Nov. 1, 2022

7. Reclaiming Our Vegan Heritage

7. Reclaiming Our Vegan Heritage

Happy World Vegan Day 2022!

Did you know that Ireland has an ancient heritage of veganism and vegetarianism?

Far from being the land of meat and potatoes, the Irish used to enjoy a wide variety of plant-based foods. Let's bring it back!

Featured Music: Kevin Keegan playing Contentment is Wealth/The Cat in the Corner

Featured Clips from:

Eric Adams interview.

The Gamechangers movie.

Dr Corey Lee Wrenn, author of Animals in Irish Society, talking to Animal Rebellion Ireland.

Dr Corey Lee Wrenn, podcast Animals in Irish Society - episode 4 

John Gibbons, of ThinkorSwim, talking to Sentient Rights Ireland.

The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Bring Me The Horizon - Can You Feel My Heart?

"Sin é an scéal anois. Go raibh míle maith agaibh as éisteacht agus fheiceann sibh an chéad uair eile." 

English translation: That's the story now. Thanks a million for listening and see you next time.


See for privacy information.


[Irish music playing]

Narrator: Hello, and welcome back to the Animal Friendly podcast. This solo episode is all about the surprising history of veganism and vegetarianism in Ireland. When I say that I'm vegan now, there is a question that I hear a lot, always asked in the same bewildered tone, "But, what...what do you eat?"

People living in the current food system in Ireland are flummoxed at the idea that you can survive without any type of meat, fish, milk, butter or eggs. They're not even really thinking about survival, as such, they're just wondering; what are you going to have for lunch today? Or dinner?

Vegans joke about this all the time on social media. Seb Alex is a vegan educator and I think it was on his Instagram, where he was asking people how they respond to this question, and there was a whole bunch of comments, until one guy wrote, " guys are eating food? I thought we were just supposed to survive on our sense of moral superiority. No one told me we could have food!"

When people say, but what do you eat, it makes me think, well, what are you eating? Because it's fairly common knowledge by now that the most nourishing diet you can have is one that's centred around plants. I'll let the Mayor of New York, Eric Adams, explain, as he talks about his compelling reasons for establishing lifestyle medicine centres in New York City, where people can learn how to live a healthy, plant-based centred life.


Eric Adams sound clip: If I would have followed the path that I was given, I would not be standing here.  I was going blind. They said there's nothing they can do for you, Eric. You're going to be blind in a year. That tingling that I ignored, they said, you have permanent nerve damage, you're going to lose some fingers and toes.  I was going to have to take insulin every day, I was taking medication, they gave me medication for my high blood pressure, medication for my cholesterol problem, several medications for my diabetes. I had an ulcer, they gave me medication for my ulcer. They said, Eric, this is permanent. Add those dollars, this is not sustainable. And so when you look at the fact, I'm...I did not have to buy that Metformin, the insulin, the high blood pressure, the statins, I don't have to get all of those things. So, it's not how much it costs for this program, how much it's going to cost us if we don't have this program, and those are just the dollar amounts. The traumatisation of my family members, I remember my son when he heard what happened. He says to me, he says, "Dad, you have a BMW, you put the best gas in your car, you didn't put the best food in your body?"


Narrator: But that's New York. It's a convention here in Ireland that we are a people born and bred on a bounty of meat and dairy. Since that is what the majority of Irish farmers produce now. It's almost seen as unpatriotic if you're aren't ingesting both of these three times a day. As Leo Varadker found out pretty quick when he made the comment that he wanted to cut down on his meat consumption. But in fairness, as a doctor, he had the right idea. Inflammation is the key word when it comes to a range of vascular and neurological diseases, and what's a major cause of inflammation? You guessed it, eating meat.


