Marika Weinhardt celebrates her first veganniversary this January, so we caught up with her to find out what prompted her Veganuary journey and why she stayed on it. 

Marika Weinhardt by Moko Sellars

Marika Weinhardt by Moko Sellars

When and why did you decide to go plant based?

Going vegan has been my defining act of 2017!  I couldn't have anticipated how it would extend to all areas of my life, not just mealtimes. 

I’d been vegetarian since childhood but had told myself so many times that I couldn’t give up cheese I simply didn’t question it. Then I saw a Veganuary poster on the Tube at the end of last December and was inspired to give it a go.  After running down the dairy products in the house my partner Tom and I both made the switch.  After a month immersed in the issues via a Vegan Life Live event and Netflix documentary binge we couldn’t go back.

I’m hugely concerned about climate change.  Animal agriculture contributes at least 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.  Learning this meant I could no longer defend my cheese habit to my own conscience!  As writer Jonathan Safran Foer puts it in his persuasive book ‘Eating Animals’: ‘One of the greatest opportunities to live our values – or betray them – lies in the food we put on our plates.’

You are very active on Twitter around veganism so how important do you think it is for vegans to spread the message in any way they can?

Joining Twitter this year (long behind the curve!) was one of the changes provoked by going vegan.  I’ve always had strong opinions about food but the dominant restaurant critic narrative celebrates meat.  Rather than marginalising the vegan perspective I think this makes it all the more important to voice, to show there’s a widely-held opposing view.

Having said that, often the most powerful thing we can do is lead by quiet example and let others reach decisions in their own time.  It helps to be receptive to people’s interest as meal choices tend to be a topic of conversation, and we can elicit it without being pushy. For example, I offered to do a talk at a work awayday which generated a lot of ongoing discussion that may not otherwise have taken place. In the run up to the new year, people have been telling me they’re going to try and make more vegan choices in 2018 and that seems to give them a sense of accountability which I’m happy to provide! 

A feeling of community and solidarity is so important, and Twitter and other social media platforms are a great way of sharing support and ideas, and including those who might otherwise feel isolated and give up.  For me, the vegan community has made the change in diet fun rather than anything like the sacrifice I might have anticipated.  On a personal level I’m glad to have taken myself out of my comfort zone and be an advocate for an issue I’m passionate about. 

It seems you are passionate about making people aware of climate change- why is this such an important issue?

Climate change is often portrayed as a distant threat in time and space, something affecting polar bears or future generations.  But the truth is it’s happening all around us. A lot of us may know people affected by flooding or storms in the UK or overseas, which have been exacerbated by climate change.

So for me, while animal welfare is hugely important, this is ultimately a humanitarian issue. It's not just about preserving the environment for its own sake.  It's about quality of life - safeguarding the conditions to ensure that people now and in the future have affordable and reliable access to nutritious food and water, secure places to live, and safe, happy communities with hope for the future and which offer enjoyment of nature. It's a basic question of fairness and sustainability in the distribution of the world’s finite resources - I've heard it described it as the major social justice issue of our time which is a good way of putting it.

This is what's currently under threat due to climate change. The good news is there’s huge positive as well as negative potential in consumerism, and food is consumed constantly!  We can all play a part in shifting demand to foods with a lighter carbon footprint which avoid the massive inefficiency of channelling plant goodness via animals.  It’s a matter of taking a moment before choosing food on impulse to stop and think.  We live in a time where we’re well informed, many of us have the luxury of choice, and history is counting on our decisions today. 

So I'm vegan for the people!

If people are concerned about climate change what small things can they do to help the situation?

The biggest thing is to think about how many children we have.  But I recognise this is controversial and not immediately applicable to many of us. Those of us who drive or fly a lot can see if we can reduce that or influence our workplace policy on travel towards more video conferencing for example. But the single biggest change all of us can make immediately and have an impact with several times a day is to go vegan - or shift the balance that way. I find this fact really empowering and it’s great to know you can change – you really can give up dairy cheese! A vegan diet doesn’t have to cost more, and new, convenient options are hitting the mainstream every week - Plant Curious deliver recipe boxes and allplants deliver frozen ready meals.

Why do animals need to be recognised as sentient beings?

It’s vital to keep our humanity at the forefront of our choices and respect our place in the bigger picture.  Recognising animals as sentient beings is part of that.  Animal products reach the consumer in sterile packaging that belies its brutal supply chain.  I don’t think many of us would inflict suffering on an animal first hand, but we unwittingly do so by proxy with our meal choices. Melanie Joy’s excellent Carnism TED talk sheds light on this contradiction.  We no longer value animal products as we should, but have come to expect them in our daily meal choices in order for them to count as food.  This is no individual’s fault and by questioning it we can change this culture.  And it angers me that we’re all subsidising meat and dairy production through taxation.

The argument is sometimes made that if we all went vegan we’d no longer see animals in the fields. I’d rather those animals didn’t exist in the first place than be reared under total control for suffering and slaughter.  

Humans suffer too.  Like many unpleasant jobs in society we outsource our slaughterhouse work to others who have fewer choices.  Evidence has shown that this can have terrible impacts on their wellbeing and interaction with others.

What is your most recent and exciting vegan find?

Ackee is a fruit usually combined with saltfish in Caribbean cuisine. It’s a bit pricey (£3-5 per tin depending on the size) but it can be a killer if wrongly prepared, so worth the investment!  It makes the best scrambled egg substitute - mindblowing. Creamy, yellow and (unlike eggs) no risk of going rotten when stored. Thanks to Wulf & Lamb for bringing this onto my radar.

What is your favourite food to cook at home?

I like baking so have enjoyed the challenge of veganising classics.  It’s also a great way of bringing sceptics on board.  Ms Cupcake and Essential Vegan have stood me in good stead.  Happily for me it turns out there’s nothing that can’t be veganised - it hasn’t been the end of pancakes, croissants and recently, mince pies that I might have feared!

Where is your favourite place to eat out?

Ten Cable Street is a gorgeous supper club venue in E1 that curates the best plant-based chefs and speakers for one-off events.  It’s my new second home.  

For al fresco dining, Fat Gay Vegan’s weekly Hackney Downs market is junk food paradise.

Special mention to the addictive pistachio gelato at La Gelateria in Covent Garden - well worth queuing for.

I picked a great year to go vegan.  After losing interest a bit in what felt to me like London’s generic, meat-heavy dining scene, the vegan odyssey has had me crossing town for meals, discovering new areas and meeting inspiring people.

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