United Kingdom

Historic Vegan Society at risk of being washed away by allegations of racism, ableism and more

Big ructions have been rocking the heart of The Vegan Society, that 80-year-old bastion of kindness, compassion and gentleness — to animals, that is.

And no, we’re not talking a quick spat over the spelling of hummus. Or the ins and (often dramatic) outs of a spot of fermented cabbage on one’s gut health. 

Or even a spirited discussion about the carbon footprints of tofu and dhal, relative to couscous.

Because just as veganism has finally become cool, popular, right-on and brilliantly mainstream, the institution behind it all seems in danger of being washed away by bitter allegations about, well, pretty much everything you can think of.

Racism, intolerance, white supremacy, transphobia, misgendering, ableism (discrimination in favour of able-bodied people, for those not up to date on their ‘isms’) and lack of diversity — the list goes on, and on.

Last year, the society even commissioned a special report by barrister Ijeoma Omambala QC to investigate claims that vice chair Eshe Kiama Zuri, 25 — who prefers to be referred to as ‘they’ or ‘their’, and describes themselves as ‘black, queer, disabled, working class and non-gendered’ — had posted racist, discriminatory and offensive comments online.

It does seem a bit bizarre. After all, you’d think this super-woke organisation would be all peace, love, lentils and inclusivity.

But clearly not.

Last year the Vegan Society commissioned a special report by barrister Ijeoma Omambala QC to investigate claims that vice chair Eshe Kiama Zuri, 25 (pictured) had posted racist, discriminatory and offensive comments online 

And more recently, everything erupted again over whether veganism — a word invented back in the 1940s by the society’s founder, Donald Watson (often referred to as ‘the world’s most gentle man’) and his wife Dot — was in fact cultural appropriation of food, recipes and traditions from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

It was an article by Zuri — who joined the Society’s council in 2019 — that really stirred things up. 

In it, they alleged that ‘a white man coined the term veganism’ but that ‘hippy vegetarian food’ was built on the culinary traditions of black, indigenous and non-Western ancestral traditions, including dhal from Pakistan, tofu and wheat from China, hummus from the Middle East, and so on and so forth.

Donald Watson: Vegan Society co-founder who coined the term 'veganism'

Born in 1910, Watson - who died in 2005 - became vegetarian aged 14 after a pig being slaughtered on his uncle's farm horrified him

Vegan Society co-founder Donald Watson coined the word 'vegan' as a way of describing non-dairy vegetarians and produced the first copy of the Vegan News in 1944.   

Born in 1910, Watson - who died in 2005 - became vegetarian aged 14 after a pig being slaughtered on his uncle's farm horrified him.

He became vegan in the 1940s, having come to feel the production of milk-related products was unethical.

The Mexborough and District Heritage Society, which has organised the plaque, said he 'played a significant role in founding the modern vegan movement that is now this amazing worldwide movement'.

'Veganism has never been more popular than it is today and all vegans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Donald Watson and the pioneering early members,' it added.

To add to the drama, Zuri claimed they had been misgendered in meetings (referred to by a sex they do not identify as), and five trustees — including Zuri and chair Robb Masters — resigned. 

Apparently, they had all become increasingly worked up about the so-called ‘stranglehold’ heterosexual white men had on the movement.

All of which must surely have seen poor old Donald Watson spinning in his grave. 

Partly at such bitter and generally unedifying behaviour — this is, after all, a society that cites compassion as its raison d’être, and was founded by a man who never, ever quarrelled.

‘Early in life I became adept at raising my eyebrows instead of the strange behaviour of so many,’ Watson once said. 

‘The fact that they are still in place says a lot for the reflex action of the muscles on my forehead!’

But also because the term ‘cultural appropriation’ hadn’t been invented when he and Dot founded the society in 1944 at their kitchen table in Leicestershire with the support of 23 other likeminded, animal-loving friends.

Nor, for that matter, had the words ‘misgendering’, ‘ableism’ or ‘transphobia’. 

This pair just wanted to prevent cruelty to animals in a peaceful, kind and thoughtful way.

It all started for Donald when he was growing up in the mining community of Mexborough, South Yorkshire. 

The son of a headmaster, he was physically weak and deeply sensitive, but also determined.

So when, in 1924 and aged 14, he witnessed the slaughter of a screaming, terrified pig on his uncle’s farm, he decided that ‘farms — and uncles — had to be reassessed’ and stopped eating meat on the spot, contrary to all the received culture and wisdom.