Sound clip from The Gamechangers movie: Protein's important but which package is your protein coming in, is the better question to answer. The plant-based protein, versus the animal protein, which package is going to help the body overcome inflammation and help the body to recover? In animal products, you're getting protein packaged with inflammatory molecules like Neu5Gc, endotoxins and heme iron. When we consume animal products it also changes the microbiome, the bacteria that live in our gut. And the bacterial species that have been shown to promote inflammation overgrow and begin to produce inflammatory mediators like TMAO. In plant-based protein, you're getting protein that's packaged with anti-oxidants, phytochemicals, minerals and vitamins that are going to reduce inflammation, optimise the microbiome, optimise blood supply and optimise your body's performance.


Narrator: But I know what you're thinking. What about the infamous vitamin B12? Don't we have to eat meat to get that?


Sound clip from The Gamechangers movie: It turns out B12 isn't made by animals after all. It's made by bacteria that these animals consume in the soil and the water. Just like with protein, animals are only the middlemen. Before industrial farming, farm animals and humans could get B12 by eating traces of dirt on plant foods or by drinking water from rivers or streams. But now, because pesticides, antibiotics and chlorine kill the bacteria that produce this vitamin, even farm animals have to be given B12 supplements, and up to 39% of people tested, including meat-eaters, are low in B12. As a result, the best way for humans to get enough B12, whether they eat animals foods or not, is simply to take a supplement.


Narrator: And wait 'til you hear turns out that in Ireland, back in the day, our ancestors knew they could survive and thrive perfectly well on a plant-based diet, because they were doing it. Dr Corey Lee Wrenn has written a book called "Animals in Irish Society" and, in it, she explains that meat and dairy were not staples of the historical Irish diet. Far from it. In fact, the Irish were a largely vegetarian society. I'll let Dr Wrenn tell it.


Dr Corey Lee Wrenn sound clip: Veganism is not something that's completely foreign to Ireland. In fact, there's a long legacy of plant-based eating and plant-based foodways in indigenous Ireland. Now, this all changes through a series of different colonial waves, and in the book I go through those in more detail with the Normans...the Normans brought a lot of animal agricultural changes but, by and large, the biggest, longest-lasting colonial relationship was certainly with Great Britain.

Under British rule you see a huge shift to meat and dairy production in Ireland, and of course this tends to be owned by elites and by British absentee owners. And one author has actually explained it in this way, that Ireland was basically an outsourced feedlot, and I don't think there's a more succinct way to frame that.

Because, again, it's extremely resource-intensive, land-intensive, water, feed, all the things that are needed, it's extremely resource-intensive and so Ireland, basically served as that feedlot.

Now this plant-based, this rich plant-based diet that had been a major part of Irish foodways before, has been replaced. Before, it was hazelnuts, crab-apples, uhm, mushrooms, seaweed, goosefoot, knotweed, nettles, all kinds of - I could go on and on, and there's lots of archaeological research to show all the different foods that people ate. That is gone now, because people have been pushed off the land, and they've been disassociated, disconnected from the land.

And all that rich variety has now been completely replaced, and there's high food insecurity, as we famously know with the potato, people are relying on the potato for most of their calories. There's also cabbages. But the diversity of the foodway has just been completely subsumed under animal agriculture. Because, first off, people pushed off the land and secondly, the disconnect also leads to an increasing ignorance about the foods that are available, that are wild-growing.

And I've also heard some people responding to veganism saying, oh well, what about the famine, what about the famine? The potatoes failed us, so we need to rely on animal products, that's what's gonna sustain us, that's our security. But of course the whole reason the famine happened was not because of the potato, it was because of animal agriculture. That was the reason that people put on a naturally unsust...the potato of course is not indigenous to Ireland at all, so their indigenous foodways were completely disrupted, the potato was brought in just to sustain the people so everything else can be made way for animal agriculture. 


Narrator: Even in times of hunger. The Irish called the Famine, An Gorta Mor - the Great Hunger. It wasn't technically a famine because there was food, we just weren't getting it. Privatisation of the land resulted in a widespread disempowerment of the people.


