An occasional series in which ordinary people
talk about living a plant-based life
My name is Aaron McMurray and I’m from Northern Ireland. I’m a 29-year-old theoretical physics graduate and PhD researcher studying laser driven ion acceleration, which basically means I shoot high intensity lasers at thin metallic targets to accelerate protons and carbon ions. The hope is that one day this technology might have applications in radiography and cancer radiotherapy. When I’m not writing my thesis I’m travelling, practising karate, scuba diving and writing music.
You’re vegan now, were you vegetarian before? What led to that? How long have you been vegan? What led to that choice?
Eating meat was something I didn’t question. It was “normal,” so I dismissed vegetarianism and veganism as hippy nonsense. Of course, I never seriously listened to what vegans and vegetarians actually had to say. My dismissal was a mental knee jerk reaction to something I saw as strange and different.
Eventually, I realised I was taking some of my beliefs as a given, simply because they had been culturally normalised to the point where I didn’t even notice that was what had happened. I came to realise that if I’m interested in believing things which are true and doing good, rather than believing things I like to believe because they make me feel good, then I should really hear vegans out.
I was lucky enough to witness an atheist vegan debate whether atheists should all be vegan at my university’s debate club. They made some good points, but I was left seriously disappointed by the counter arguments. I thought maybe I had witnessed a bad representation of the anti-vegan argument and the opposition was trying to win the crowd with arguments they knew were technically bad, but sounded convincing. I started researching the arguments for and against veganism and couldn’t any good argument against veganism. Nearly all were subject to basic errors leading to inconsistencies, hypocrisy or absurdity. The best I could find was an argument against veganism in survival situations but I’m not in a survival situation. It seemed clear that veganism was the better position.
As a STEM graduate I went to the scientific literature with a question: what did science have to say about eating meat? Turns out, it has a lot to say about it. Animal agriculture is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance (a serious threat to human health now and in the future); it’s a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions; it’s the leading cause of deforestation; it causes land degradation; it aids in the development of oceanic dead zones; and it’s a serious contributor to the loss of biodiversity on this planet. 15,000 scientists from more than 180 countries signed off on a declaratory paper (setting a record for most signatories) warning humanity that nearly all the problems identified above had been exacerbated. Put simply, the current model of feeding people is not only unsustainable, it’s dangerous.
From that point on I was a reluctant vegetarian – accepting veganism was the stronger position but not quite ready to take the plunge, mostly due to all the fearmongering articles written about it in the media.
Supposedly I wouldn’t get enough protein, vitamin D, omega 3, omega 6 or B12; I would suffer digestive issues within a year; I’d become lactose intolerant; I’d gain weight; I’d lose weight; my mental health would decline; and I’d get diabetes. The list of utterly nonsensical claims about living on a planned vegan diet was astounding but worrying to me, having never tried to change my lifestyle this drastically before, so I stuck to vegetarianism for a while.
Not only did I not suffer any adverse effects from vegetarianism, but I felt better physically. I wasn’t tired after big meals anymore, I wasn’t sleeping as much (which was good because before I overslept consistently) and I was able to be more active for longer. I had originally planned to do a year of vegetarianism but considering all the positives I cut it short and went vegan after six months.
I’ve been vegan for several years now. I’m still active and healthy and I feel better than ever; I’m not protein deficient; I get my omega 3 and omega 6; I get plenty of B12; I haven’t suffered any digestive issues; I’ve no idea if I’ve become lactose intolerant or not and have no interest in finding out; my weight didn’t change; my mental health has marginally improved, rather than worsened; and I definitely didn’t get diabetes.
All in all, it has been pretty good.
Do you see yourself ever going back to being an omnivore?
Are you a ‘healthy’ vegan? Often people assume we’re all fitness-obsessed, when the reality is that we come in many flavours and for many people life is an eternal hunt for vegan cake. What makes up your diet?
I’m not fitness obsessed but I am very active. I practice karate and sports karate (kumite) five times a week. I also go swimming once or twice a week and scuba diving once a week and somehow manage to find time to run.
My diet is pretty much what you would expect: a mix of fruit, seeds and nuts, vegetables, grains, beans and lentils and fortified foods.
When I ate meat I often thought it would be impossible to go vegan, I thought it would be too restrictive and that I’d end up eating broccoli feeling miserable. The truth was the opposite. When I went vegan, I came to realise how appallingly restricted my previous eating habits had been. I had been so reliant on meat and processed and pre-prepared foods. Now I’m making my own vegan burgers, sushi, pizza, stir fry, chilli, curries, ramen, falafel, lasagne and even ice cream and cheesecake. That doesn’t sound too healthy, but I figure nobody wants to hear about the fruit salads and vegan granola.
