My Vegan Journey
Over the last century, my family has had very considerable involvement with the processed food and animal exploitation industries. I grew up in that environment – I lived it and breathed it. This is the (abbreviated) story of my vegan journey, my journey from animal abuser to vegan.
Interestingly, I ate few processed foods growing up, as although my family felt that processed foods were a great source of income, they did not feel that they were the healthiest source of nutrition nor the highest form of prandial enjoyment. While growing up, I ate fresh, home-cooked meals almost every day: meat, fish, vegetables, and (my favourite!) plenty of fruit, with fast food being a rare exception. My mother, like her mother, was a wonderful cook and loved nothing more than to prepare delicious, traditional meals, desserts, and snacks, using nothing but the best quality, fresh, local ingredients, often buying them directly from local small-holders, fisheries, and other producers.
Although she herself was a food microbiologist working primarily in the processed food industry, various close relatives of mine were (and still are) major entrepreneurs in the processed food and animal exploitation industries, some of them inventors of some of the very machines and processes used in the manufacture of processed food as well as in the slaughter of animals. Indeed, several methods and machines currently in use in certain types of abattoirs and meat processing plants around the world were created by certain of my ancestors. Some of my relatives also had mink farms back in the day, until animal rights activists pressured them into shutting them down! Some of them had pig farms. And, some of our friends had fisheries. More distant relatives of mine are still involved in agriculture as well as related areas of agribusiness, such as the feed supply and dairy distribution industries. Others still remain involved in the processed food industry, although are no longer involved in meat processing or abattoirs.
As a young boy, I got the opportunity to work on a farm belonging to some distant relatives of ours, and I took it. I loved helping on the farm. I kept asking to go back again and again. It was a great way to get away from my nagging parents, my stressful social life, and the noise of the city, and to escape into nature where I could enjoy the farm work. It was break from the monotony of suburbia and an opportunity to do intensive manual work, which gave me a good workout so that I could stay in shape and sleep easily at night. It seemed like a healthy, outdoor life.
My relative who ran the farm frequently confided in me about the economic and social stress he was under, the loneliness of his job, and the desperation he felt. He often commented on the lack of help he had on the farm, how I was the only real help he had, and how his children and wife had become increasingly distant. As we got to know each other better, he would talk to me about how hopeless he felt and he would sometimes tell me that occasionally in his desperation he would spend lonely nights in the haybarn clutching his shotgun and wondering if it would be better just to end it all. This seemed to be a feature of the lives of the farmers in nearby farms and the suicide statistics of the farming community have never been a surprise to me. Nonetheless, this all seemed like part of the sacrifice that was necessary to keep the food production infrastructure functioning: animals brutalized and victimized, families torn apart, the natural world devastated, farmers driven to suicide. It was an outdoor life in beautiful countryside, so it still seemed healthy and natural to me (provided that I closed my eyes to a few things).
The farm was an opportunity to learn – there is always so much to learn when you work in agriculture. Farms are complex operations with many moving parts which function according to scientific principles. It is essentially applied biology. In animal agriculture we manipulate and exploit the anatomy, reproductive biology, metabolism, and endocrinology of other animals, and we do so with considerable accuracy in most respects, since for a farm to be economically performant a series of optimization problems need to be repeatedly solved with respect to the quantities of materials and other resources used and with respect to the timing, synchronization, and scheduling of various events such as the gathering of forage for silage and the insemination of cows. Every day on the farm, no matter how many years had gone by, I felt that I was picking up a new skill or some new piece of knowledge.
It was also an opportunity to spend time with animals, something I have always enjoyed. I still think about many of the dairy cattle that I worked with, and even though I remember them by number as they did not have names, and even though I know that they are no longer around, I still miss them and wonder (even though I know it is irrational and makes no sense) if there is any chance that any of them somehow escaped an early death. In any case, their characters, personalities, and faces, and even their numbers will always live on in my memories. I miss them greatly.
It was also an opportunity to feel useful by being a part of an essential primary industry, by playing a role in the production of food, and by working with the land. And as a teenager and young adult, feeling that I was making some sort of contribution to society – however small, gave me an ego boost. I was able to escape the vacuous affectation of the city and become a yokel for a while, chewing on straw and blaming the townies for all the world’s ills.
