In recent years, the vegan movement has catapulted forwards in terms of social popularity and global notoriety. Thanks to a myriad of Netflix documentaries and YouTube channels that are dedicated to sharing the truths of the animal product industries, the worldwide population has had easy access to change-making information.
So—when did veganism really start off? Who were the pioneers of such plant-based perspectives and who were the first individuals to adopt vegan rituals of diet and lifestyle? Was this particular way of thinking always called ‘veganism’ or were there other definitions that preceded it? To find out the answers and much more, let’s dive straight into the essentials.
How is veganism defined?
Veganism refers to the avoidance of using animal products. Vegans choose not to eat food products that come from animals. They also typically steer clear of wearing fur or using cosmetic products containing animal products. This gentle perspective aims to remove any need for animals to be harmed or killed for the purposes of human comfort, taste or convenience.
Of course—not everyone who chooses a vegan diet and lifestyle does so for ethical reasons necessarily. There are an array of individual motivations for ditching animal-derived products from the daily menu. These range from health and healing purposes through to body-building aspirations and beyond. Diverse in inspiration but united in action, there are now millions of people around the world who identify as vegan.
The term ‘vegan’ was only first coined in 1944 when British Dorothy Morgan and Donald Watson co-founded ‘The Vegan Society’ in the United Kingdom. Initially, it was a term used to refer to a non-dairy vegetarian diet. Only one year later, they developed the definition to include the avoidance of all animal products, including eggs and honey. The term uses the first three and the last two letters of ‘vegetarian’ because—by Watson’s definition—it is ‘the beginning and end of a vegetarian’.
Who were the first vegans?
Despite the contemporary explosion of plant-based posts and granola-filled social media accounts online, veganism has been around a lot longer than any of the social platforms might suggest. It would be easy to think that vegan lifestyles are a relatively modern phenomenon. Yet there are accounts of Buddha himself opposing animal suffering in favor of a plant-based diet. It seemed Leondardo da Vinci felt similarly. He wrote often about not wanting to become a ‘tomb for animals’ during his life.
One of the very earliest recorded vegans was the Arab poet and philosopher Al-Ma’rri who was born in 973. He deeply believed in the power of human compassion towards all living creatures. His writings detail his disapproval of killing of any kind—both of humans and any sentient creatures. He wrote extensively about his avoidance of consuming milk, animal flesh and eggs and used his perspectives as fodder for much of his creative literary work.
It is worthy of note that the modern standards of what a vegan diet consists of includes the avoidance of honey. In much earlier history—such as in the case of Al-Ma’rri—therefore would not be recognized as ‘full’ vegans due to their likely consumption of products that are derived from insects such as bees. Al-Ma’rri originated from what is now recognized as Syria and it is very likely that he would have eaten honey as part of his regular diet.
When did veganism get popular?
Interestingly, there are timing parallels between the rise and evolution of Instagram and the popularity of plant-based eating. With passionate plant-based promoters flocking to social media pages to blog, vlog and live chat about their journeys it has become a hot spot of activism and awareness. As the trend for photographing our food has become a standard of modern social culture, there has never been more opportunity to shout from the rooftops about the latest vegan trend and cruelty-free avocado brunch ideas.
Plant-based lifestyles were not invented in the last decade nor the one before. It actually dates back for hundreds of years. However, it can certainly be agreed that the vegan scene has grown and evolved exponentially in recent history. It is rare in the Western world to walk into a food venue of any kind and not find a vegan option or two amongst the menu. Even fast food venues such as McDonald’s have jumped on the trend, producing items for sale that include no animal products whatsoever. Just five short years ago, this would have seemed an unlikely—even idealistic—concept.
Is veganism always a healthy option?
With the rise of the popularity of veganism in recent times, hundreds of new products have been launched on to the consumer market to meet the growing demand for animal product replacements. From vegan bacon to plant-based chili-cheese fries, these ‘swap items’ are now available in most supermarkets and grocery stores. Despite the plant-based leafy label, there is actually not a great amount of healthy benefits to some of these foods. In some cases, the list of additives and measure of salt within them is actually quite alarming.
Of course, not every vegan cares about health and wellbeing. Many millions of vegans choose to avoid animal products for ethical reasons. Yet this does not mean that they go on to develop a passion for chia seeds and sprouting alfalfa. Many people want to eat meat without wanting to eat animals, as contrary as that might seem. They want the taste and the satisfaction of a juicy burger without an animal needing to be cruelly harmed and slaughtered in order to make it happen.
No matter what someone’s motivation might be for turning to a vegan diet and lifestyle, the same positive impact is triggered for the planet and the inhabitants when an individual chooses veganism. With less consumer demand for dairy, eggs, fish, honey, and meat products the planet can rest a little easier with less of a harsh demand placed upon it’s resources—amongst many other benefits. Although plant-based Burger King meals may not be great for our cardiovascular system it is certainly of benefit to the ecological one.
