I have a very good friend who doesn’t trust people who don’t eat meat or drink alcohol. Lucky for her, she’s moved to Dubbo, where she’s unlikely to run into any.
I, too, used to make jokes about vegetarians but, increasingly, as an animal-lover and someone who cares about the environment, I’m coming much more to the opinion that we need to examine the whole way we look at what we eat, both from a philosophical perspective and an environmental one.
It’s not as simple as meat=bad, vegetables= good, so to understand what veganism is all about I visited the editor of Vegan Voice, a quarterly independent magazine.
Sienna Blake has a voice that sings while speaking, the courage to put her words out to the world and a face straight out of a Botticelli painting.
Sienna is the founder and editor of Vegan Voice. Her partner Max Success is the photographer and “general dogsbody”. They publish the magazine from the office Max built from salvaged timber on their plot of a multiple occupancy outside of Nimbin.
“We wanted a classic-looking publication, with quality writing and pictures,” Sienna said. “Sharp, hip, and professional. It took us a while to get there, but we just turned ten and are feeling pretty proud.”
While vegans have a reputation for being overly earnest, serious and, well, dull, the magazine is anything but. It’s full of humour, wit, lovely writing and delicious-sounding recipes.
Sienna and Max were living in London, working in high-paying jobs and leading a very inner-city lifestyle. They had been meat and dairy eaters, although Sienna had been a vegetarian when she was a teenager. One summer something changed and they decided they wanted something more meaningful.
“We went to an ethical festival in Kensington and I picked up a copy of The Vegan, the magazine of the UK Vegan Society. I’d been searching for something, although I didn’t really know what and as soon as I read the magazine, it spoke to me and I knew I’d found the right path,” she said.
Max read the magazine a couple of days later.
“I had a sort of epiphany, I’d only been a vegetarian for a little while but then I wanted to go further,” Max said. “I hate hypocrisy.”
For those who don’t know, vegans only eat food that comes directly from plants. That means no animal products at all. No eggs, no dairy, no seafood, no meat, no honey.
Sienna serves me a plate of tabouleh, houmous and tempeh-tofu. It’s delicious and the three of us chat in a serene location next to a little pond on their property, where the loudest noise is the whirring of the dragonfly wings as they float above the water.
“We’ve been fed so many lies about what we should eat and what’s good for us,” Sienna said. “We’ve all been indoctrinated since birth.”
One of the aspects of veganism that comes in for criticism is that you need to take supplements because the human body simply can’t get everything it needs without animal products, something Sienna and Max dispute. The only supplement Sienna and Max take is B12.
“Not enough is understood about B12 yet,” Sienna said, “so it’s best to play it safe. You can get your protein from green, leafy vegetables and other plant foods. You don’t need a lot – Westerners eat way too much. People are told they need to eat meat to get protein but where do you think cows get their protein from? The same goes for calcium.”
“We’re always being asked about protein, so much so that there’s a joke. How many vegans does it take to change a lightbulb?” he asks me, and I shake my head in reply.
“Who knows and how’s your protein?”
Sienna and Max concede that veganism is pretty radical, and actually go further, saying that’s something they find attractive about it.
“People say veganism is extreme,” Sienna said. “But just take a look at the world – now that’s what I call extreme.”
“You’ll have fewer friends [if you go vegan],” Max said. “At first I used to go out for dinner with friends and watch them eat corpses but I wouldn’t do that now.
“People accuse us of preaching but we don’t really – it’s just that if you see something that’s wrong you should say something.”
Sienna nods and you can see the two of them have that easy communication that fortunate couples develop after being together for a long time.
“Go vegan – you’ll lose a couple of kilos, feel so much better about yourself and the planet, although you might become cynical,” she says. “We like laughing at the darker side of life – we find the world hilarious, although, as Max said in his last column, it’s sad too.”
In her most recent editorial Sienna articulated why she is prepared to cop the criticism for lecturing.
“Anyone who isn’t vegan simply doesn’t comprehend what we’ve done to nonhumans – sentient beings just like us. They don’t get the language, the sentiment, the horror. And it is a horror. For we have taken everything from them: their homes, their children, their land, their families, their dignity, their joy, their sanity, their liberty, and their lives. Try telling that to your average meat eater, and watch them glaze over.”
