London (CNN)Ever since Greggs announced its new vegan sausage roll on January 2, the Internet has been ablaze with opposing opinions. Many have been delighted, with many outlets of the UK fast-food chain selling out of the new arrival by lunchtime. Others however, haven’t been so thrilled.
Now, any discussion of veganism online tends to be an absolute minefield. But for all the associated aggro, plant-based eating seems to be on the rise. One 2016 survey found that more than 540,000 people described themselves as vegan — a nearly fourfold increase in 10 years. More than 2,000 books are available at Waterstones with the word “vegan” in the title, Google searches have multiplied in the space of a few years, and in 2017, Just Eat saw a 987% increase in demand for vegetarian takeaways.
Reducing consumption of animal products is demonstrably good for the environment and our health, and the new Greggs roll was developed in response to a petition signed by 20,000 people. The idea that there is no interest in or market for a vegan sausage roll is evidently ridiculous. So why claim so?
Virtue-signalling is a now-stale phrase born in 2015, which describes people who publicly highlight their support for good causes, but care more about you noticing how worthy they are than the cause itself. Recently, an opposing phenomenon has also gained traction.
Performative contempt for anything unfamiliar is a tried and tested means of getting attention for a certain kind of commenter. They pick a target whose actually-harmless behavior appears to threaten some notion of their “core values,” and wring it out endlessly, mocking anyone who defends it. A favorite touchpoint of 2018, and 2019 too, if the last few days are anything to go by, is vegans.
In October, the editor of Waitrose Magazine, William Sitwell, resigned after a bizarre email rant to a freelance journalist who had pitched a series of articles on “healthy, eco-friendly meals.” He replied within 10 minutes, saying “How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat?”
Just a few months earlier, Waitrose had launched vegan sections in more than 130 stores, after increasing its vegan and vegetarian product range by 60%. In insulting vegans, Sitwell was rubbishing a huge — and growing — portion of his customer base. (Having resigned from Waitrose Magazine following that scandal, Sitwell has now joined the Telegraph as a food writer)
The public outrage against Greggs meanwhile appears to have emboldened some. On the evening of January 2, Steve Charmley, the deputy leader of Shropshire Council, tweeted a protest against bus adverts for “Veganuary,” saying they were “being used to promote the fake news of vegangalists!” The tweet was swiftly picked up by many who pointed out that animal agriculture in its current form is unsustainable, and that it was a disgrace to use his platform to pressure a company to change its advertising.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Greggs’ introduction of the vegan sausage roll has caused such a furore — besides stellar PR — is that Greggs doesn’t occupy what people might imagine is a traditionally “vegan” space. Veganism tends to be associated in public consciousness with a particular kind of well-off, Waitrose shopping, yoga practising, Guardian reading bourgeoise.
This probably explains Morgan’s lazy reference to “PC-ravaged clowns,” which makes no actual sense, but seems designed to appeal to a certain idea of a “wronged” everyman.
Myth of veganism
But why shouldn’t veganism be more accessible? Much is made of the notion that eating plant-based meals, which is associated with a longer lifespan and less disease, is automatically more expensive — despite the fact that beans are considerably cheaper than say, steak. And while it is possible to be a vegan incredibly cheaply.
I don’t follow a particular diet, but there have been times in my life when I’ve defaulted to veganism without really intending to, because I couldn’t afford much besides veg, rice and legumes — many of the fun “extras” which liven up the diet can be pricier. The introduction of more options for people who are interested in embracing or already enjoying a less meat-dependent lifestyle, but don’t have a ton of spare cash, is nothing but democratic.
Veganism is also a restrictive diet — in the sense that it eliminates certain foods, as opposed to the now almost, ubiquitous interpretation of “diet” as “eating less.” This means that for people with eating disorder tendencies, it can be used as a cover for orthorexic restriction. But it is perfectly possible to eat a vegan diet comprised entirely of Oreos and deep-fried seitan, or — probably advisable — maintain a balanced, relaxed approach to food within its parameters.
Perpetuating the myth that all veganism is synonymous with anxious salad-crunching is a useful tool for trolls like Piers Morgan, who can write off the opinions of vegans as “hanger,” and their advocacy for the diet as the outbursts of “virtue-signalling.” “gruel-eating” snowflakes. Incidentally, the Greggs vegan sausage roll has 3 grams more protein than its meat equivalent.
The latest backlash against veganism is inherently hypocritical. Those calling for a free-market approach to food production are ignoring the fact that this is exactly what Greggs is. What is being painted as an elitist fringe movement is now mainstream, and Piers Morgan et al seem determined that its advocates are simultaneously malnourished waifs, and extremely threatening.
Perhaps the performative contempt for veganism is less about veganism itself than the wish to unite like-minded people, for whom a hatred of vegans signals other common values. “An enemy of vegans is a friend of mine.”