Last week, I pitched an article to my favourite food magazine. Inspired by Waitrose’s announcement that plant-based sales had soared 85 per cent, I emailed Waitrose Food‘s editor, William Sitwell, about a new series on vegan food: plant-based recipes, tips from vegan chefs, new ways of cooking with new ingredients. This series wouldn’t just appeal to vegans, I wrote, but anyone looking to eat more healthily and sustainably. The email was sent in a professional capacity, to the email address Sitwell publicises on his website – not, as claimed, a “private email”.
The response I received to my pitch shocked me. It claimed he should instead commission a series about “killing vegans”, to “expose their hypocrisy” and “force-feed them meat”. I responded to the email in a lighthearted way. I tried to engage Sitwell in conversation, to find out why he had such negative feelings about vegans and why he felt that was an appropriate response to an earnest pitch. I didn’t get any answers.
Today it’s been announced that Sitwell has stepped down from his role as Waitrose editor, after his response received backlash on social media. In the past few hours I’ve been asked repeatedly for my thoughts on the matter. I can’t comment on the precise circumstances of William Sitwell’s departure, but I do think his response – to a pitch from a journalist expecting a professional reply – was a shame, and speaks to a wider problem.
Today Good Morning Britain included a segment entitled “Is hating vegans the new norm?”. What a strange and sad headline. Veganism isn’t about trying to make people feel bad. It isn’t about shaming or pointing fingers. It’s a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals. Away from the ethics, a vegan diet has become increasingly popular with people exploring ways to improve their footprint and health. These are not things to mock.
This month, the UN stated that we have just 12 years before the world we know is lost forever. Studies at the University of Oxford show that veganism is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on earth. The world’s largest organisation of nutritional professionals have stated that a vegan diet is sufficiently healthy at every stage of life, including pregnancy. This isn’t “vegan propaganda”. Being vegan doesn’t mean you’re virtue-signalling or pretending to be perfect. It means you’re trying to align your actions with your morals. When did this become something to scorn?
Those who defend Sitwell say it was “just a joke.” That of course he was being facetious. But that’s not the point. This isn’t about Sitwell or why he resigned, it’s about why it’s accepted or considered funny to speak to vegans with hostility and anger.
The lentil-munching, tree-hugging vegan trope is outdated and unhelpful, and the idea that vegans are militant aggressors seeking only to shame and convert people to a hippy, hemp-based lifestyle is simply untrue. There are now more than 3.5 million vegans in the UK, and many are as far removed from the old stereotype as you can get: Lewis Hamilton, David Haye… Yes, some vegans are annoying. So are some meat-eaters. Some are preachy. Some are not. You cannot generalise about millions of people.
Vegans are often criticised for being dogmatic, militant, too extreme or unnecessarily antagonistic. But if this disappointing exchange exposes anything, it’s the belligerent attitude that, sadly, many vegans experience every day, simply for trying to make a positive lifestyle change. Vegans are not “snowflakes”. Perhaps the real “snowflakes”, if we insist upon using this term, are those who become defensive and abusive when anyone dares question the status quo.
From this experience I will take away only the positives: how encouraging the widespread support for veganism has been, how Waitrose and other major retailers are investing in plant-based food, and how – despite waves of irrational anger and aggression from some quarters – there is a mounting support for eating a more ethical and sustainable diet.