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Ancient Vegans: A look at vegans throughout history and around the globe

Those of you who have been following BPCM for the past month know that we recently launched a social media campaign to share knowledge about the benefits of eating a plant-based diet. Check out our Instagram and Facebook for some cool graphics that easily explain why and how to reduce the amount of dairy and/or meat you eat. Eating a low/no meat diet has many physical, mental and environmental health benefits. Some elders have shared of how they notice a decrease in joint pain after eating less beef. Speaking from personal experience I can confidently say that my many years as a vegetarian led to a boost in my health and was also helpful for my budget.

Despite what you might think, shifting toward a plant-based diet is not as difficult as it may seem. We simply have to be patient with ourselves and to seek support when needed. Many people are shy to try veganism because of what thoughts come to mind when they read/hear the word. It is a lifestyle choice that is often associated with slim, young, wealthy, white people who shop at Whole Foods and wear clogs. The truth is that throughout history, the majority of the world had lived on a mostly vegan diet. It just was not a part of one’s identity the way it has been made out to be in the modern US language.

For many people around the world eating a plant-based diet was and is the default. This is due to many factors. First and foremost is the cost. Raising animals for any purpose requires surplus resources which are not always available to the working class masses. To keep an animal healthy you need extra water, land (for grazing or exercise) and housing of some kind to protect them from extreme weather. Some people struggle to provide these basics for themselves and their fellow humans, so imagine how hard it would be to do this for an animal that is kept either as a pet or for food. Of course, for those able to make that investment, it pays off because those animals can then be sold for income. This is why some international aid groups will give away goats, cows and other livestock as a a way to support working families. One criticism of this charity is that it’s not enough to just give someone a goat if it means they will have to struggle to keep it. But we’ll save that topic for later.

Another reason that many people live off of a plant-based diet is because it is simply easier to grow and maintain crops than animals. Going off of the previous point, it is usually cheaper to buy seeds for sowing than to buy chickens. Plus, the yield from a season of farming plants will feed someone for a lot longer than the slaughter from one cow. Even on larger, more industrial scales, the cost of farming agriculture is significantly lower than the cost of running a factory farm. Check out our cool graphics on social media for more details on this.

Another important reason why many people eat vegan is for spiritual reasons. There are many faiths in the world, though most of us are only familiar with the big three: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. There are many other lesser known practices that honor animals for their divinity and see them as holy souls. For example, in the Hindu faith, which is practiced by several millions of people in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and elsewhere, a true believer understands the sacred nature of the cow. The cow is seen as an emblem of motherhood, creation and nurturing, and it is a severe insult to cause it harm. To do so is considered the same as abusing one’s actual mother. Of course the level to which a Hindu follows this belief depends on their will and situation, but it is a widely known aspect of the religion. Similarly, the pre-colonial faith of Bori, which originated in Hausaland (west Africa) teaches that all living beings have souls and should be treated with equal dignity. One must be prepared to face whatever fate they impose on another. Bori teaches that to eat an animal means that you should prepare to also be eaten. I am not saying that cannibalism was practiced as a result; simply that people of the faith were less willing to cause pain to another living being because they understood all life to be deeply connected. There are many cliches about native American beliefs around eating and respecting animals. I am not an indigenous to this land, nor do I dare speak of “native American practices” as though they are a single group of people. However, one article I came across talked of the way the Piscataway people of the central eastern United States (including Maryland, Jersey & Virginia) rarely consumed meat, and when they did it was based on what was available for the season. This notion of eating meat as it becomes available during different times of year is one way that we can create balance between our desire to help the planet and our taste for familiar food. We are not asking that everyone become a vegan if to do so disrespects choice and one’s cultural traditions. We instead suggest making gradual shifts toward practices that can contribute to personal and collective wellbeing.

The practice of eating meat is not new, but the scale at which we raise and slaughter animals for food has greatly increased due to Western diets. Even in highly developed East and South Asian nations, you will find that most of the common dishes are plant-based (and delicious!) despite having access to heavy duty machines and space for factory farming. Maybe the leaders and farmers of those places realize that to raise animals for food is more costly than necessary. Or maybe they know that you don’t have to have animal products on your plate for it to be a healthy and tasty meal. How can you practice reducing the amount of dairy or meat you eat? I challenge anyone reading this who does eat animal products to cut it out of just one meal in the next week. You may be surprised how easy it is. And if it is a challenge, you can proudly say you overcame it.

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