The Rise of Veganism in Northern Ireland


     How hungry are you?

What if you didn’t have a supermarket, a butcher shop, or a greengrocer, to rely for purchasing groceries?  Plucking the potatoes from the soil mightn’t be too difficult.  Could you gather carrots from a vegetable patch?  You mightn’t find much difficulty collecting mint leaves for your favourite sauce — perfect with lamb.  But if you had to acquire that leg of lamb by purely your own means, could you do it? This is the moral dilemma which has caused more people than ever to ditch meat and dairy products, and embrace the lifestyle of veganism.  In the UK, the movement is gaining particular traction amongst young people.

The conversation on animal welfare is becoming ever more prominent.  Vegetarian and veganism, ideas that were considered fringe and unconventional for decades, are now becoming mainstream — this is evidenced in television shows like Eastenders and Mrs Brown’s Boys fitting vegan-related storylines into their shows.

The debate on the consumption of meat has even found its way into the higher echelons of politics.  In February 2017, the German government banned any meat products from official government functions, favouring instead menu of vegetarian fare.  The decision came about — in the words of Germany’s environmental minister, Barbara Hendricks — so Germany could be a “role model” by ditching meat for sustainability and environmental issues.

Others argued that their freedom was being impinged, with German minister of food and agriculture, Christian Schmidt, stating, “I’m not having this Veggie Day through the back door. Instead of nanny-stateism and ideology, I believe in diversity and freedom of choice.”

Concerns of animal welfare is not the only motivation why people are eschewing meat.  Another driving factor in the upward trend of veganism is the perceived health benefits of a plant-based diet.  According to registered nutritionist and former member of Jamie Oliver’s nutrition team, Mary Lynch, those who follow an average vegan diet can have higher levels of vitamin C and fibre, as well as having a lower intake of saturated fat.

There is a common misconception, however, that if one eats a vegan diet it is automatically healthy — that is not the case.  According to a vegan diet guideline, published by the NHS, those who follow a vegan diet can be prone to deficiencies in vitamin B12 (a vitamin predominantly found in meat and dairy) as well as other essential nutrients like calcium and iron.

However, with careful planning it is possible to maintain a healthy vegan diet.  For example: most milk alternatives, by companies like Alpro and Koko Dairy Free, contain the essential vitamins and minerals that aren’t typically found in vegan foods.

     Butchers were in dismay at Direct Action Everywhere’s vegan protest in Ballymena 


DxE Protesters outside McAtamney’s Butchers in Ballymena

When the matter in hand is what is on the dinner plate, people feel gutturally obliged to enter the argument.  The controversial nature of the debate on eating meat was clear on the 25th March 2017, when a group of animal rights protestors from the organisation Direct Action Everywhere (abbreviated as DxE) stormed into five butcher shops in Ballymena — disrupting business on a busy Saturday afternoon.

As stated on their website, the goal of Direct Action Everywhere is the complete abolition of any industry that produces animal products. The group posted a video on Facebook, chants of “it’s not food, it’s violence” and “their bodies: not ours”, with some shoppers stating that their children were in shock.  In a post on Facebook, the DxE group stated they faced “violence, speciesism, sectarianism” from shoppers.

Initiatives like Veganuary — set up by the eponymous charitable organisation — is representative in changes in people’s hearts and minds. The initiative encourages people to give up animal products for the month of January.  Last year a survey was conducted for participants of Veganuary, with 81 percent confirming that they would maintain the changes they adopted.

In 2016, around 23,000 people from 10 countries took part in the Veganuary initiative.  That figure increased to 60,000 participants in 2017 — a 62 percent increase.

     Vegan Food Sales Are Increasing

Vegan Society’s label used in marking vegan products

As of November 2016, vegan food sales in the UK have increased by 1,500 percent since 2015, according to the London Economic.  This year the supermarket giant, Tesco, has realised this increase in demand, and has committed to marking any vegan/vegetarian products they sell with a vegan or vegetarian logo.  A spokesperson for Tesco remarked, “We will take a phased approach to updating our product labels with the aim to complete this process within the next two years.’

    How has the rise of veganism impacted the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland?