Dr Corey Lee Wrenn sound clip: They could no longer make a living off the land, they didn't have full rights to their own land anymore. They became tenant farmers. Most of the land had to be now cultivated for the British Crown. So there was a lot of loss of property rights, a lot of loss of independence and stability. A lot of the people were pushed off their land also just to make way for cows and sheeps and other agricultural pursuits. 

But this is really at the heart of it, it was...this was a colonisation effort that was really premised on the expansion, not just of colonial power or British power but an expansion of animal agriculture.  I actually prefer the Irish name for the Great Famine, An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, because this was about hunger, not necessarily famine.

In fact, there was more food being produced, during the series of famines that hit Ireland in the seventeen hundreds and the eighteen hundreds than really at any other point because so much of the land had been diverted to food production to feed the colonies. So there are accounts of carts packed full of food passing down lanes out to be exported, passing by starving people desperate for any kind of sustenance. Some people slumped over on the sides of the road, with green smeared around their mouths, where they'd been eating grass just to stay alive.


Narrator: So how did we end up as national producers and suppliers of meat and dairy? In his book, "Sapiens: A Short History of Humankind", Yuval Noah Harari describes how colonised countries will often keep the traditions and culture of the country that colonised them, because that's what they've been living with for hundreds of years, and their own historical culture has been lost. So, they adopt the new culture, tweak it to make it their own, and then become vehemently protective of it. Dr Wrenn describes the same phenomenon as it happened to the Irish.


Dr Corey Lee Wrenn sound clip: Unfortunately, what we see a lot of cases with colonial, ahm, previously colonised spaces, is they will actively embrace speciesism because that helps them to solidify themselves as 'not animal'. Look at us, we're the ones oppressing animals now so we can't be animals anymore. And because these foodways have really been cemented after hundreds of years of colonialism, that's what they're used to, that's what they think that they're good at, and say they use that as a way to secure their new position in the capitalist world system.


Narrator: And that's why we still cling to the land-intensive practices of producing meat and dairy, with a lot of it going as export. The Irish countryside is still being used to feed the British, which would be fine, if it wasn't doing us any harm. But the Irish Environmental Protection Agency and the Irish Wildlife Trust regularly produce reports that animal agriculture in Ireland is responsible for the decimation of Irish wildlife, as well as the pollution and degradation of our soils and waterways. Not to mention emissions. And of course, the destruction of habitats in other parts of the world, in order to grow the food, which feeds our millions of cows, pigs and chickens here.


Damien Mander sound clip, from The Gamechangers movie: The rangers that we support patrol five million acres of wilderness, protecting these endangered species. But the actual biggest threat we have is the meat industry and the land that they are continually taking away from what we have left of these natural wilderness areas. Inch by inch, yard by yard, mile by mile.


Narrator: Animal agriculture is a practice that is running out of time. John Gibbons, environmental journalist, explains, talking first about worldwide land use and then zooming in on Ireland.


John Gibbons sound clip: How we use our land is probably, ah, really important, right? Half our habitable land is used for agriculture. Of our agricultural land, globally, 77% - over three-quarters - is given over to livestock production. Which is grazing land, including arable land. 77%. Yet, that 77% is only producing 18% of the global calorie supply, and 37% of the global protein supply. So, even though crops only account for less than a quarter - ah, crops for human consumption -  less than a quarter of the land use globally, they're producing 83% of the calories. So what that tells you is, we have a system, ah, livestock based systems are incredibly inefficient way of feeding people. Incredibly inefficient way of feeding people! And any country, like Ireland, that is expanding its livestock in the teeth of a climate emergency, is flying in the face of science.


Narrator: The farmers here are not to blame. They are caught in the system of subsidies, and even with that, many find themselves lumbered with spiralling debt. The Irish agri-food industry likes to pit the farmers against anyone who is advocating for plant-based foodways.

It's a well-worn Machiavellian tactic. As he said; tyrants do not care if they are hated, as long as those under them do not love one another. If the tyrannised are busy squabbling with each other, with imagined enemies, then they don't have the time or the energy to question their real oppressors.