Then there was the peace and quiet, the restful sleep, and the opportunity to engage in my passion for observing wildlife whenever I had some spare time to wander in the adjacent forest, which, other than being occasionally haunted by hens that had managed to escape, was basically a forgotten paradise
Sometimes, at school or at home, schoolfriends would ask me how a particular food was made or from what it was made, and I would explain. Wherever I was, in any house or restaurant, or at school, I knew or could make an educated guess as to where almost every item on my plate had originated from and which machine had slaughtered the sentient being that had been sacrificed to produce it. Whether at a friend’s house, or in the supermarket, or at school, upon seeing a food product, I could instantly picture in my mind’s eye the entire supply chain and production sequence as a flowchart.
The way animals are exploited, and the way animal-based food is made involves processes, methods, and machinery that are an alien world for most people. As a child, I often felt a strange sense of shame for having so much knowledge of something so unusual and yet so banal. Even though there was occasional curiosity when I spoke to my peers about such topics, it became obvious that they considered the way their food was made to be both a mundane topic as well as something sufficiently bizarre as to be incomprehensible. Even as a university student, I remember the amusement of others upon learning farming practices and related topics, at the insanity of it all, as though the strange goings on in agriculture are just rural eccentricities or anomalies rather than the standard methods and practices of an entire global industry that produces the very food that we eat. I remember on one occasion being sat next to a close friend at school. Having both eaten a pork curry for lunch, he had asked me about my family’s businesses, and we had ended up talking about slaughter. I had explained the ins and outs of pig slaughter and I remember the shock on his face. He mentioned that it all sounded horrific. I remember thinking “The audacity of it! He’s just a typical towny. He wants to eat pork, yet he finds the process by which it is made ‘cruel’ and ‘revolting’.” I mean, where did he think it came from? Nonetheless, this discovery did not make him a vegetarian.
Most of my peers back then, just like most of my adult peers today, regarded food production as just another faceless industry that manufactures consumer products, the details of which are an obscure subject that ought not to interest us too much. I mean surely we’re too good to worry about where our food comes from? I never find it strange that most people are not only very ignorant of but also not at all interested in the origin of their food, but only because I became accustomed to this indifference at an early age. And now, much later in life, it is still crushingly obvious to me that I have a far greater understanding of the origin and source of my food than any of the people around me, and that the overwhelming majority of people – especially here in the West – are extremely naïve in regard to the way in which the food that they eat is sourced, produced, and processed.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s my mother also owned a shop selling health foods – the first such shop in our region of the country – and I would sometimes help out there. As a boy, whilst I did do some constructive things for the shop – including wrapping items for customers – most of what I considered “constructive” probably wasn’t too helpful. For instance, I would build huge sprawling forts for my toy soldier armies in the backroom using left over boxes, I would repeatedly plot graphs of income and expenditure in my graph-pad in order to extrapolate the future of our business, and I used to maintain a very comprehensive and detailed list of all of our customers’ details, much to their amusement – something that would be unthinkable in the present era of data protection paranoia. As it happens, several of our customers were Members of Parliament, who back then were relatively unknown, although who have become well known in their subsequent careers, one serving as a (rather infamous) cabinet minister under Tony Blair. They all seemed to react with the same humility and understanding to my childish requests for their names, addresses, and telephone numbers, and even obliged, something barely imaginable nowadays.
We sold fresh and dried foods, herbs, spices, sauces, and so on and so forth, as well as fresh sandwiches. However, in addition to food, and in spite of the fact that we marketed our shop as a “health food” shop, we also used to sell vitamins, supplements, and even cosmetics such as shampoo and soap. None of the cosmetics were animal-tested and they were all hypoallergenic. These things might seem commonplace today, although such products were actually quite difficult to find back in the day. The shop was beautifully fitted with pine furniture, a glass counter, and sparkling glass windows through which our selection of delicious, healthy products could be seen from the busy street outside.
It was in this health haven that I, as a boy, first heard the word “vegan”. A vegan came into our shop and I happened to be present at the same time. He was perusing our soaps and was struggling to find a soap free of beeswax. He claimed to be a vegan and that this meant that he could not use any animal products of any form – not even soap containing beeswax. We chatted to him with amazement as he explained the rigours of his bizarre way of life. This avoidance of beeswax in cosmetics and other products seemed completely excessive to us! His way of life seemed so strange and extreme. It was as though an extra-terrestrial had somehow been beamed to our shop from a different planet. Of course, now I realize he was not from a different planet, rather from a different time.
