The growth of a movement: the rise of Durham’s Vegetarian and Vegan Society

By Ana Carney

Over the past year, vegetarianism and veganism has been undeniably present in many aspects of our daily lives. From Pret A Manger launching a new veggie menu, to the BBC announcing a vegan-inspired drama, staring Martin Freeman, Joanna Lumley and Dame Eileen Atkins, the social-movement come-diet has saturated our TV screens, airwaves and high streets, and it’s an idea that is gaining traction among the wider population. Interestingly, recent falls in meat consumption in the UK have largely come from ‘flexitarians,’ individuals who have cut down but continue to indulge in the occasional meat meal, suggesting that the vegetarian and vegan movement, whilst not winning over everyone’s hearts and minds entirely, is certainly having a great impact on people’s dietary decisions, one meal at a time.

In Durham, vegetarianism and veganism has unmistakably taken hold, as the Vegetarian and Vegan Society is now larger and more active than it has ever been. In just over a year, membership of the society has more than doubled from 320 in 2015 to over 700 in March 2017, a leap in membership unprecedented among most established university societies. Meanwhile, imaginative activism events like last term’s ‘Chalktivism’ and more diverse and better-attended socials such as ‘V is for Vodka (and Vegan)’ have boosted active participation.

This week, activity is culminating distinctly in the run up to the society’s collaborative campaign with the Animal Rights and Welfare Society, ‘#ChooseVegetarian.’ Running from the 6th to the 10th of March, #ChooseVegetarian will be coming to five of the university’s largest colleges to raise awareness among university livers-in about the numerous health, ethical and environmental benefits of reducing our consumption of meat, as well as to showcase Animal Equality’s novel ‘iAnimal’ project which takes viewers into the heart of the UK’s factory farms through Virtual Reality technology. The #ChooseVegetarian team are also seeking to engage with and address some of students’ biggest concerns with meat reduction, so if questions such as; “where do you get your protein from?” sound all too familiar, then this week will certainly be enlightening.

So what has brought this rapid growth and increasing participation for the Vegetarian and Vegan Society? Over the past 10 years alone, there has been a 360% increase in the number of vegans in the UK, and vegetarians and vegans now represent 20% of 16-24 year olds. The hippie, tree hugging stigma that was once commonplace appears to be diminishing, as health benefits, ethical and environmental advantages become prevalent due to a more positive portrayal in the media. The decision of celebrities such as Serena Williams and Natalie Portman to adopt vegan lifestyles has also, no-doubt, increased popularity and helped to reduce the stigma of these movements as unnecessary and “extreme.”

Greater accessibility of vegetarian and vegan products in supermarkets, means that avoiding animal derived products is no longer a question of a lack of available substitutes, but rather one of personal choice. Furthermore, documentaries such as Cowspiracy, Forks over Knives, and Earthlings, have hit people hard with the realities of the meat and dairy industries and the profound effect our food choices have on the environment, on animal welfare and on our health.

It’s also worth noting the society’s own work. Last year’s, ‘Meet Your Meat’ campaign – a four-day event at the DSU with expert speakers and free lunches – proved to be a great success, Not only did the event bring students’ attention to the issues which attract people to the movement, it also galvanised sections of the membership towards becoming active, participatory members.

Of course it’s not all about organisation and activism. Events such as ‘V is for Vodka (and Vegan)’ social have moved the society from old-school potluck events hosted at student houses into the centre of university life, attracting loads of students to the social side of the cause through some of the things that speak most to students: pizza and vodka.

This combination of activity within the society and changing perceptions among the wider public suggest that the vegetarian and vegan movement is set to rise and rise. As more students become interested in what is, for many, a powerful and inspiring cause, they are undoubtedly encouraged to get involved and find out more, influencing others to do the same.

If this sounds like something you wish to be a part of, your first opportunity to get involved comes this week with the #ChooseVegetarian campaign.

Photograph: Ana Carney

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