefficient in converting plants into animal flesh and byproducts. I don’t find being a vegan all these years to be restrictive particularly now as there is growing market in vegan products in supermarkets and meals in restaurants. At the end of the day, I don’t want to eat someone who started out with a face at one end and shits and pisses at the other. What’s not to like about being vegan?!

    Comment by Kim Stallwood — Monday, Apr 15, 2019 @ 10:24

  3. Ms.Doubtfire

    The RSPCA and some vets have said it is NOT OK to feed your cat or dog with vegan food. And I assume they have good reason for this. Whilst I wish I could give up all meat products, and am trying hard to reach that goal, there is no way I would want to compromise my pets health by feeding them vegan food. Their diets are pretty much limited to meat or fish – they do not have the choices we have simply because they wouldn’t eat much of what we eat anyway. So vegan for pets? Sorry, Not in my house.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Sunday, Apr 14, 2019 @ 19:43

  4. Bolshie

    I have been a vegetarian for 55 years back in the early days when it was really tough being one and you got a lot of flack. Now with this sudden wave of people going Vegan, I do have to wonder how long it will last.

    And how long will those who chose to become Vegans will last. I really think a vast majority in months or a year or two will give up. It all looks to much of a Trendy thing to me have been a Vegetarian for five decades.

    Comment by Bolshie — Sunday, Apr 14, 2019 @ 16:02

  5. A non vegan

    I read your long article about the Brighton VegFest with interest. Pleased to know it was well attended with many stallholders. As a pescatarian, I visited the Eastbourne VegFest and was greatly disappointed. Not a lot of stalls, very little variety, and nobody to talk with about the benefits of veganism. During the short speech there by Linda McCartney, who brought a trailer to sell cooked food, she gave no details about her current ranges, nor samples, and indeed agreed that vegans often have to take vitamin B12 and Omega 3 supplements as they’re missing from a vegan diet.
    Veganism is a lifestyle rather than a diet; one that I find very restricting, whereas there are plenty of other ways to save the planet – I grow all my own veg for example. I study nutrition and eat a balanced diet – and I appreciate that by eating fish I may be eating tiny bits of plastic; it’s a considered choice.
    My attitude is purely that: eat what’s good nutritionally, and meat is not; I haven’t eaten meat for years. A lot of vegans have the ‘I can’t eat anything with eyes’ attitude. I feel sad always at pulling up a lettuce from my garden – it’s still a living growing thing, same as animals. It is a difficult choice to make; I’m happy with mine having studied the alternatives.

    Comment by A non vegan — Wednesday, Apr 10, 2019 @ 22:40

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