Despite this increase in demand, agriculture still maintains its position as one of the largest industries in Northern Ireland, with one eighth of UK citizens owing a living to agriculture.  One organisation representing the 29,000-strong farming community in Northern Ireland is the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster — a non-sectarian organisation set-up open to anyone interested in rural life.  YFC has around 2,600 members, from the ages of 12 to 30.

I spoke to the former Chairman of the Tyrone branch of YFC and Castlederg-native, Peter Smith, and asked him if he is concerned if the increasing popularity of vegetarianism and veganism will have an impact on his farming business.  From the start of the interview Peter proudly pinned his colours to the post, stating that he was an omnivore, when I asked how he’d describe his eating habits.

I then asked him his thoughts on the vegan protest in Ballymena on 25th March 2017, and I asked whether he thought their methods of protesting were effective in encouraging people to adopt a vegan diet:

I asked Peter if he has ever been on the receiving end of a protest regarding animal rights, or if he knows anyone in his Young Farmers Club who has had that experience:

I highlighted to Peter the upward trend of veganism, stating to him the increase in popularity of vegan festivals in the UK, as well as the increased number of people signing up for initiatives like Veganuary. I asked if he’s worried about his future business prospects as a farmer:

The NHS state that meat products can be consumed as part of a balanced diet, and are high in essential nutrients like iron and protein. I asked Peter, with that in mind, does he believe that meat is essential to maintaining a balanced diet:

I asked Peter whether or not he thought criticism of poor living standards of animals in farms like his own is justified:

For fast food chains like McDonalds, KFC or Burger King, factory farms are a reality — places where animals exist in cramped living conditions and where there is a premium on expediency of meat production, and where the animals’ welfare takes a lesser priority. I asked Peter what he thought of factory farms:

    Interview with Dunbia Meat Factory employee

Interested into the candid details of what happens on the factory floor of an abattoir — a topic usually shrouded in a veil of mystery and secrecy — I met with a worker from the Dunbia meat factory in Dungannon who wished to remain anonymous. I asked him about the process of how an animal becomes a product of meat that is sold in supermarkets:

Irish Vegan Festival 2017

The Irish Vegan Festival — an event organised by the animal sanctuary Farplace Animal Rescue — took place on Saturday 13th May 2017.  The festival is not only a showcase for Irish vegan produce, but festival goers could also enjoy live music, talks, cooking demonstrations, as well as purchase literature, clothing and cosmetic products.

This year the festival was in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall to meet increasing popularity of the event, with over 5,000 more people attending the event than 2016.  VIP Tickets to the festival sold out within a day of the event announcement, in August 2016 — with 60 percent of the tickets sold in the seven hours.

The increase in popularity of the Irish Vegan Festival correlates to the upward trend of people attending vegan festivals across the UK.  In 2015, there were 36 Vegan festivals/fairs throughout the UK & Ireland.  That number increased to 82 in 2016, and so far this year 130 festivals are scheduled — according to vegan news website

The charts below show a 261 percent increase in vegan festivals throughout the UK and Ireland from 2015, compared with 2017.

  Vegan Festivals in UK 2017

Total: 130 Vegan Festivals

Vegan Festivals in UK 2016

Total: 82 Vegan Festivals

Vegan Festivals in UK 2015

Total: 36 Vegan Festivals


     Eating Vegan in Belfast

There are now more vegan-friendly restaurants than ever before in Belfast.  Restaurants like The Honest Vegan, Giro’s Café, 387 Lisburn Road and Iho, are Belfast-based restaurants offering exclusively vegan fare.

In a recent trip to The Honest Vegan — a restaurant that that begun a couple years ago under the name That Vegan Café (V) — I noticed they have introduced two separate tip jars beside their till: one labelled “vegan”, the other labelled “non-vegan.”  I spoke to the member of staff, who said that it was a “ongoing social experiment” to roughly gauge the diet demographic of their clientele.  He reported that the jars usually contain similar amounts of money, and he said he has been pleasantly surprised how the omnivorous community in South Belfast has embraced the vegan cuisine on offer in the restaurant.

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