Where do you shop?
For food, I try to buy what I can locally, there are several markets and farmer’s market events held in Belfast and nearby each week, so I tend to pick up as much as I can there. I’m somewhat dismissive of the idea that vegans are in opposition to farmers. We need farmers; we’re in opposition to practices not people. Whatever else I need usually comes from local green grocers. I try to keep my impact on the environment low.
For everything else, I try my best to do my due diligence to make sure whatever I’m buying isn’t a product of non-human animal exploitation and hasn’t been produced in conditions I wouldn’t want to work in myself. It surprisingly doesn’t take that much effort to find out most of the time.
Do you consciously think about where you get your protein, etc, from?
I did when I first went vegan, but I realised quickly that, on an average day, if you just eat to meet your calorie requirements you’ll more than likely hit your protein target. The protein myth is by far the silliest one perpetuated about a vegan diet.
For many vegans, the initial realisation of facts that make us turn to a different lifestyle is pretty life-changing and alienating. We view things differently, from the supermarket shopping experience in a meat-eating world to the people around us. How was that change in mindset – the reality of being an outsider in many situations – for you?
Initially the transition was hard because it was like I had taken the blinders off and it’s true that you do start to see things very differently. The key for me has been focusing on what I’m doing rather than what other people are doing. Veganism challenged me to start taking responsibility for my purchasing choices and the impacts they had on non-human animals. When I started thinking about that it became obvious that I had to take that same responsibility when it came to purchasing other products because if I’m not willing to support the exploitation of non-human animals I’m certainly not willing to support the exploitation of people.
Ultimately veganism makes you more aware of the power consumers have as individuals and as a whole, especially when you see results such as the rapid growth of vegan companies and companies producing plant-based alternatives to everything.
As for feelings of being an outsider… I was an atheist living in a country with deep religious divisions before I was a vegan, so I had already experienced that to some degree. As a kid, most of my friends were catholic or protestant, it wasn’t uncommon for them to question why I didn’t go to church or why I hadn’t been baptised or to even to ask me, “if you had to choose to be a catholic atheist or a protestant atheist, which would you pick?” Even now, revealing that I don’t attend church sometimes draws strange looks from people. I’ve always been an outsider and I’m fine with that, so adding veganism to the list of things that mark me as different never really bothered me.
Do you mix with many other vegans – does your lifestyle mean that you come into contact with people of a similar outlook regularly? Do you seek out vegan groups and forums online?
I meet other vegans mostly through activism and vegan festivals, but my social circle doesn’t include many. That’s not deliberate, I just live a busy life and don’t have a lot of time to form new relationships beyond the ones I had before going vegan. If you’re a vegan looking for vegan friends however activism is great way to meet people.
Do you live in a meat/dairy eating household? And if so, how is that?
I think I’m one of the luckier vegans in that I live in a vegan household and it’s brilliant.
Do you feel you have more in common with vegans than the majority of other people who don’t believe plant-based is the way forward?
I have veganism in common with vegans but aside from that it’s a pretty mixed bag. I’ve met progressive vegans, conservative vegans, centrist vegans; atheist vegans, christian vegans, muslim vegans. I’ve met vegan doctors, scientists, electricians, accountants and plumbers. I’ve met vegans who go clubbing and drink every weekend and vegans who won’t drink anything other than water and almond milk. I’m yet to meet another atheist vegan who is a PhD researcher, diver and karate practitioner. Let me know if you find any.
Do you, as most of us have to, eat out with non-vegans often and how do you feel about their eating choices?
I eat with non-vegans occasionally. Honestly, I avoid it. It’s just easier. Even if I don’t say I’m vegan, somebody else will say it for me, or when I order food which is obviously vegan people will ask why I’m vegan. In my experience, 70% of the time the question isn’t asked out of some genuine desire to learn about your lifestyle or what you think about things but instead is asked to start a debate which I can’t be bothered with when I’m trying to eat.
Are you involved in any form of activism?
Yes, I advocate for animals through street interviews which has generally been a really positive experience. Many people are open to the idea but just don’t know enough about how to go about it or are being held back by reservations about what their family or friends will think.
How do you feel about the vegan jokes… you know, that vegans can’t go five minutes without mentioning the fact or they explode?
They’re not as funny as non-vegans who claim to love animals.