Who is the most famous vegan?
Some of the current titans of the plant-based social media scene include noted chefs and foodies such as Welshman Gaz Oakley, Englishman activist Earthling Ed, Californian ‘Earth mother’ Ellen Fisher, Australian campaigner James Aspey and Scottish fitness guru Naturally Stefanie. These adored cyber influencers have a huge say in how vegans are perceived. They have cultivated an element of celebrity within the plant-based movement in a way that has never been seen before.
There are also several high-profile celebrities and Hollywood stars who are famously vegan but who are known for other career options and accomplishments. Natalie Portman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joaquin Phoenix, Pamela Anderson, Moby, and Steve-O have all spoken openly and passionately about their commitment to avoiding consuming animal products of any kind. Many of these celebrities have made their diet choices part of their public identity while others choose to advocate for sentient beings and our Earth away from the glare of the camera.
Are there any cultures that are vegan?
There are few cultures that avoid all animal products. The relatively unknown (and therefore thankfully undisturbed) Brokpa tribe of India’s Ladakh has thrived on an entirely plant-based diet for more than 5000 years—all while living in harsh Himalayan terrain. Plant foods provide all of the nutrients that every generation of the Brokpa tribe consume while living on the steep and often unforgiving mountainside.
Traditional Brokpa meals typically include barley, baked roti breads, lettuce leaves, roasted potatoes, fried spring onions, wild mint and boiled cauliflower. Fueled by this naturally derived diet, the Brokpa community regularly trek extremely long distances and many tribe members are active well into their nineties and beyond. This has been true for many generations and continues to be part of their proud traditions and heritage today.
More widely known are the Jains, who are regularly associated with veganism. While not every Jain eats a plant-based diet (vegetarian lifestyles are common) many do choose to avoid all animal products. The ethos that unifies all Jains is the strong belief in preventing harm to other living beings as much as possible. Jains must eat all food provided to them rather than throwing excess away to avoid the unnecessary creation and death of microorganisms which would accumulate on rotting food. This sense of empathy fits well with the vegan ethos.
“What about religions—are there any faiths that are vegan also?”
There are many faiths that abstain from eating certain animal products. For example, Hindus do not eat beef at all due to their perspective that the holy cow is sacred and therefore should be protected from harm. Both Jews and Muslims refrain from eating pork, deeming it unclean and forbidden. Yet there are very few faiths that consistently and consciously abstain from eating all animal products of any kind.
Many members of the Seventh-Day Adventist church commit to eating a plant-based diet that is rich in whole foods and plants but entirely free from alcohol, animal products, and caffeine drinks. While it is thought that approximately half of the community eats in this way, most other Seventh-Day Adventists eat a vegetarian diet as a secondary option. The reasoning behind it is not one of animal welfare in this case but one of human aspiration.
In contrast to the Christian and Catholic faiths, the Adventist Church believes that the human self cannot be subdivided into separate elements of mind, body and spirit. They have a fully holistic view that extends to the food they eat and the lifestyle they choose in the understanding that every component contributes to the next. Again, this is fitting with the principles of veganism.
According to Paul Rankin who is the current health director for the church, “We recognize that the healthier we are, the more we are able to serve God. The church does not mandate but simply encourages members to embrace a whole-food, plant-based diet that is free of meat and animal products”. The thinking here is that by paying close attention to what the body consumes individuals hold greater power to nurture the community and world around them. This aligns closely with the ethos of many non-religious vegans who choose a cruelty-free lifestyle.
What’s next for veganism?
With millions of more individuals choosing to take up a natural vegan diet and lifestyle all over the world than ever before, there is a strong likelihood that the animal product industries will soon need to reposition themselves. Many dairy farmers have already made the switch to producing oat, hemp, cashew, almond, and soy milk instead of relying on cows to produce milk for the consumer market. Titan meat producers are starting to launch vegan lines alongside their usual offerings which is certainly a step in the right direction.
The hope is that as their world continues to recognize the value of eating fewer animal products, the better chance the planet has to recover from the damage that has already been done to it. As more and more customers choose to order plant kinds of milk in their coffees and vegan cheeses in their burritos, we can continue to move towards a cruelty-free and more ethical modern world. The health benefits for our communities could also be life-changing.
There is a long way to go before veganism becomes a regular option for the majority of the human population. There is a significant amount of work to do to get veganism respected and embraced in the same way that the major meat producers have managed to achieve for their products in the past century. Step by step, avocado by avocado, we can get there. In the meantime, there is a whole world of colorful, flavorful dishes to enjoy cooking up for our non-vegan friends and family!
Since this article was written I have found out there is a rich history of the Caribbean Rastafarian vegan food movement.