Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Veganism is not an uncommon thing to hear in this era. A long time ago, this was considered as some sort of niche diet, but now vegan diets have become mainstream. Although it is almost impossible to determine the exact number of vegans, research shows rapid growth over the years, now at approximately a total of 1.5 million. Surely, this significant growth have developed from many centuries ago and there’s an interesting history behind the popular concept of veganism.
What exactly is ‘veganism’ and who invented the term?
First of all, let’s understand the definition of veganism as we know it today. Veganism is a way of life that eliminates all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty as much as possible. Strict veganism is more of a lifestyle choice rather than a diet. Not only do vegans avoid eating food derived from animals but also prohibit the use of all animal products. People who identify as ‘vegans’ generally aim to eliminate animal exploitation or cruelty in all aspects of their lives. This includes the clothing they wear, the products they use, and the recreational activities in which they participate in.
This term was invented by Donald Watson, a British animal rights activist and co-founder of the British Vegan Society, in 1944. He invented the term ‘vegan’ by taking the first three and the last two letters of vegetarian because, according to him, it symbolized "the beginning and the end of vegetarian". But, before this term was invented, the history of vegetarianism dates back all the way to 3300 BCE.
In the Indus valley in the northern and western parts of India, Indian philosophers such as Mahavira and emperors followed a diet based on non-violence against animals. One of the first people to adopt what we consider a vegan diet was the Arab philosopher and poet Al-Maʿarri, who abstained from using animal products because he believed in the transmigration of souls and protecting animal welfare.
The Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras of Samos promoted kindness to animals and adhered to what has been described as a vegetarian diet. He did not only discover a theorem about right triangles, but Pythagoras emphasized the benevolence of all species, including humans. Around the same time, Siddhārtha Gautama, who is commonly known as Buddha, taught his followers about vegetarian diets. Hindus and Jains also advocated for animal-free diets
The meat-free lifestyle was never really popular in the West, although it occasionally appears during health crazes and religious revivals. A strictly religious sect founded in 1732 in Pennsylvania called The Ephrata Cloister advocated for vegetarianism. Jeremy Bentham, an 18th century pragmatist philosopher, also believed that animal suffering was not of less seriousness than human suffering.
The vegan movement began with William Lambe who was a London physician. He put forth a claim that a plant-based diet could cure "everything from tuberculosis to acne". In the United States, Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the Graham Cracker, invented the "Sylvester Graham 'Meatless Graham Diet'", which also gained a lot of popularity.
This is also the time when Donald Watson coined the term ‘veganism’ and ‘vegan’. Originally, veganism meant ‘non-dairy vegetarian’, but in May 1945 the term referred to the non-consumption of products of animal origin. Ever since 1951, society has defined it as “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals”.
During a period of counterculture in the United States 20 years later, the vegan movement began to pay close attention on diet, the environment, and the growing distrust of food producers, which led to the rise in organic farming and agriculture. In July 1981, Denmark held the first-ever international vegan festival. On the 50th anniversary of the society's founding, World Vegetarian Day was observed on 1 November 1994 by the former president of the Vegan Society, Louise Wallis.
Veganism was declared mainstream in the 2010s as the European Parliament defined ‘vegan’ for food labels starting 2015. The Economist declared 2019 as ‘the year of the vegan’ and The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a summary outlining how a plant-based diet can help combat climate change. In 2020, a UK court ruled that ethical veganism is a protected belief so employers must not discriminate against those who are vegans.
It is impressive to see how much veganism has evolved and developed over the years. Currently, nearly 0.1% of the population is vegetarian, of which 75,300,000 adhere to a vegan diet. With the rising awareness of climate change and the environment, it is within no doubt that these numbers will continue to grow.
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