Can vegan junk food ever be ethical?
PUBLISHED: 18:30 09 January 2020
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From the KFC vegan burger to the meat-free Steak Bake, vegans and vegetarians are simply spoilt for choice this Veganuary. But can junk food ever be considered ‘ethical’ - even when it contains no meat?
Veganuary is back with a bang this year. A record number of people have pledged to go fully plant-based this month, and some of the world's biggest food chains are following suit by rolling out their very own meat-free ranges. The long-awaited vegan Steak Bake has finally arrived at Greggs, and the KFC original recipe vegan burger has gone down a storm, with the fast food chain seeing sales 500% higher than a standard product launch.
Not to be outdone, sandwich specialists Subway have taken advantage of Veganuary to debut their Meatless Marinara - swapping out their traditional meatballs for a plant-based alternative. Burger King has also seized the opportunity to launch the Rebel Whopper, which combines plant-based patties with non-vegan mayo to create a veggie option designed to appeal to 'flexitarians' and those looking to reduce their meat consumption.
As vegans around the UK celebrate these new product launches, the inevitable backlash has begun. On Good Morning Britain, Piers Morgan worked himself up into one of his famous furies when presented with a Greggs vegan Steak Bake to try on-air. "It's not a steak!" he cried angrily. Indeed, it isn't steak, but a plant-based alternative, as the prefix 'vegan' would suggest. But beyond these pedantic complaints about non-meat products being given 'meaty' names, some of the criticism levelled at these new vegan options has taken aim at the ethics of plant-based junk food.
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Veganism is often portrayed as an ethical lifestyle choice - and is now a legally protected philosophical belief, thanks to a recent landmark ruling. But, as some Veganuary sceptics have pointed out: can spending money at global fast food corporations ever be an ethical choice? After all, KFC is thought to get through 23 million chickens each year in the UK alone, while Burger King's beef suppliers have been linked to massive deforestation across Latin America's tropical forests. We now know that animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of global warming, with livestock farming accounting for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions - more than the combined global exhausts from all forms of transport combined. From methane emissions to food miles and deforestation, fast food corporations certainly have a lot to answer for.
So, no matter how tempting a vegan burger might be - is spending money at one of these fast food giants an unethical act? Does it make you a 'bad vegan'? It would be very cynical to say yes. Fast food corporations might have a sizeable carbon footprint, but so do supermarket chains. All the major supermarkets have extensive meat counters and deli sections, so carrying out your weekly shop means that you will inevitably be putting your money in the pocket of a company that engages in animal agriculture - even if you are exclusively shopping for vegan produce.
Short of foraging for nuts and berries and living solely off your own, home-grown produce, it is difficult to avoid the meat and dairy industry entirely. Rather than criticising vegans for enjoying a plant-based burger, surely we should be praising them for doing their bit and trying to make sustainable choices when it comes to food?
There's enough conflict in the world as it is. Let's not add to it by bemoaning the dawn of the vegan Steak Bake.