Why I’m Not Vegan - by Tanita de Ruijt

Tanita de Ruijt is a chef and cookbook author. Her most recent book, Super Roots, is out now!

Having worked within the wellness industry, launching new health products that have shaped industry trends and supermarket shelves for half a decade, most would assume that I’m vegetarian or vegan. I am, however, neither. 

Being a health-oriented cook that is not vegan causes a lot of confusion, and a lot of frustration on my part. As a result, I no longer identify myself with the health industry. Its food and its fads do not excite me. Nor am I interested in profiting from insecurities, allergies, or global environmental issues. So I quit my job to become a chef. 

Instead, I am consumed with bettering our entire food industry- understanding the impact that farming avocados and almonds, as well as beef and dairy, has on our planet and us. What excites me is food that promotes health, tradition and culture. I do not wish to live in a world without raw cheese or wine. 

I want to mention that I fully respect the ethical reasons for not eating or farming animals. I also want us to acknowledge and respect that this choice is a privilege. The majority of people in developing countries still rely on meat, poultry, fish and eggs as a means of survival today. 

Euphemistically put, one could argue that veganism is booming because it feeds on the millennial determination to have purpose and compassion. It fulfils every aspiring influencers all-encompassing and very much public need to save the planet. It ensures we can take the moral high ground, and look great while doing it. 

To me, what the rise of veganism actually demonstrates is a warranted reaction to industrial farming, and a complete detachment from our history and evolution as people. Agriculture by definition is the cultivation of land and the breeding of animals to provide food, fibre, medicinal plants and other products to sustain and enhance life. In the agricultural age, the development of food and agriculture focused on maximising food production and necessitated the creation of ways to preserve harvested foods. 

Animals are an essential component when it comes to the cultivation of land and maximising food production sustainably. Traditional grass-based animal farms that keep their animals outdoors on pasture use very little machinery, and therefore create very little amounts of CO2 emissions. 

Animals farmed in this way also provide manure to help maintain soil fertility. This eliminates the need for man-made fertilisers and its industry entirely. Most of the nitrous oxide emissions produced by today’s agriculture are from man-made fertilisers. Thus, animal farming that doesn’t need fertilised crops creates little NO2. 

Natural farming is an example of an environmentally sustainable method of food production developed by Japanese scientist turned farmer and philosopher, Masanobu Fukuoka. It observes and mimics nature in all its complexity, is based on farming methods traditional to many indigenous cultures, and animals play an essential role within its system.  

The system works with the natural biodiversity of each farmed area, encouraging the complexity of living organisms- both plant and animal- that shape each particular ecosystem to thrive along with plants that provide food. It requires no machines, no chemicals, and very little weeding. It also provides an excellent example of what can be done to reverse the degenerative momentum of modern age agriculture. 

The period of industrialization helps put our modern wrongdoings into perspective. This time was all about creating a more efficient and competitive food industry. It focused purely on the development of maximizing the calorie content, durability and consistency of food- food for the masses.  

This created a booming demand in the world’s most rapidly growing economies for food that derived from animals, which led to large increases in livestock production. This surging demand has been mostly met by commercial livestock production and associated food chains. As a result, the meat and dairy industries have become some of the largest in the world. 

Commercial livestock farming differentiates from the traditional methods mentioned previously in that animals are separated from the actual land and crops. This creates soil infertility and erosion on the farm, as well as air and water pollution at industrial animal operations. 

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Taking animals off the land and confining them in buildings has caused inhumane conditions and a food system that is wildly out of balance. This imbalance is what aggravates global warming. It is contributing up to 20% of the world’s global warming according to the UN.  

What ensued was the notorious Cowspiracy documentary in 2014, which exposed the environmental impact of animal agriculture, its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and excessive water use. This documentary alone sparked the worldwide conversion about veganism, and led people to believe that becoming vegan was the only possible way to save the planet.  

Yet what it failed to do was recognise and differentiate between traditional and industrial methods of farming, as well as the impact that monoculture farming, driven predominantly by US biotech giant  Monsanto, has on our environment.   

Singling out meat’s climate impact makes no sense at all. All food has an impact on global warming. Even the virtuous health brands we love so dearly- they too are jumping on a commercial wave of opportunity that is contributing to global warming. Quinoa, nuts and grain milks also have a hefty environmental impact.  Rice fields account for almost 30% of the world’s human-generated methane. Researchers in Sweden discovered that the carbon footprint of a carrot varied by a factor of 10, depending on how and where it was produced.   

Activists against meat are fuelled by the excesses of today. Yet our current environmental issues lie with our excessive demands and industrial outputs, not with idea or practice of farming livestock in itself. We ought to redirect our anger towards industrial agriculture, not those that keep animals in traditional production systems, where they support livelihoods and household food security.   

What will happen to small artisanal producers like local cheesemakers if we all become vegan? They would probably lose their livelihoods. We would lose cheese. We would lose a responsible source of nutrition and (believe it or not) probiotics, as well as valuable tradition and food culture - the main reasons we travel, visit restaurants, or even post on Instagram. Did you know that the UK is the world’s largest producer of cheese? The UK makes 700 varieties (100 more than the French). Sales of British cheese amount to £2.7billion a year, and potentially a lot more post-Brexit.   

On the other hand, what I really do celebrate about the coming of veganism is the wave of people that have become interested in their health. Many people believe that adopting a vegan diet will make them healthier. And if you look at the national average diet here in the UK, you could argue that it will.  

Switching from a diet fuelled by processed foods and excessive meat consumption to a vegan diet that is generally thought to contain more cereals, grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, will definitely have positive effects on one’s health. However you can be vegan and still gorge on chips, crisps and fizzy drinks. 

My concern about vegan diets is that they don’t offer all the nutrients we need to be healthy, especially when it comes to children. Due to the lack of meat, fish and dairy, supplements for B12, vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, which in my mind supplements a whole new industry of supplements. It’s very convenient for the supplement industry, and it’s comparable to fertilizers if you think about it. What’s the point of a diet that isn’t complete or self-sufficient?  

Having grown up in Spain on a Mediterranean diet for the majority of my childhood, switching to a new ‘healthier’ and ‘sustainable’ vegan way of living has always felt ironic. After moving to the UK for my studies I quickly realised how much harder it was to source local, seasonal or remotely flavoursome produce at my local supermarket. I soon stopped taking my upbringing for granted. Perhaps it was this realisation that triggered my interest in bettering the food industry.  

You can’t compare the average British diet to that of the Spanish, or even the Japanese for idealism’s sake. The Japanese have long been renowned for being the healthiest people in the world due to their life expectancy. What these diets have in common is a high intake of vegetables, fruits, legumes and fish, and a low intake of meat and dairy products. This is a reflection of my own diet - just because I eat meat, doesn’t mean I do so every day. 

Culturally, what these countries also have in common is that they share the same values with regards to the quality of their produce. Quality produce comes from traditional and natural farms. In order to tackle global warming, we should embrace our privileged choices, and avoid eating produce that comes from industrial farms. We should, however, support produce that is grown independently and sustainably, which in turn supports your community. Quality is expensive, so please value it.

Natalia Ribbe