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'Veganism is about challenging our normality': In conversation with Ed Winters

Rachel Bronnert speaks to vegan activist Ed Winters to discuss his new book, the benefits of a plant based diet and why animal suffering is at the heart of his cause.

By Rachel Bronnert, Arts Editor

Ed Winters, better known as Earthling Ed, is a bestselling author, vegan activist, content creator, debater, and public speaker. After the release of his second book How to Argue With a Meat Eater (And Win Every Time), Epigram spoke to Ed to discuss everything from his journey in activism, the dangers of the meat industry, whether any activism goes too far and if we are all obligated to be vegan.

As we started the interview, I asked Ed about how his work in activism began and what inspired him to dedicate his career to raising awareness about veganism. Ed explained:

 ‘I went vegan in 2015 and then about nine months later I went to an event in London with vegan speakers, youtubers and campaigners from different organisations. I was really inspired by it and by people taking the next steps, in not just being vegan but advocating for it. I studied film at university, so I had a camera, and I knew how to edit videos, so in early 2016 I started making online content. It was a desire to encourage other people to think about this issue. I think most people aren’t against the principle of veganism, but they have never had the opportunity to think about it in a meaningful way.’

Following the publication of How To Argue With a Meat Eater, Ed described the goal behind his second book. ‘The first book was positioned more towards non-vegans and this book is positioned more towards vegans, but not just vegan activists. By being vegan people will just talk to you about it. It is such a divisive and interesting conversation. The idea is to equip vegans with the knowledge and skills to have more effective and respectful conversations. That so often descends into arguments and judgement. The title is naturally an eyebrow raiser as it draws people in. I’ve been invited onto different platforms to speak about it because the title encourages that. When people read it hopefully, they realize its more nuanced and inciteful.’

Moving on to the heart of the debate behind his career and his second book, I questioned Ed on the key reasons behind his veganism. He expressed that ‘the number one thing for me has always been animals. At its core veganism is a movement for animals. Within that there are huge benefits that come to us and our environment.  A plant-based diet has been shown to be the most sustainable diet that we can consume. It’s the diet that removes antibiotics from our food system; it removes the risk of bird flu and swine flu from spilling over and becoming serious infectious diseases.  A healthy wholefood plant-based diet can also help from a chronic disease perspective.’

I suggested to Ed that many of us feel a dissociation between animals we see on farms and the animal products we see in supermarkets. Diving into why this may be the case, Ed suggested that:

‘We are so separated from the process of what happens to animals that we don’t think about bacon coming from a pig, who was most likely farmed very intensively and most likely killed in a gas chamber. We aren’t necessarily aware of the realities of what happens to animals, and as it happens far away there is this detachment. The other factor is marketing. For example, when you go into a supermarket you see pictures of happy animals. We are fed so much misinformation and propaganda. Veganism is about challenging our normality and thinking more critically about our choices and challenging us to dig a little bit deeper away from the narrative that we are sold through marketing. I think veganism can encourage us to be more critical thinkers and think beyond the surface level narrative that is presented to us about these issues.’

In terms of the meat industry itself, about half of the land mass in the UK is used for animal farming and the UK is in the bottom 10% in terms of biodiversity globally. Discussing the dangers of the meat industry, Ed notes that ‘globally, animal farming is the biggest driver of habitat loss, biodiversity loss, deforestation and as a consequence, species extinction.’

Following this, ‘by year 2050 the number killed by antibiotic resistant bacteria will be equal to the number of people who currently die from cancer each year. The biggest use globally of antibiotics is on farm animals. It makes no sense that we use them to keep animals alive just long enough that we can make the most amount of money from them. It’s squandering the miracle of modern medicine on cheap meat.’

Following the recent controversies surrounding ‘Just Stop Oil’ and other more extreme forces of activism, I asked Ed if he believes any activism ever goes too far:

‘There must be a line with anything. When you cross an ethical line it also becomes ineffective as then you do more harm than good. We have to make sure we operate within the boundaries of what is actually effective. There is a lot within that boundary, but we should be hyperaware about whether we are causing more harm than good.’

Shifting gear slightly, I was curious to ask Ed his thoughts about plant-based foods with a higher carbon footprint. According to Climateq, bananas and nuts, (alongside poultry and beef) have some of the highest carbon footprints.

Ed broke down these ideas and explained that ‘we should look beyond it just being plant versus animal. There are good reasons for us to make other choices. I would opt for almonds that don’t come from California as we can get almond milk from Italian and Spanish producers. With chocolate one of the biggest concerns is human rights problems and the deforestation with cocoa farming. Opting for ethical fairtrade chocolate is great and a lot of vegan brands use that, so you can tackle two problems at the same time. I do try to make those decisions as well in terms of some of those more high-risk plant products.’

Another recent study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that consumers are less likely to buy plant-based options if they are marketed as vegan. I asked Ed why he think this might be, he suggested that:

 ‘the word ‘plant’ makes people think it's healthier and sustainable and that it’s not tied into an ideology. Because veganism is an ideology, people feel intimidated by it as a concept, and if they don’t want to subscribe to the ideology in its entirety, I think they can be put off by the idea of it. I also think cynically that people think vegan food tastes bad, but they don’t think ‘plant’ foods taste bad. It’s a complete paradox.’

Following recent discourse on the scrutiny of processed vegan foods, I followed this up by asking Ed what he thought about this issue. ‘It doesn’t concern me as it’s not meant to be an objectively healthy food. Vegan sausages aren’t meant to be a kale and chickpea salad. It is meant to be an alternative to a product that by its nature is already processed. What the evidence shows is that while a plant-based alternative isn’t the healthiest food you can consume, it is healthier than the foods it's replicating. As it stands there is this dangerous narrative being created which is that plant-based alternatives are the big enemy and like poison for you. This is not only antiscientific, but it’s dangerous, as the idea behind these foods isn’t to be a superfood but to be a nice replacement that you can enjoy for the flavour and texture.’

He went on to say that ‘vegan food products are held to impossible standards; they are meant to taste like products such as bacon, which is a class one carcinogen, but they are also meant to be healthy and so if they aren’t like their meat counterparts they get criticized for not being tasty, or if so they are criticized for not being healthy enough.’

Is it reasonable to expect everyone to become vegan though, I ask?

‘There is a spectrum of life and there are undeniably people in the world who are unable to be vegan. For those reliant on food banks to feed themselves and their family for instance, the conversation is very different. Veganism is a moral imperative for those who can be vegan.’

Ed's new book is available now:

Featured Images are courtesy of Penguin Random House Uk

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