Uncovering the history of veganism isn’t easy. For starters, there are still negative attitudes towards vegans and veganism, which have led people to dismiss the lifestyle and those who choose it for being ‘annoying’, ‘extreme’ or ‘self-righteous’. While attitudes are beginning to shift, mostly because of growing awareness of the climate crisis and the impact of the meat and dairy industry, veganism is still seen as a fringe lifestyle by many.

The history of veganism is linked to the history of vegetarianism, but sometimes gets lost inside of it. It is true that vegetarianism has had more time to become acceptable in the US and UK. At first, individual religious sects and moral philosophers incorporated vegetarianism into their doctrine. For example, the Ephrata Cloister, a religious community established in Pennsylvania in 1732, adopted vegetarianism as a core practice alongside celibacy. Jeramy Bentham (1748-1832), the founder of modern utilitarianism, likened human superiority over animals to racism. The first vegetarian society was founded in the UK in 1847. The American Vegetarian Society followed in 1850, founded by the very same Mr Graham who created the Graham cracker. An article from the Daily Evening Transcript, a Boston newspaper, makes multiple vegetable puns in its article about the founding of the American Vegetarian Society, and notes

“the vegetarians adopted a string - not of onions - but of resolutions, by which it appears they are determined to agitate; and not allow us to eat our hot steaks in quiet.”

The activism of vegetarians, and later vegans, made the meat-eating public dig their heels in and develop resistance to the movement that has only recently begun to fade. The food and farming industries didn’t help, with their insistence that meat, and at the very least eggs and dairy, were central to a healthy diet.

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Many vegans begin as vegetarians; and many vegetarians begin as so-called flexitarians. I became a vegetarian for environmental reasons in 2018. I’d actually intended to go flexitarian, but realised after about 6 weeks that I hadn’t eaten any meat and didn’t miss it. Now I avoid dairy milks, and beers, wines and ciders filtered through fish bladders (isinglass).  The first British vegans followed a similar progression. The term ‘vegan’ was first coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, a British carpenter, who wanted to distinguish between vegetarians and those who also avoided eggs and milk. The timing of the founding of the UK Vegan Society was calculated. In 1943, tuberculosis bacteria had been found in 40% of British cattle stock. This allowed the first vegans to claim that their diet would protect people from tainted food and dismiss the claims of unhealthiness that had plagued flesh-avoidance diets for years. By 1949, a formal definition of veganism had been agreed by the society:

“To seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work,
hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man.”

Within five years, veganism had officially become more than a diet. It was now a lifestyle dedicated to avoiding animal products and exploitation in every aspect of life.

Donald Watson (1910-2005), founder of the Vegan Society

However, we have to acknowledge that the principles of veganism didn’t just appear in 1944. In fact, plant-based diets haven’t really caught on in the modern West, when you consider the longer, global history of these lifestyles. The British and American histories of vegetarianism and veganism tell just a fraction of the story. LiveKindly notes that “the history of plant-based foods does not belong to Western countries. And in some regions, plant-based food has been present for thousands of years.” Many followers of Ancient Dharmic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism continue to adhere to meat-free lifestyles as part of their spiritual doctrine. The belief that humans should not inflict pain on animals can be traced back to the very foundation of some of these religions, as far back as the sixth century BCE.  Less common, but still significant, some sects of Christianity, Islam and Judaism have also incorporated non-violence towards animals and flesh avoidance into their religious practice. However, ancient vegetarians and vegans did not just alter their lifestyles for religious reasons. Pythagoras of Samos (yes, the right-angle triangle guy who lived c. 500 BCE) believed it was a moral imperative to show benevolence towards all creatures.

Offerings of food and flowers at Tirta Empul Hindu Temple in Bali, Indonesia. Photo by Pier Francesco Grizi on Unsplash.

Aside from being simply interesting, the history of plant-based diets can be compared to current progress to show just how far we’ve come. According to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, growing to over 600,000 or 1.16% of the population. 42% of all current vegans in the UK made the change in 2018 alone. 2018 also saw UK companies launch more vegan products than in any other country and our purchase and consumption rates of vegan milks, butters, cheese and meat alternatives are the highest in Europe. Despite the upheaval and disruption of 2020, the year saw every flagship UK supermarket launch or expand their own vegan range, while every top UK chain and food-to-go restaurant had a vegan offering. If these trends continue, 2025 will see vegans and vegetarians will make up ¼ of the British population, with flexitarians making up a further ½ of all consumers.  And one final and very Scottish fact: ahead of Burns’ Night in 2019, the demand for vegan haggis at Tesco skyrocketed by 120% compared to the previous year.

Even if you’re just trying veganism for Veganuary, which has become increasingly popular in recent years, or if you’re a committed veggie or flexi, or even if you enjoy an oat milk latte just once in a while, you’re part of a history which sees us changing our diet, lifestyle and culture in response to the needs of the living world. With more animal free options out there than ever before and so many different takes on plant-based diets across the globe, there truly is something for everyone. And if you don’t feel like cooking, ecoeats is here for you. We can bring a tasty plant-based meal, made with love by one of our partners, straight to your front door!

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