With cows burping up CO2 and the cost of meat rising by the minute, maybe November is the ideal time to try veganism in time for National Vegan Month. Our cheeseburger-loving writer gets inspired by Natalie Portman and Joaquin Phoenix and gives the vegan lifestyle a go.
By Kate Hodal It was every cheeseburger-lover's worst nightmare: a self-inflicted dare to "go vegan" for the month of November. I envisioned my sausage and bacon-laden Sunday breakfasts replaced with curdled bits of tofu, my weekly shop turned into tortuous voyages down aisles of boring-looking, sterile vegan foods, and I wondered how long I could hang on. The future, by no real stretch of the imagination, looked bleak.
Having once gone veggie and bored myself to death with chickpea stews and Quorn scrambles, the notion of eliminating even more foodstuffs from my reasonably varied diet frightened the hell out of me.
Vegans don't just cut out meat, seafood and poultry from their diet, they actively avoid products that are made by or from animals like eggs, cheese, yoghurt, honey, fur, leather, wool, and silk. And other, less common animal by-products like gelatin (in film, sweets and cosmetics), lanolin (in wax and shoe polish), beeswax and a whole host of other things have to be shunned too.
I felt sure that I could go for a while without meat - but how would I cope without feta or mozzarella cheese? Without honey in my tea? Avoiding eggs in pasta and bread? I looked up some recipes for a vegan breakfast, swallowed my last bit of chicken salad dinner, and prepared myself for the gruelling times ahead.
:: UNDERSTANDING VEGANISM "There are three main reasons for going vegan," says Kelly Slade of Animal Aid, a charity in support of Vegan Month, after I ask her why I'm eating an untasty vegan breakfast of beans on egg-free bread.
"Going vegan is better for the animals, your health and the environment," she says.
"It's one action that you can take that will reduce your impact on all three."
According to Slade, one billion farmed animals are killed every year in the UK alone, the vast majority of which are reared in factory farms, where they are crowded together under dubious living conditions.
"Most of them are in sheds and never see the light of day, they don't have straw to lie on, and they're fed a large amount of drugs to keep them healthy," she says.
Dairy cows are forced through a continual cycle of pregnancies to keep them lactating (resulting in udders so heavy that their legs can't support their weight), whereas egg-laying hens have been selectively bred to lay up to 300 eggs a year (10 times more than natural) and are killed at 72 weeks to be turned into cheap meat products.
Worst yet, buying organic, free-range or freedom food products doesn't actually guarantee the animals are treated any differently, says Slade.
"Organic just means the animals aren't fed any drugs and that the food they eat is organic," she says.
"Free-range means they might have more room, but the chickens for example are still selectively bred for high meat yield and can become lame. And they're still killed in the same slaughterhouses under the same conditions - we even have footage from an RSPCA farm with freedom food chickens half-dead and their legs dislocated."
Wendy Valentine, who started Hillside Animal Sanctuary in 1995, has been behind many such investigations - her farm is now home to nearly 1,000 rescued farm animals.
"We've found men beating turkeys with baseball bats just for fun and pigs starving to death in their own excrement in conventional farms just down the road," she says.
"It's so much more horrendous than I ever thought."
:: HEALTHY REASONING Slade and Valentine have both been vegans for ages, both citing "animal welfare" as the main reason behind their switch.
But going vegan for health reasons makes a lot of sense too, as "people who consume a plant-based diet tend to live longer than meat eaters and are less prone to diabetes, cancers, heart disease and obesity", Slade explains.
While most non-vegans question the no-dairy rule in veganism, citing weak bones and osteoporosis as a reason to keep eating cheese and drinking milk, scientific research has shown that it is actually too much protein that leaches calcium from the bones and contributes to weak bones and osteoporosis.
And in countries whose populations eat low-protein diets, lower rates of osteoporosis and hip fractures are reported.
Vegans' low-saturated fat, high-fibre diet based on wholegrains, pulses, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts means there are fewer questions over how many antibiotics, hormones and GM foodstuffs you're putting in your body as a result of eating meat. Most milk contains traces of blood and pus from the relentless milking that dairy cows go through. Is that a reason enough to switch to soy milk? For me, quite possibly.
:: THINKING GLOBALLY There's also the big question over how much land should be devoted to animal farming - and how much should be used for crops to feed humans.
"Farmed animals outnumber humans four to one in the world," says Ros Raha of the Vegan Society, "which means that there are fewer crops to feed to humans, which means that people are going hungry for nothing."
Animal farming is responsible for around 20% of the world's greenhouse gases, according to the FAO, whereas a vegan diet requires half the amount of land used to produce a typical vegetarian diet, and one-fifth of that used for a typical European veg-and-meat diet.
Land degradation, rainforest deforestation and water pollution are also rampant with a meaty diet: according to the Vegan Society, it takes only 1,000 litres of water to grow one kilo of wheat, yet 11,000 litres to produce just one quarter-pound beef burger.
I guess that's my coveted cheeseburger out then - but what about my love of cheese and honey? As I search for the perfect, animal cruelty-free products, I'll also be experimenting with my newfound veganism.
Be forewarned though that a few of the recipes on Vegan Month's website [www.veganmonth.com] are a bit less than inspiring - although they do depend a lot on an amazing array of spices, curries and tagines - so here's one that a friend and I spiced up a bit and which was, actually, delicious.
:: MOROCCAN CHICK PEAS AND SAFFRON RICE (from www.veganmonth.com) Serves 4 1/4tsp paprika 1/4tsp cayenne paper 1/4tsp ground ginger (or half a thumb's length of finely grated fresh ginger) 1/4tsp cumin seeds (crushed) (or 1/4tsp turmeric) 1 cinnamon stick 1 onion (peeled and finely chopped) 1 tin tomatoes 1 aubergine (diced) 2 carrots 2 tins of chick peas handful of fresh coriander (chopped) handful of fresh mint (chopped) 150ml water Boil 350g Basmati rice (or couscous) with a pinch of saffron (or turmeric) until rice is tender.
In a frying pan, heat some oil with the spices and cinnamon and fry for three or four minutes. Add the onion and cook for another five minutes.
Add the tin of tomatoes (without the liquid), aubergine, chick peas and carrots. Throw in the coriander and mint, add the water and simmer for 15 minutes.
Season and serve with the rice or couscous.