Veganism is becoming more common, although it’s a long way from the mainstream. Max tells me you can now get vegan cheese if you know where to look (in Fundies or Rainbow Wholefoods) and in an Asian specialty shop he visited on the Gold Coast he saw vegan products that purport to taste like meat.
Max has an energy that seems barely contained in his lean body. He’s almost constantly on the move and does all of the cooking. They serve a banana ‘cream’ pie for dessert that’s so scrumptious I have to control myself from eating three pieces.
“But vegans don’t have to eat meat analogues to get what they need,” Max says. “We call them ‘bridging foods’ – they’re good for the new vegan who needs something recognisable to cook with. A wholefood, peasant-style diet is best. Less processing, less packaging – better in all ways.”
“Ethical vegans [people who choose to be vegan for philosophy rather than for health reasons] tend to stick,” Sienna adds. “However it’s often lamented by single vegan women that perhaps three quarters of vegans are females.
“And there are now life vegans, we know people who were born vegan and are now 20.”
Max and Sienna are ethical vegans and Max tells me some stats that are unpalatable to me, as a meat-eater.
“99% of America’s farm animals are factory-farmed,” he says. [It’s slightly less in Australia.] “And what we do to them is very, very bad. Check out the movie Earthlings if you don’t believe me.”
Sienna points out that, as far as doing something that helps the planet, going vegan is a pretty good choice.
“New research suggests at least 51% of carbon emissions are from animal-farming industries but no-one in the mainstream media wants to mention that. We can’t wait for those in power to do something about it – politicians are followers, not leaders.
“People can buy a Prius or put solar panels on their roof but those things cost money. Going vegan is cheap and the best single thing you can do for the planet,” she says.
“I don’t think we have much time left to act – it might be that it’s already too late for the planet but still, we have to do something...
“We should be teaching our children ethics – imagine what sort of adults we’d get if we raised children to be compassionate and ethical to all beings. We wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.
“Of course, veganism isn’t the answer to all the world’s problems – one of the biggest problems facing the world is over-population.”
Sienna talks about veganism almost as if it’s a religion; albeit one that she’s explored with her heart, soul and head.
“Once you understand that humans are just another animal and animals are not just human property as we’ve been told, you don’t really have a choice,” she said.
“I think there are a lot of intelligent, ethical people out there, just ripe for conversation.”
Intelligent, ethical... Hmmm, that’s the rosy view I have of myself. The case Sienna and Max have just put to me about veganism is compelling. Every thing they’ve said to me makes sense: factory farming is horrible; the planet is in trouble; it is possible to eat tofu and like it. Oh God, am I turning? My mother will kill me (and my Dubbo friend will certainly never talk to me again, although it’s possible I could bribe them both with champagne and then have to live with the guilt of wine-miles from France).
I’m still not sure what my own decision will be; I don’t know that I have the self-discipline or necessary will to live in a world where cheese exists and I can’t enjoy the ripe deliciousness of it with a glass of nice white wine. Quite honestly, however I rationalise it, I’m probably too used to the luxury and indulgence of letting taste be my guide, so I may have to stew in the stockpot of my own hypocrisy. I am eating much less meat these days though and I’m seriously thinking about saying goodbye to it forever (the steaks are too high, although I’m not telling my friend from Dubbo that).
However I do believe it’s a debate that needs to happen.
Woolworths spends millions trying to convince us that it’s possible to get fresh food from supermarkets, while having a reputation for ripping off primary producers. McDonalds and the rest of the fast-food industry continues to indoctrinate the young through the cheap plastic and fatty food that will eventually clog up their lives and their arteries and the Australian government spends more millions supporting its vested interests in the meat industry (although it’s now undermining that by allowing cheap and even more ethically challenged beef imports).
It’s good to know there’s one voice out there putting an intelligent, courageous, passionate and articulate case for another point of view: Vegan Voice.
To have a look at or subscribe to Vegan Voice, visit the website http://veganic.net/