Vegans and vegetarians don't hate farmers. Many Irish citizens wish that farmers could be subsidised to grow far more fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts, so we wouldn't be in the ridiculous situation of having to import these products while exporting most of the meat and dairy that's produced here. It would be in all our interests.


John Gibbons sound clip: These are some of the pressures that animal-based agriculture are applying to our global ecosystem: rainforest destruction, deforestation, habitat loss, nitrous oxide, climate change, wildlife destruction, etc. Now, this is from the Chatham House study from a couple of years back, and they said that without a significant reduction in global meat-eating, keeping global warming below 2 degrees will be nearly impossible. Tackling unsustainable meat consumption is therefore a necessity, okay? This is just science, nothing to do with how you feel about that consumption. This is the basic numbers on this. We have to, we have no choice. Researchers calculate that reining in meat consumption to the recommended level would cut agricultural emissions of GHGs by 29%. A global shift to a vegetarian diet would slash emissions globally from the system by 63% and ease all kinds of problems, from deforestation to desertification, eutrophication, water stress and free the land available to grow - to grow food directly for humans and also, by the way, to give land back to nature, to allow rewilding, to allow natural systems to recover. We have hammered nature over the last number of decades. We have to...we have to give nature back space to recover, and if we don't, we're goosed.


Narrator: And incidentally, if meat and dairy are held to be so ingrained and instinctive, why do we have so many ads for them? Why is it constantly being pushed at us? You mightn't think there are a lot of ads...wait 'til you go vegan, you suddenly realise they're everywhere. All these normalised images of dead animals. A lot of vegans and vegetarians find these images gruesome and upsetting, but there they are, on billboards, in bus-stops and flashing up on your computor and phone screens. Maybe you're thinking that the people who find these images upsetting should just grow up...ahh, snowflake vegans. But here's the other side of the story. When Sandra Higgins wanted to buy advertising space for the Go Vegan World campaign, she was told that her ads were too provocative and upsetting. The ads contained no graphic images, just ordinary photos of cows and pigs and lambs, with short paragraphs describing various farming practices. So, images of barbequeued meat are fine, but images of the live animals, with short descriptions of their very short lives, hmm, that's too upsetting. If you find yourself swayed by these ads for meat-eating, you're not alone.


Sound clip of advertising: Steak, that's what a man eats. Made from stuff guys need. Eat like a man, man.


Arnold Schwarzenegger, sound clip from The Gamechangers movie {with advertising voiceovers}: There's no one that can relate to that better than I do because I've lived in that world. Steak, is for men. {Go meat!} They show those commercials, burgers, George Foreman with the grill, and the big sandwiches and all that stuff. {Eat like a man and be full like a man} This is great, great marketing, by the meat industry. {Serious man food} Selling that idea that real men eat meat. {You'll look like more of a man with a quarter-pounder in your hand}

But you've got to understand, that's marketing. That's not based on reality.

I ate a lot of meat. I ate my ten, fifteen eggs a day and, you know, had my 250 grams of protein a day, because I weighed 250 pounds. {The one and only, Arnold Schwarzenegger!} But as I got older and as I started reading up on it, I recognised the fact that you really don't have to get your protein from meat, or from animals as far as that goes. So we start going more in the direction of vegetarian kind of a diet. Now, with doing it the right way, with the right spices, all of a sudden I love it much more than the meat. And, you know, the cholesterol went down, to around 109. It was the lowest that it ever was in my entire life.


Narrator: But even if we'd all rather be eating plants, we're told that, in Ireland, we have little choice because the Irish geology and climate is not conducive to growing plants. Huh. In 2019, a book was published called 'The Wild Food Plants of Ireland'. It's a beautiful book, packed with information and details about all the plants that grow naturally in Ireland, and, in reading it, you can easily see how the ancient Irish would have everything they needed in the plants available to them on the land. Hazel trees can be found almost anywhere in Ireland, and yet, most hazelnuts we use here are imported. As the book says, there's enormous scope for the revitalisation and support of an indigenous industry based around hazel trees.

