Veganuary can be just as hedonistic for foodies as the festive season – Philip Lymbery

What do Paul McCartney, actor Alicia Silverstone, Everest mountaineer Kuntal Joisher and New York City Mayor Eric Adams have in common? Puzzled? Well, this apparently unrelated group are all set for the Veganuary challenge 2022.

Plant-based alternatives to meat are increasingly realistic (Picture: Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Veganuary started in 2014 to encourage people positively, inclusively and in a non-hairshirt way, to try a more planet-friendly lifestyle after the excesses of the Christmas holiday season. Since then, its message – which highlights the benefits of plant-based food to human, animal and planetary health – has struck a chord worldwide.

More than half a million people took the challenge in 2021, including the campaign’s ambassadors, comedian Sarah Pascoe and international rugby powerhouse Anthony Mullally. Both talk of the health benefits they experience and their enjoyment of contributing to the lighter footprint that eating more plants and less meat leaves on our planet.

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The feel-good, planet-friendliness of plant-based food – without any meat (including fish), dairy and eggs – has been key to the rise of plant-based eateries, ready meals and fast-food offerings.

And what I could see very clearly on my last trip to Llandudno, Wales, one of my favourite places, is that plant-based foods are now mainstreaming on high streets far and wide.

Long confined to trendy eateries in the usual cities like Brighton, New York or LA, my walk along the main street in the Welsh coastal town came with the discovery that even the local chippy there now has a bespoke vegan menu.

It featured not one, but a dozen entirely plant-based meal options. A handwritten note on the window advertised Vegan Magnums. I tried one and found it fabulous. So much so, that I’ve since been singing its praises to anyone who will listen!

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But in Llandudno, it didn’t stop there: the main window of a KFC restaurant really took me by surprise. The company – globally dominant for its fried chicken – displayed a giant poster advertising “11 herbs and spices, zero chicken”.

And further down the road, there was another sign of plant-based foods becoming more mainstream: Greggs was promoting its vegan sausage roll as “the nation’s favourite”.

It was this innovative product that defined Greggs’ fortunes in 2019 when Piers Morgan – clearly not a Veganuary ambassador – spat one into a bucket on live TV. His misplaced antics sent sales of the plant-based sausage roll, and the company’s share price, soaring. Greggs really couldn’t have paid for a better publicity stunt.

Eating pleasure

For plant-food newbies – Piers Morgan included – Veganuary may seem a challenge, but it absolutely doesn’t mean giving up on pleasure. You don’t have to go completely cold turkey (sorry) on the rather hedonistic eating approach many of us adopt over Christmas. Quite the opposite.

It doesn’t mean abandoning the tastes and textures of cheese, meat and so on, as these days, plant-based alternatives are so realistic. There are convincing non-meat roasts, sausages, burgers, squirty cream, cheeses, cheesecakes and all sorts of tasty dairy substitutes.

Eating in a plant-based way simply means looking at things differently. In my experience, it means celebrating a change involving no or little cholesterol, no animal cruelty, and much less climate impact.

Another new development has been the opening of the UK’s first vegan hotel in Pitlochry, Scotland. Saorsa 1875 opened in 2019 to cater for vegans and the ‘plant-curious’.

On a bigger scale, Scottish company AG Barr, responsible for the iconic Irn-Bru brand, has recognised millennial and Gen Z consumers’ soaring demand for vegan milk alternatives. Last month the Cumbernauld-headquartered business launched into plant-based drinks with an agreement to take over London-based porridge and oat milk-maker Moma Foods.

And the market for plant-based milks seems to continue its strong showing of recent years. According to 2021 Mintel research, a third of Britons reported drinking milk derived from oats, almonds or soya in 2021, up from 25 per cent in 2020. Uptake is even higher among 25 to 44-year-olds at 44 per cent.

Without costing the Earth

Our planet’s present rate of meat and dairy consumption lays a heavy and unsustainable load on our climate, environment, animals and people, causing deforestation, pollution, climate change and destruction of wildlife. It is also highly inefficient.

More than a third of the global crop harvest of cereals and soya is feeding billions of animals living miserable lives in intensive conditions.

This consumption comes at a huge cost: animal-consumed grain and soya only gives back a fraction of the calories and protein in the form of meat, milk and eggs.

That same cropland growing plant foods for direct human consumption could feed more than four billion people – half of all humanity alive today.

What this shows is that we can all make a difference to our planetary footprint three times a day, through our food choices.

Veganuary then provides a timely excuse to give plant-based food a go for a day, a week – or the whole month, no? There’s nothing to lose and so many good tastes to try.

As for me, Covid-willing, I’m already planning nipping into a burger joint on London’s South Bank for a chunky ‘plant’ burger by pioneering US company, Beyond Meat when I have to travel there for work.

I’ll be treating my friends to a chicken-style roast by Linda McCartney with broccoli, peas, roast potatoes, baked mushrooms, pine nuts and gravy. And yes, I’ll be enjoying Vegan Magnums more often than is good for me…

And for those of us not participating in Dry January, good news… whisky is usually vegan. Slàinte.

Philip Lymbery is global chief executive of Compassion in World Farming International and a UN Food Systems Champion. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf

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