Veganuary versus Februdairy

I’m guessing many readers didn’t participate in or perhaps have even heard of Veganuary! It’s a mostly UK phenomenon, a pledge to go vegan for the month of January. Veganuary claims a record number of people – 167,000 – pledged to try a vegan diet for a month this year. Veganuary was launched in 2014 with just 3,300 people pledging to change their diets – there is no information provided by the organisation on how many people remain vegan for the remainder of the year and beyond.

While the numbers might be small, the media coverage in the UK this year has been quite significant. Vegan activists – including Joey Carbstrong, an Australian with a significant social media following and Earthling Ed – appeared on the BBC breakfast with a UK dairyfarmer Paul Tomkins to discuss the issues – and scored quite a few points.

Some of these more militant activists, like the ones that invaded a Melbourne steakhouse recently – who describe farming practices using offensive and emotive terms like rape, murder and enslavement – may be easy to dismiss and belittle as “nutters”. It’s possible these tactics turn as many people off adopting a “vegan lifestyle” as they convert. However, as an industry we ignore this movement at our own peril.

High profile vegans such as Beyoncé, Ellen DeGeneres and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton cite health, compassion for animals and environmental concerns as their reasons for eliminating meat and dairy from their diets. They are successful and attractive role models for a lifestyle choice that many people – particularly young females – are adopting for one or all the same reasons. While it would be easy to call out the hypocrisy of someone like Hamilton professing concern for the environment while pursuing a career that involves burning fossil fuels for entertainment – he maintains he is doing what he can to reduce his carbon footprint!

Many of these celebrities and their diets are covered in an uncritical, and in fact admiring way by the media – which credits vegan diets with making skins glow and keeping bodies lean and healthy. A moral superiority is also implied which only increases the appeal for young consumers – with limited understanding of farming systems but plenty of access to sensational Netflix documentaries.

It is hard to deny that veganism is on the rise. Certainly, many corporates are getting on board. Tyson Meats has made well publicised investments in synthetic meat start-ups and the proliferation of alternative, plant-based “milks” is a market response to increasing consumer demand. Goldman Sachs announced just last month their investment in a pea-milk start up that raised US$65 million. Bloomberg reports that in the past four years, investors have pumped over US$1 billion each year into food and beverage start-ups including Impossible Foods – which makes plant-based burgers, and Memphis Meats which grows meat from animal cells. Perfect Day is a Silicon Valley start-up that makes synthetic milk by altering the DNA of food-grade yeast to produce facsimile milk with almost identical properties to the real thing.

So back to the UK, where some in the local dairy industry decided to launch their own grass-roots response to Veganuary – Februdairy. Well respected livestock sustainability expert Jude Capper has been the driver of the largely Twitter-based campaign using the hashtag #Februdairy. It aims to promote the industry with 28 days of positive information about all aspects of dairy production.

Unfortunately, the Twitter conversation has largely been hijacked by vegan activists. UK dairy people have gamely tried to engage with many activists, to dispel myths, defend against attacks and misinformation – but with varying success.

Not many people or consumers are on Twitter so it could be argued that the fallout from these interactions will be minimal. However, as Donald Drumpf’s tweets demonstrate – what happens on Twitter doesn’t always stay on Twitter. Social media discussions are routinely picked up by mainstream media, reaching a much wider audience. A Google search on Februdairy at the time of writing turned up mostly articles from vegan publications criticising the campaign and the industry.

It’s clear this campaign was never meant to convert vegans to dairy, but arguably mimicking a campaign to recruit vegans was unnecessarily antagonistic. Pro-dairy tweeters are clearly making an effort to be polite but they are defensive, and unlike many of their vegan counterparts they do not have ready facts or emotional memes at their fingertips. The fallout demonstrates what can happen on a social media platform that is pretty difficult to control.

The lesson that could be learnt from this is to have a clear idea of who you are trying to target and what messages will work with that audience. A good example is the homegrown “Show some #dairylove” Facebook group which had a clear objective of creating a positive space for dairy farmers to talk to and support each other. It has some dedicated admins who ensure that it stays true to its purpose and with over 15,000 members and lots of activity it has been highly successful at that.

Engaging with a community that has limited direct exposure to dairy – or any – farming and may feel some unease or distrust about it is a much more challenging exercise. Consumers have been encouraged to believe that they can make food choices that all but eliminate any impact on the environment, help them live forever and be “better”, kinder people. Rather than completely dismissing these types of aspirations, the industry needs to think seriously about how to regain and grow trust in a highly nutritious and delicious product that has helped sustain humans for centuries. How should those in livestock industries talk about practices that the general community may not understand – or condone. Consumers have many choices, the industry needs to help them feel good about choosing dairy.