You can also read about familiar wild foods, such as blackberries, sloes, elderberries and nettles, along with the less well-known sea-beet, sea-kale and sea-buckthorn, which are not all necessarily found at the sea. Seaweed is found at the sea and here in Ireland we are literally surrounded by this highly nutritious food.  Fat hen, also called white goosefoot, is an extremely common plant and it has seeds that are high in vitamin A, potassium, phosphorus and calcium. So, there you go, to everyone who is so worried about vegans and their calcium, I have two words for you - Fat Hen.

Veganism is growing in popularity all around the world. It's not a fad, it's not a craze, it's a movement of people who want to live lives that are totally animal-friendly. And the fact is, that without these people, we're going to end up trying to bargain with the immutable laws of nature, much like the Jennifer Connelly character, pleading with Keanu in The Day the Earth Stood Still.


The Day the Earth Stood Still movie, sound clip: [JC] I need to know what's happening. [KR] This planet is dying. The human race is killing it. [JC] So you've come here to help us. [KR] No, I didn't. [JC] You said you came to save us. [KR] I said I came to save the earth. [JC] You came to save the earth...from us. You came to save the earth from us. [KR] We can't risk the survival of this planet for the sake of one species. [JC] What are you saying? [KR] If the earth dies, you die. If you die, the earth survives. There are only a handful of planets in the cosmos that are capable of supporting complex life. [JC] You can't do this. [KR] This one can't be allowed to perish. [JC] We can change, we could still turn things around. [KR] We've watched, we've waited and hoped that you would change. [JC] Please. [KR] It's reached the tipping point, we have to act. [JC] Please. [KR] We'll undo the damage you've done and give the earth a chance to begin again. [JC] Don't do this, please, we can change...we can change. [KR] The decision is made. The process has begun.


Narrator: The time to change is now. We often hear about the vegan athletes and world-record holders, the vegan actors or influencers, but there are actually millions of everyday, run-of-the-mill vegans: doctors, factory-workers, bakers [music fading in - Can You Feel My Heart, Bring Me The Horizon], teachers, farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs, tech engineers, students, writers, airline pilots, podcasters, politicians and cyber-thrash musicians....[music playing]...Bring Me The Horizon, I hear ya. Anyway, as far as Irish vegans go, far from being unpatriotic, it's good to know that we're actually reviving and upholding our true ancestral food culture. Last word to you, Dr Wrenn.


Dr Corey Lee Wrenn sound clip: I do see that there kind of like a foodie movement that has emerged in the recent decades, where there's more and more curiosity about old foods and old diets and old menus and recipes, uh, like seaweed is getting a...seeing a resurgence, but I think that there's a lot of room to actually re-imagine that veganism is something indigenous to Ireland, not just something from elsewhere, like tofu and tempeh and falafel, which are all...which have all been staples of the vegan diet...but they're from elsewhere, right? So it doesn't just have to be like, foods of the world.

What about even here in Ireland, because I think that's one of the cruelties of the colonial process, is that it has stripped away that rich heritage of Irish cuisine, it's been lost. And I think that now’s the time for us to revisit that.

How can we then ride this crest of the vegan wave and apply it to these post-colonial spaces where food has been dramatically transformed and generally not for the best? We've transformed these countries into meat and dairy-based, like, factories basically where people are just gorging on this junk and non-human animals are dying by the billions.

What if we can remember what was food production and consumption like before all that happened? And so, this is something that is now at a tipping point and Irish culture is gonna have to decide how it wants to deal with it. Right? So do we wanna harken back on that nation-building legacy of colonialism, or do we wanna see veganism as something that's more endemic to indigenous Irish foodways?

[Irish music playing]

AF: Well said. Well, sin e an sceal anois. Go raibh mile maith agaibh as eisteacht, agus fheiceann sibh an chead uair eile.  {Well, that’s the story now. Thanks a million for listening, and I’ll see you next time}.

[Irish music fading out].