It feels like hardly anyone kicks off the new year by giving up the booze these days; instead, countless social media posts and column inches are dedicated to the clash of two climate-focussed food campaigns, Regenuary, vs Veganuary.
As we wave goodbye to January for another year, I wanted to write a few words on a debate which seems to be splitting its target audience right down the middle, and ask – haven’t we had enough of these over simplified narratives?
Two sides of the same coin
If you’ve no idea what any of this is about, here’s a quick summary of the two campaigns:
- Veganuary is an public awareness campaign which encourages people to go vegan for the month of January. Ultimately the goal is to help people to switch to a plant-based diet long-term – primarily for the animals, but also, for the planet.
- Regenuary, is a movement started by The Ethical Butcher which encourages people to reject veganism as the catch-all answer to our broken food system. Instead, it asks people to source their food from regenerative farms for the month of January. This means buying from farms and producers that have a low carbon impact (or a climate-positive impact), with meat very much included.
What’s apparent, straight away, is that both campaigns seem to share a desire to see our unsustainable food systems become far more climate & nature friendly.
And when I first heard about Regenuary (a couple of years ago now), I was excited about the prospect of a mass-market campaign that would capture the public’s imagination in the way that Veganuary has. I hoped that it would help to inform consumers about the clear benefits of food farmed with nature and the environment in mind.
To me, the campaigns felt like almost like two sides of the same coin with one combined message; eat more plants, and less and better meat.
When two tribes go to war
After further investigation, I was disappointed to find the positioning for Regenuary was far from inclusive. The creators kicked off the campaign with an attention-grabbing narrative which pitted the regenerative agriculture movement directly against the vegan movement.
It’s no coincidence that both Veganuary and Regenuary run in the same calendar month:
As the argument inevitably gathered heat, supporters on social media became hellbent on using the best possible examples of one, to compare with the worst possible examples from the other.
One the one side, ‘plant based’ products of any kind were often presented as a simple, catch-all way to save the planet.
But the Regenuary camp argued that highly processed vegan junk food is paying a big part of the climate and public health problem. It offered up examples of regeneratively farmed, high-quality animal products as the obvious alternative. And there is growing evidence to suggest that if farmed in a regenerative, sustainable way, animal agriculture can have a positive environmental impact, particularly when it comes to restoring soil health.
The problem is that the meat industry isn’t made up of this kind of farming – it represents a very small percentage. It’s widely accepted that animal agriculture is one of the most environmentally damaging industries on the planet; even the the imported feed we give to our livestock causes issues on a global scale.
With the tribal positions from both camps seeming to be more about scoring points than sharing the facts, I was left wondering, who is all of this binary finger-pointing actually helping?
A missed opportunity
To get to the heart of the argument, I dove headfirst into the National Food Strategy – the first full & independent scientific review of what constitutes a healthy diet from a sustainable food system.
If you don’t have time for the full 290 pages (it’s a fascinating, but sobering read) the list of recommendations from the report include a global tax on sugar and salt, free school meals for all, and even GPs prescribing fruit & veg.
But as Henry Dimbleby (the author) stated on stage at last year’s Abergavenny Food Festival, there is one single finding which really stands out – especially when taken in the context of Veganuary vs Regenuary:
“There is NO solution to the problem of biodiversity, nature restoration, carbon, and feeding us enough healthy food, which doesn’t involve reducing meat eating by at least 30%.”
In a nutshell, if we are to have any hope of transitioning to a more sustainable food system, of keeping global temperature rises to a minimum, and of properly feeding our ever-growing population, we have no choice but to eat considerably less meat – however it is farmed. And if there’s one thing the Veganuary campaign is especially good for, it’s helping people to eat less meat; 85% of last year’s participants said they would permanently change their diet by at least halving their intake of animal products.
So whilst I wholeheartedly agree that unhealthy, ultra-processed vegan food should not be marketed as the planet-friendly solution we’ve all been waiting for (it isn’t) – my issue with the Regenuary campaign is that instead of educating the public about the benefits of regenerative farming as an alternative to cheap, unsustainable industrialised food as a whole, it only takes aim at veganism.
In doing so, it misses a golden opportunity to create a truly inclusive movement which would leave everyone better informed.
And with research showing that plenty of major vegan brands are owned by huge companies deeply involved in the meat and dairy industries, it also missed an opportunity to hold the double-crossing ‘big food’ corporations playing both sides to account. Because whilst fast food brands and huge corporations hijacking the Veganuary movement for their own benefit is unfortunate, it’s hardly a shock. As Tim Spector wrote in his Guardian Magazine piece this week:
“The ultra-processed food industry is astute at picking up on trends in order to cash in on them. The ethical impulse to be kinder to animals and the planet is one of those trends.”
So the winner is…
Safe to say. I won’t be picking a side in the veganuary / regenuary debate; I choose to voice my support for neither of them, whilst cherry-picking the best bits of both.
Like the latter, I don’t see industrialised, imported ‘plant based’ foods as the magic solution to our unsustainable food system, but just like the former, I absolutely recognise the need for us all to rear & eat less animals, however they are farmed. As Live Frankly put it so well in their recent newsletter;
“We need to continue calling for a better food system… finding the points of overlap that will help us to move towards healthier food, produced in tune with nature.”
So I’ll be taking the best bits of both campaigns into my diet in 2022 and sticking with my tried & tested mantra of eating more veg, and less & better meat. All farmed in the best possible way I get get my hands on.
It’s the climate positive, evidence-based and inclusive message that the Regenuary movement sadly missed.