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'I became a vegetarian at 16, but I like the idea of being a vegan and saving the lives of even more animals'

Ahead of a vegan fair in Belfast this weekend, Nuala McKeever says a plant-based diet is healthier and could stop animal cruelty

We all love a wee quiz, don’t we? Those quick little personality tests that pop up on the internet where you can find out loads of things about yourself that you’d never thought to ask.

When I was asked to write this article about veganism, I looked up the Vegan Society website. There’s a Northern Ireland section, and it has a wee quiz. All you do is put in your age, where you live in the world and whether or not you eat meat, fish or are vegetarian.

Then a little slider appears sitting at the age you are. When you slide it to the right to push your age up, it calculates how many animals you’ll save if you become vegan now for the rest of your life.

Going by my mother’s genes I might have another 40-odd years in me. If I was a meat-eater, in that time, I would save the lives of 1,456 animals if I became vegan today.

I’m a vegetarian already. Have been since I was 16. If I go the whole hog (should that be the whole carrot, in the circumstances?) and give up eggs and dairy products, I could save quite a few animals before I pop my non-leather clogs.

Try it. Then try and picture all those chickens and cows and pigs and fish and sheep. If they all came by to say thank you, it’d be a huge party you’d have to lay on for a crowd that big. There’d be lots to celebrate.

In the world of Donald Trump and Syria and the refugee crisis and all the other depressing news that pounds us every day, it’s easy to end up feeling very powerless to make a difference in life. The Vegan Society’s wee quiz shows in simple, graphic terms just what a huge impact each of us has, often without even realising it.

Like many people I beat myself up at times because I can’t do everything. I can’t solve the world’s problems. For flipsake, I can’t even work out how to send group emails, so how am I supposed to sort out politics, crime, the environment and childhood obesity? I can’t do everything.

And sometimes, that means I feel there’s not much point in doing anything.

That wee quiz stopped me in my tracks.

There’s a local vegan information fair happening on Saturday in Belfast. Veganism is all the rage, don’t you know! A large UK-organised fair held in the Ulster Hall a couple of months ago was so packed, people queued for two hours to get in.

I hadn’t realised just how popular the whole vegan thing was here. It’s getting more popular by the day. There’s a vegan restaurant on the Lisburn Road called Raw Food Rebellion, and a new cafe, called That Vegan Cafe, has just opened in Stranmillis. Even Enniskillen, not a place you’d consider a bastion of all things avant-garde perhaps, has a vegetarian/vegan cafe, but I think they don’t shout about that part of it, in case it puts people off.

The world of celebrity has also embraced a vegan lifestyle with Avril Lavigne, Natalie Portman, Ellen de Generes and Chrissie Hynde having all been cited as vegans at some stage in their lives. You see, it is easily possible to eat lovely food and drink lovely drinks without having to have any cruelty involved. Saturday’s fair is aimed at showing, through short demonstrations, food samples and talks about food and nutrition, just how easy and appetising veganism really is.

It’s aimed at those people who might like the idea, but have been put off by thinking that it’d be too hard or complicated or boring (just as the ‘vegetarian option’ in most restaurants doesn’t do any justice to what’s possible for vegetarians, what’s available in shops for vegan-living is far more interesting than most people would imagine). If you’re vegan-curious, it’s just the place for you.

Not everyone will become vegan overnight. Not everyone will become vegetarian. I totally realise the hypocrisy of my own position. I was vegan for two years between 18 and 20. Then I spent a year in Spain and it was hard enough even to be a vegetarian there in those days (we’re talkin’ 1984, Spain had only just got over Franco!) never mind a vegan. I slipped back.

And because milk or cheese or a quiche don’t necessarily look like an animal part, consuming them hasn’t had the same revolting effect on me as the idea of eating a bit of dead animal flesh would.

I’m one of the people who say I’d like to be vegan, but I’d find it hard to give up milk in tea and cheese on pizza.

Just like lots of people say they’d quite like to stop eating meat, but they can’t imagine life without a bacon sandwich.

The thing is, like it or not, we all draw a line somewhere when it comes to any subject like this. We know we should wash every glass jar and plastic pot before putting them in the recycling but sometimes we just can’t be bothered, so we put them in dirty.

We know we should stop and ask the guy lying on the footpath with two wine bottles beside him on a freezing day if he’s okay, but we don’t want to end up being responsible, so we drive on and hope someone else will take care of it. We know there are so many problems... and it’s only me. Well, the good news is that only you and only me adds up to a huge impact.

If we all chose more plant-based food and ate a few more meals without meat, eggs or dairy in them, we would have an enormous impact on the lives of animals. Because, let’s be clear, every animal in this country that’s reared for food has a horrible fate. They do. They are killed when they’re deemed ready for food or past their useful life. They are treated as objects.

I know that there are farmers working very hard who look after their animals, but the fact is the animals are only there to be used for food.

That in itself is an unnecessary cruelty. Nobody needs to eat animal products. Nobody. We just don’t. It’s not remotely “natural” either. We’re the only mammal that takes another mammal’s milk for ourselves. So let’s not pretend there’s any need for the horrendous way we treat animals in our agri-business world.

If you are eating meat, especially cheap meat, you may be supporting the suffering of animals. If you consume dairy products and eggs, you may be supporting suffering of animals.

If you find that fact disturbing, then don’t despair. Choose cruelty-free next time you shop.

We as a nation are mad about our pets. How come we make a distinction between a labrador and a cow? Why is it okay to kill one while the other gets to sleep on the couch? There is no logical argument for consuming animal products other than to say “because we want to”.

Hardening our hearts to suffering by looking the other way just leaves us feeling bad ultimately. Just because we don’t look doesn’t mean it isn’t there. They haven’t gone away, y’know.

For more information on Saturday’s information fair at The Centre, Little Victoria Street, Belfast,12-5pm, go to

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