We respected his wishes, and, with the upmost courtesy, we served him his beeswax-free soap once we had analyzed the ingredients together in a huddle and ascertained that we did in fact stock a suitable such product. But after he left, we discussed the incident with curiosity and fascination. It may have been the dreads, but his way of life somehow had the aura of religion about it: the utter devotion to something so seemingly meaningless. The piety of it all. His commitment to this form of self-restraint seemed so utterly pointless and excessive. For what rational reason would a man want to abstain from making use of all animal products – even beeswax? Why would someone not want to make use of products that just so happen to be from animals? Why would it matter where they came from? Honestly, who cares or even thinks about such things? Vegetarianism seemed somewhat logical and compassionate, if a little naïve, but this?
This was the first time I heard about veganism. As time passed, other vegans visited the shop, including some repeat customers such as the abovementioned gentleman, and we always ensured that we had some vegan produce in stock for them at all times as they were starting to visit sufficiently frequently. One day, we even had a fruitarian visit the shop. Even though we all loved fresh fruit and ate plenty of it, suffice it to say that we were fairly shocked to hear that there exist people who actually want to subsist on nothing but fruit. I remember thinking: “What on Earth is wrong with vegetables? What’s next? Breatharianism?”. I must admit that, as a vegan, fruitarianism still remains a mystery to me even now, many years later…
Veganism was the most extreme way of life we could think of or imagine and fruitarianism was a strange variation on this radical theme. In essence, what we saw was a spectrum of extreme ways of life: individuals who lived without regard for conformity, convention, or the expectations of wider society. We simply could not make sense of what these people were doing. We considered that it might be some kind of cult that had led them to behave this way. Meanwhile, whilst we considered ourselves to be emotionally intelligent, we were more practical than spiritual, perhaps due to coming from a protestant community. The practices of other religions and churches seemed strange and even histrionic to us. For example, the belief, that many hold, in transubstantiation seemed to us to be either magical thinking or even outright affectation. We placed such anomalous dietary philosophies and abstentions from particular foodstuffs in the same category as these other bizarre dogmatic belief systems.
However, in the fullness of time, our views changed somewhat. Around the same time that the shop opened, I started working with the animals on the farm and my mother would often visit while I was working. Both of us loved nature very passionately. In fact, it was my mother who had introduced me to wildlife watching as a young child, an activity that has taken up a lot of my spare time since, and still does. I also have a long-standing interest in biology, an interest that has never gone away, probably due to hearing my mother talk about it as a young boy.
As a boy, I was a member of numerous conservation and wildlife groups and worked both in conservation volunteering as well as fundraising, something I continued into early adulthood. I have fond memories of attending nature lectures, going on organized walks, and taking part in events to raise money for animal welfare charities, shelters, and rescue centres. All of our animals, our dogs, cats, hamsters, and gerbils, were rescued, and we believed that we were doing some good by giving these animals a new home, many of whom had tragic backstories of abuse, illness, and neglect. We adored them and did everything possible to give them a wonderful home.
Although we never discussed it explicitly, I think both my mother and I felt the same way – that something was not quite right about our relationship with other animals. And so, both of us decided to become vegetarians. One day we ended up discussing it, somehow semi-telepathically avoiding the ugly details, and simply agreed that we would both try it out. I mean how much do you really have to “love” animals to stop paying for them to be violated, killed, and dismembered? And that is how it went. Sometimes we were vegetarians; sometimes we made exceptions. In essence, we were what people these days call “flexitarians”.
In my teenage years into early adulthood, farm work affected my worldview in many ways. I was guilty of the same inverse snobbery that many countryfolk are guilty of, assuming that “townies” know nothing about the countryside and how it functions and that they don’t appreciate – and never will appreciate – the blood, sweat, and tears that go into producing the products that they consume. Until I became a vegetarian myself, veganism and vegetarianism were things I dismissed as naïve, if well-intended, towny ideas. As a young adult, I eventually decided to become a vegetarian on a permanent basis, because I felt it was the right thing to do. I knew deep down that it was not right to kill animals, and if one has spent a sufficient amount of time with other animals, and understands them well, and has observed how they behave and interact, one also understands that they are conscious, emotional beings, and that they want to live and to enjoy life just as we do. As a consequence, if one allows oneself a bit of honesty as well as the courage to do the right thing, one has to admit that we should not kill or eat animals. However, like the overwhelming majority of people who are vegetarian, I had simply “ended up” vegetarian. I had avoided thinking about the topic consciously, knowing deep down that I consumed many other products that were also the products of cruelty and exploitation.
