In January, over 50,000 people took on the challenge of following a vegan diet for a month, as part of the ‘Veganuary’ challenge. Estimates of the number of vegans in the UK have sky-rocketed from 150,000 in 2006, to over half a million in 2016. Campaigns such as Veganuary, have grown increasingly in popularity over the last few years, and with this increase in popularity, we could potentially see a shift in what westerners categorise as edible.
The term vegan was coined in 1944, as an adaptation to the word VEGetariAN. Vegans reject all animal-derived products, and consume a diet made up of plants, including vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits. However, the word ‘vegan’ and its meaning does not exist in all languages. For example, there is no word for vegan in Chinese – individuals would have to state they were vegetarian, and then list off the other products that they were unable to consume.
Across cultures, there is not one clearly defined category of what constitutes an ‘animal-derived product.’ So before unpicking the conversational problems of explaining you’re a vegan, we first need to consider what it means to be a vegan, conceptually. British anthropologist Edmund Leach outlined how humans split the world into categories in order to create a social logic. The category in which something falls, dictates the way in which those animals are treated. For example, whilst dog could be categorised as ‘animal’ in many Western cultures it would be categorised as ‘pet’ and thus they become part of a sacred category that most people would choose not to eat. The horse meat scandal of 2013 showed how uncomfortable people were in eating animals we give names to, and attach emotions too. With a growing trend in vegan diets, the movement is pushing for a change in how we categorise species and whether they are edible or not.
Students applying for Medicine could consider the impact on public health that an increase in veganism could have, whilst Biology and Natural Sciences students may want to evaluate the environmental benefits of a vegan diet. For students applying for Philosophy, could consider the numerous ethical debates related to following a vegan diet, relating to both animal welfare and the environment.