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ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


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Does the call for veganism need to be emotional?

Engineering change in nutrition

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2018). Does the call for veganism need to be emotional? Engineering change in nutrition. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 7.10 (October).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2018). Does the call for veganism need to be emotional? Engineering change in nutrition. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 7.10 (October).

London, 29 November 2018 - Any socio-technical change appears big, insurmountable to pioneers and early adopters. But perhaps I am not exaggerating saying that this is the really greatest one of our times. Can human beings stop eating other animals? Is veganism the definitive answer to climate change and sustainability problems? If we answer yes, and yes to these two questions - as people increasingly do all over the world from the most diverse backgrounds and sectors - we then have to face a third fascinating question: how do we engineer change in nutrition for the whole of the humanity, across all the continents, economic and political systems and cultures?

The global shift towards a vegan age has so far barely touched the food industry- that is indeed much relying on processed meat and other animals products. And when it has tried to, the reaction by the meat industry and those who have massive vested political economical and ideological interests in it has been furiously repressive seeing it as a global menace. Examples are the cow disease in Britain or Oprah Winfrey sued by a Texas cattleman for five years for having exposed on american television the cannibalistic practice of feeding cows with dead cow parts, a practice that the scientific community has blamed as unsafe since long. I did not even know about the existence of so called american food-disparagement laws until I read How not to die: Discover the foods scientifically proven to prevent and reverse disease by Dr. Michael Greger, a physician and international advocate of plant based nutrition. We take for granted we can talk about diet and nutrition freely but in fact in the Country that has freedom of expression at the heart of its Constitution, apparently there are food libel laws that make it illegal to make a comment that unfairly implies that a perishable food product is not safe for consumption by the public. And, of course, it may take lot of money and time to assess in a Court of law basic scientific principles powerful communicated to large audiences on television.

The call for more plants based nutrition has been clearly envisaged and studied in the traditional and innovative healthcare and pharmaceuticals sectors. Major R&D programmes and mergers of pharma and biotech companies have worked on this scenario since the early 1990s with the creation of entirely new lines of food supplement, superfood and self care or natural remedies.

The news of vegan hamburgers and steaks served in new types of restaurants and fast foods in California has reached Europe this year.

But how far can we go in managing diet changes? Shall we do it by regulation or through bold moves and self-disruptive strategies by large businesses? Does any socio-technical and consumer pressure have a real impact on public opinion or do we have to pull the healthcare, drugs administration and medication strings?

Changing habits and cultural preferences in nutrition is hard work. Behavioural economists’ experiments have miserably failed and do not have more credit than religious shamans.

Since the 1950s veganism has found a legitimate space in the public domain as a doctrine, a philosophy saying that human beings should not exploit other animals. In that, vegan activists have been so far quite intelligent because, no matter the substance of their principles, positioning their stance in the arts and religions domains more than in the scientific one has left them relatively free from industrial censorship. Instead, the message has slowly reached out the research communities.

More recently, the vegan associations have moved towards a decisive emotional tone aimed at the public opinion, communicating their values at large with very effective, high impact campaigns against animal cruelty.

An interesting case of self regulation in advertising, the 2016-2017 campaign of the Irish group Go vegan, for instance, has come at a time in which, from all over the World, different institutions, organisations and individuals call for more plant based diet and environmentalists values, touching the same arguments in favour of giving up meat from a different perspective, those pretty mice, dogs, lambs and cows eyes.

Having recently decided to embrace vegan diet principles and practices with great satisfaction for my own health - although I have not given up meat and dairy completely I have eliminated and then reintroduced and reduced their consumption to max one portion per week over the last two years - I looked at the Go Vegan Facebook page with attentive and receptive spirit.

The campaign seemed to me at first having the merit of putting forward such a decisive emotional tone into a debate that from my own point of view is, most of times, hyper-rationale, full of evidence-based directions arising from all sorts of often controversial medical studies and yet quite ineffective.

However, I find myself - not surprisingly, as the majority of people - disliking emotional extremism. I have found the use of some images and claims on social media that have the evident purpose of destabilising people feelings unfair toward both the human audiences and the animal themselves.

Saying that barbecues increase your risks of getting all sorts of diseases does not deliver the message that we need more plant based nutrition across all the generations and social groups. But exposing videos with abuses on animals perpetrated by their farmers does not help neither (these should be prosecuted without hesitation and the sanctions should be heavily publicised instead in my opinion, especially among certain segments of the population).

I have become myself over sensitive on vegan issues through a pathway that has been all but emotional. Instead, informal education opportunities - such reading good books, listening and watching scientific information programmes and documentaries and even professional opportunities to learn more about clinical issues - have fed my spontaneous need to understand how people cope with a wide range of issues related to ageing, health priorities and wellbeing. All leaning towards vegan arguments.

Convinced vegans and serious environmentalists often share the belief that emotional communications is the ultimate weapon to induce lasting behavioural changes among some demographic groups, for instance parents in respect of children or callous, relatively healthy, obese people who are so often even proud of their unhealthy habits - these including smoking, drinking, having lot of meat and refusing any physical exercise with the most extravagant excuses.

In my opinion, a cut on welfare benefits and health related costs required by people that do not change diet or do not exercise enough could be more convincing than exposing them to stories of animal sufferance.

Where is the fairness in a system that requires some affected with chronic illnesses to spend more for their diet and wellbeing to ensure they avoid unhealthy food and habits without a penny of public money support whereas others, with the same condition, keep on diving in gigantic potatoes crisps bags at any possible occasion and wet their glucose levels with gallons of beers and soft drinks per day?

I appreciate the extraordinary results that vegan activists claim in terms of raising awareness and engagement but I do not see any actual prospect of real socio-economic impact in respect of this type of societal challenge .

It is also true that some messages take a very long time to get across all socio-economic layers. In 1807 the British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. More than two centuries on, slavery is still plaguing the humanity and it has found innumerable mechanisms to infiltrate the legal system but at least we can acknowledge that it has become morally and legally unacceptable in its major trading form. Similarly, one day not very far away we may be horrified at the idea of farming and eating animals.

So all in all an emotional call for veganism is not for me but I have sympathy for it. I would not say this is the main route to design and implement change in human nutrition and in the food industry but I appreciate it has had some utility in stirring attention, with the potential and yet counterproductive risk of freezing the cognitive resources required for systemic change here and now. It is unlikely to turn masses away from consuming animal meat: on the contrary, as many noble campaigns that leverage on controversial feelings while trying to delivery information on complex matters, the emotional call for veganism is likely to put off the decision to change and to polarise the debate in ways that just slow down the pace of learning and development of new stances.

The vegan demand for an ethical engagement is disconnected from all the evidence we have on what we know is able to lead to social change from a behavioural, historical, economic or political point of view. But in the long run, I accept it can at least contribute to the creation of a global movement to which we do have to recognise freedom of expression.

Nothing is in the long run more powerful than a single idea open to all.