Dairy products followed 18 years later, once he’d come to understand that the ‘biological mechanics of milk production were unethical’. 

He trained as a joiner and went on to teach woodwork in schools in Leicester, where he became an active member of Leicester Vegetarian Society.

And he was very persuasive. When his brother and sister followed in his footsteps to become not only vegetarians, but also conscientious objectors, teetotallers and non-smokers, his mother said she ‘felt like a hen that had hatched a clutch of duck eggs’. 

Nonetheless, both parents respected their offsprings’ decisions.

But vegetarianism wasn’t enough for Donald. 

He abhorred the way the calves were removed from their mother after a few days and how the cows were fed and bred to produce more milk than they would naturally. 

So, in 1944, amid much acrimony and criticism, with a handful of others, he broke away from the burgeoning and already heavily politicised vegetarianism movement and invented a society focused on a new plant-based diet — free from all animal products, including milk, eggs and honey — and avoided wearing any leather, wool and silk.

The name took a little longer to settle on than the central tenets. 

‘Non-Dairy Vegetarian’ seemed to be a bit of a mouthful and none of the suggestions from his fellow enthusiasts — dairyban, vitan, benevore, sanivore and beaumangeur — quite cut it. 

So, in the end, he and Dot simply took the first and last letters of ‘vegetarian’ and came up with ‘vegan’.

‘The word was accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary and no one has tried to improve it,’ he’d say proudly. 

After that, he was flying. 

Somehow between his teaching, fell-walking, cycling, photography, violin-playing and gardening — always digging with a fork, not a spade, for fear of slicing into precious earthworms — he found time to singlehandedly produce a 12-page quarterly magazine called Vegan News.

Vegan Society founder Donald Watson (pictured) died at the age of 95 in 2005 

The first five issues he called ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls’ of the society, because they set out all his main principles: to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and all other practices involving exploitation of animals.

Of course, not all of it was lapped up. 

There was criticism, ridicule and, long before the invasion of avocados, nut butters, beetroot burgers and kimchi, presumably a rather challenging diet.

But it worked for him. His father died of a coronary aged 63, and neither his grandfather nor great-grandfather reached 70 (despite being farmers and enjoying fresh air, exercise and organic food). No one on his mother’s side beat 70, either, but Donald lived healthily and happily until 2005, aged 95.

All that despite refusing all medicines, because of their link to animal testing and vivisection.

He also inspired generations of vegans. Today, there are well over 600,000 vegans in the UK, a huge

Veganuary campaign every January to encourage more of us to try it and endless vegan restaurants, cookbooks, takeaway options and ingredients.

So how ironic now that just as veganism has never been so popular, the society is reeling from this feud.

Of course, there have been fractures before. A breakaway group, the Movement For Compassionate Living, was founded in 1984 by former Vegan Society secretary Kathleen Jannaway and her husband Jack. 

But never anything as vitriolic and bitter as this.

She also noted that the ‘vast majority’ of complaints were unfounded but appeared motivated by an anonymous person’s ‘profound personal animosity’ towards Zuri.

However, that didn’t stop Zuri and the four other trustees leaving — or lashing out in their resignation letters.

Masters described the society as having a ‘toxic environment’ and Zuri accused it of being ‘institutionally racist’, alleged they had been ‘forced out’ due to a ‘smear campaign’ and added: ‘I can confidently say that The Vegan Society is not a safe place for young people, for black people, for queer people or for any other marginalised people.’

The Vegan Society was founded by Donald Watson. At aged 14 he witnessed the slaughter of a screaming, terrified pig on his uncle’s farm and decided that ‘farms — and uncles — had to be reassessed’ and stopped eating meat on the spot

Meanwhile, The Vegan Society — which denies the allegations made against it — is left picking up the pieces.

Yesterday, a spokesman said: ‘There has been conflict among the board that we have been working hard to address and it is regrettable that the most recent resignations were received the day before a planned mediation session.

‘We thank them for their work for the society and wish them well for their future endeavours.

‘As with many charities, The Vegan Society has a number of challenges that we must address as we evolve into an even more diverse and inclusive organisation.’

Blimey. What a mess. And such a very different approach to that of their founder, who was famously so compassionate, calm, brave, modest, and utterly consistent.

Goodness only knows what he’d think of today’s society and the council’s ridiculously woke argie-bargies. 

But I strongly suspect his very expressive eyebrows would be halfway up his forehead.

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