Observations from Veganuary

Words by Dr Alexandra Jellicoe

Conduit member Dr Alexandra Jellicoe shares why she decided to going vegan for January and what she learned in the process.

The need to go vegan

Going vegan overnight was easy – but only because I spent a year as a vegetarian and the year before that as a weekend-only meat eater.

I haven’t eaten fish since diving off the coast of Majorca four years ago and not witnessing a single living marine animal. It might be a drop in the ocean but I figured that if I could save 5000 or more fish over my lifetime, simply from not eating them, I may as well give it a go. Multiply that out over a family of five and you get 50,000 fish – serious, life-saving territory. When you add that the majority of plastic-induced marine deaths are from ghost nets and not plastic bottles, these savings become exponential.

Livestock is one of the biggest contributors to global heating, deforestation and species extinction. The meat, oil, salt and sugar rich obesogenic diet we currently consume in the UK is a human and planetary health disaster. Cows are an integral part of the British landscape; romantically captured by Constable and Turner, a canon in our imaginations and the history of art. On the other hand, the UK is 29th out of the 218 most nature-depleted countries on the planet. The rolling green hills of England are largely barren of life, yet this lack of biodiversity has been normalised for the majority of us. We have never witnessed the abundance of native species that freely populated our lands.

I’m fond of cows myself, having spent many weekends as a child on a dairy farm, but the livestock invasion now accounts for 96% of global mammal biomass. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, fish to wildlife, now make up just 5% of the world’s biomass. Veganuary was an opportunity to have a culinary adventure, happy in the knowledge that I’d be giving some much needed respite to our broken planet.

Veganuary in practice

Going vegan overnight is easy if you’ve spent a considerable amount of time vegan-curious and armoured yourself with shelves full of cookbooks. There’s a cookery course on the horizon to up-skill my plant-based cooking but in the meantime my family and I have been content with Asian and Moroccan food, jackfruit stews and Heck sausages.

I’m not quite sure how they’ve managed to make vegan cheese taste quite so bad but it’s an assault on any food lover and has no nutritional value. My seven-year-old son, wrinkle-faced with distaste, spat a bite of vegan mozzarella pizza all over the kitchen table. I can safely say he has not been converted from cheddar, despite my best efforts. This, I think, is what most people struggle with. The last bastion of the cow economy will be a cheese and pickle sandwich bought on the dash during the daily hustle.

It takes time to become a good plant-based cook. The salt and fats from meat give food a distinctive taste and as creatures of habit we’ve become used to these textures and flavours. But as you journey into the exotic world of beans, fruit, vegetables and spices, you realise that everything you ate before tasted the same. The infinite number of combinations for plant-based foods create delicate flavours and your tastebuds awaken, keen to seek out new sensations. Each meal, given enough love, is an adventure.

The humble cauliflower can be cooked in at least 11 different delicious ways. The most basic of these is dipping it in batter and frying it, after which it tastes indistinguishable from our favourite national dish of battered cod. I felt rather sorry for fish after eating this for the first time. It turns out that anything dipped in flour and deep-fried tastes pretty much the same.

Time is the new luxury; experience and knowledge aspirational. Food is something we must become obsessed with, giving it the headspace and attention it deserves. How we eat, what we eat and how it is produced are critical factors in the evolution to globally sustainable living. There is room still for a little high-quality animal produce and, arguably, a healthy agricultural system needs it. The Lancet advocate a planetary health diet, which includes meat and fish once a week. For myself, however, I’ve ended Veganuary content to remain vegan(ish).

Dr Alexandra Jellicoe is founder and editor of Monkey Wrench, an opinion forming eco-blog. Previously, she worked as an Environmental Health Engineer for the United Nations and various aid agencies mitigating the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations. She has lived and worked with remote indigenous tribes and small island developing states, communities whose homes have been lost or are currently under considerable threat.

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