Do you believe veganism to be a fad?
The problem with identifying veganism as a fad is that it doesn’t have the characteristics of one, aside from rapid growth.
Fads tend to appear spontaneously without much underlying reason; grow rapidly in popularity; be novel; and have little to no intrinsic value, instead relying on others to attribute their own personal value or meaning to whatever the fad is. In addition, they tend to draw people into an in-group either because people like being in a “cool” in-group. When the novelty of the fad fades or a new, cooler fad comes along then the fad tends to die.
Veganism however hasn’t appeared spontaneously and is not novel. It has been around for a very long time and been seen in cultures historically and today it’s growing due to consumers having greater access to information about where their food comes from, what it contains and how non-human animals are treated. It has unique value in and of itself in that it’s a lifestyle defined by an ethical position on human interaction with non-human animals, nothing else can fill that role. I can’t imagine too many people wanting to be part of the “in group” that is veganism because we’re not generally considered cool or fun.
I think the growth of veganism will level off. It’s difficult to tell what percentage of the population will go vegan in the near future. I would guess it will level off somewhere between 8% and 12% in the next decade or two. I would like to be wrong about that. Positions which are perceived to be centrist or compromise positions are generally more accessible to people. I think lifestyles like reducitarianism, flexitarianism and vegetarianism will fare better than veganism. I don’t think those lifestyles really address the ethical issues that veganism does though, so I wouldn’t necessarily see it as a great victory.
Do you believe that the meat and dairy industries have a future? If not, what do you believe the timescale for change to be?
Yes, I think they will have a future for a very long time. I don’t think I’ll see the end of beef or dairy in my lifetime. I think we’ll see some scale back of factory farming as plant-based lifestyles and lab meat gains traction. I also think we’re going to see more legal challenges and more negative policy influence from the current animal agriculture industry against lab meat, for instance, preventing lab grown beef as advertising itself as beef so they can then later launch marketing campaigns with slogans like, “don’t settle for fake meat, try the real deal.”
They’ll malign lab meat like they malign plant-based alternatives because they see it as a threat. I also suspect we will start to see greater class disparity in dietary habits with the price of “real” meat increasing making it less accessible to certain parts of the population. Although that’s already happening, with heavily processed meat costing much less than higher quality meats, I think it’s a trend which will continue so vegans need to strive to ensure vegan products are accessible to everyone.
How do you think we best ‘convert’ omnivores to a plant-based lifestyle? And do you actively try to do this?
It’s difficult to outline a general procedure for “converting” people because peoples’ attitudes vary so vastly. Some enjoy the challenge of having a conversation about veganism while others lose their temper pretty quickly, regardless of how diplomatic you try to be, and try to preempt any perceived possibility of judgement by listing your faults, rather than focusing on the conversation. On the other hand, people more focused on the nuances of the conversation, rather than perceived personality flaws, can be much better at performing elaborate mental gymnastics and building complex systems of justification that are harder to work your way through.
The approach I tend to take is to just ask questions. Most people haven’t really thought about why they eat animal products, it’s just something they do because they always have. When you start asking questions, you’ll usually get to a point where their answers contradict one another, and you can ask them if they recognise the contradiction. Most people, who are intellectually honest at least, seem to be willing to accept it when they reach a contradiction. Then it’s just about giving them the information they need and letting them think about it in their own time.
How do you feel about the horror-show videos of the reality of meat? Do you share them? Do you feel they have a positive place in changing people’s understanding of the meat and dairy industry?
I think merely talking about what happens in the industry allows us to hide from the reality. If I tell somebody what’s happening, it’s easy to brush that off but if I show them then it’s not so easy. Imagery stays with you. I think these videos do have a place in changing peoples’ understanding of the meat and dairy industry because when you don’t use them you have to rely on words while the industry uses words and imagery through marketing and advertising.
You’re fighting from the low ground when you start rejecting the use of imagery I think. It’s about showing the disparity between what the industry shows people (happy dairy cows dancing in lush green fields) and the reality of what’s happening (separating calves from mothers, shooting new-born males, kicking and attacking ‘difficult’ cows… etc).
Are you positive about the future of veganism?
Yes and no. I’m glad more people are going vegan, but I’m also concerned with the pervasiveness of utilitarian ethics in veganism. It’s all very well reducing suffering and improving welfare, but utilitarianism does little to address non-human animal rights. Veganism, in my view, should be about more than improving welfare and reducing suffering, it should serve as a moral baseline for the non-human animal rights movement.
What does being vegan mean to you?
Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.