I knew very well how dairy and sheep agriculture works – I assisted on a dairy and sheep farm for years from my early teens to early adulthood. I knew about the unbreakable links between beef and dairy. I knew the truth of the despicable practices of the dairy, beef, lamb, and wool industries, because I had carried out those same practices with my own bare hands. I knew about the intensive factory farming of pigs, because I had visited intensive farms belonging to relatives. I knew about battery farms because I had visited a battery unit with as many as 15,000 hens while still a young child and even the smiling, pleasant farm owner had admitted to us that the conditions inside the units were “very unpleasant” for the birds. I knew about the horrors of abattoirs because I had been into such places and had seen animals that I loved and respected, and even animals that I had tended to on some occasions, suffering a violent death and having their life erased in front of my very eyes. I saw the suffering, the horror, and the death. So much pointless death. So much blood spilt for absolutely no good reason at all. Just for pounds, shillings, and pence.
I had been a vegetarian for over a decade and during the last few years of that decade had also drifted away from most other animal products, as though repelled by some subconscious force. Then, one day, I began thinking about my own mortality, as we all do now and again, and about the fact that I have only one opportunity to live, just like all the animals whose lives are destroyed for me to eat animal products. I realized that I only have one life in which to do the right thing. I could not keep waiting to do the right thing and I could not keep pretending that everything was alright. When an animal is slaughtered in order to produce food for us, it suffers an eternal death, completely unnecessarily and completely unjustifiably. I thought “how much longer am I going to wait? How much longer will I be a coward? How much longer will I repress the truth within myself so that I do not have to fully comprehend the terrible things I am doing to the animals, to the vast numbers of humans who suffer and die as a consequence of animal agriculture, and to the environment?”
And so, I became a vegan. And when you become a vegan, it is not the same as becoming vegetarian, because when you are a vegetarian, you continue consuming animal products and using animals, and you repress the truth so that you do not have to think about it. It may constitute a gateway to veganism for many, and certainly in most cases it reduces the harm that is being done. It is a step forward certainly but it is also somnambulism. When you become vegan, you wake up. In particular, you wake up to many terrible things happening in the world around you. And you know that you cannot ever go back to sleep. You know that never again can you close your eyes to the terrible cruelty that you are responsible for just so that you do not have to think about it. Choosing to become vegan means choosing to live in accordance with your own ethical principles, with what you already know is right. Choosing to become vegan means deciding to face reality. It means deciding to stop being a coward.
On the one hand I deeply regret my involvement with these industries and solemnly lament my own family’s involvement with them. I regret the inexcusable things that I did to so many innocent animals throughout my teenage years and early adulthood. I killed rabbits and rats in the name of “pest control”. I helped with the killing of “unwanted” calves. I dehorned cattle – subjecting them to an incredibly painful and inhumane procedure, although one which is standard practice right across the cattle-rearing world. I separated countless calves from their mothers, only worrying about my own safety and that of others working on the farm, while finding the very obvious reason for their mothers’ rage and confusion completely understandable. I saw cattle and sheep being beaten with heavy pipes for “bad behaviour”, something I realized from visiting other farms is a common and widespread practice. I sent animals that I loved and respected to auction to be handed over to those who would be responsible for having them murdered and their dead bodies turned into pointless, unhealthy products.
On the other hand, I am extremely grateful for these experiences, because from a very early age my awareness and knowledge of the way animal products are made, and the way animals are abused to make them greatly exceeded that of my peers – and undoubtedly still does. So many people seem to say that they became vegan after seeing a certain movie, or reading a certain book, or finding a certain website. I had no awareness of such things when I became vegan. I was simply motivated to the right thing by my own conscience. Sadly, it took me a while to break through the conditioning, and unfortunately, I see no obvious way to transplant the experience and knowledge that I have of animal agriculture into other people’s minds. Rather, it seems that the urbanization, industrial innovation, consumerism, and division of labour that led us to establish the current global food production system have also disconnected us from the reality of how our food is made.
Finally, if you are working on an animal farm or in a slaughterhouse, please try to stop and walk away if you can. You do not need to keep telling yourself that these terrible things are normal. You do not need to carry on blinding yourself to the truth of the harm that you are causing. You do not need to carry on doing harm. Have the courage to do the right thing.