Home » Food systems change for a more just world: Veganism on the rise in the MENA

Food systems change for a more just world: Veganism on the rise in the MENA

by Mohammad Ghazal

The scale of animal slaughter worldwide is staggering. Each year, tens of billions of land animals are killed to feed the world’s insatiable hunger for flesh; the most recent data shows this figure has now reached an estimated 92.2 billion. Meanwhile, around 100 billion aquatic animals are farmed each year, and up to 2.5 trillion fish are either caught or farmed, a number too great to even fathom.

But, as a society, we do not just kill animals; we subject billions of them to lives of misery without compassion or humane treatment. That’s without even touching on the devastating environmental impact of animal agriculture.

According to the latest figures, there are approximately 88 million vegans globally, roughly 1.1% of the population. While that may seem like a small percentage, it is growing fast as more people wake up to the harrowing realities of animal agriculture and fish farming.

ESG Mena spoke to two leading voices on veganism in the Mena to understand more about the movement’s roots, how and why they’re spreading awareness and the way in which veganism is evolving.

Rediscovering veganism’s ancient roots and its place in the contemporary context

While the term vegan was coined just 79 years ago in the UK, Seb Alex, vegan activist, lecturer and founder of the Middle East Vegan Society (MEVS), says its roots in the MENA stem back almost a thousand years. According to Alex, the oldest documented vegan philosopher we know of was Abu Ala’ al Ma’arri, commonly referred to as al Ma’arri. “He wrote a poem called “I no longer steal from nature”, where he denounced using and consuming animal products as well as seeing other animals as commodities,” said Alex.

And this is the lens through which vegans view animals today, as sentient beings capable of experiencing a whole spectrum of emotions, and all deserving of respect and compassion.

At its core, veganism positions itself against speciesism and exploitation, seeking to eliminate all forms of cruelty to animals.

That said, it is also true that the motivations behind adopting this way of life can vary widely. For those such as Alex, veganism is about preventing animal suffering. But for others, it’s about shrinking their climate footprint, protecting their health and in some places, poverty. Sarah El Ebiary, the founder of the Vegetarian/Vegan Society of Egypt, for example, shared that for some in her community, veganism is indeed a product of poverty, with few affording the luxury of choice.

The veganism movement is growing in the Mena, though, albeit slowly, as El Ebiary notes. However, myths and misconceptions perpetuated in the region and beyond are preventing the vegan revolution from being fully realised.

Dispelling myths, facing challenges and spreading awareness

According to Alex, when it comes to the challenges vegans face in the MENA region, they are not dissimilar to elsewhere in the world. “It is common to hear comments regarding the necessity of eating meat to be healthy or the importance of consuming animal products in general,” he said.

Indeed, a recent report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) claimed that meat, eggs, and dairy are an “essential source of nutrients” which are harder to obtain from plant-based foods in the “required quality and quantity.” As British animal rights group Viva notes, this message supporting meat and dairy, is at odds with the scientific consensus, and doesn’t align with its previous reports. That is not to mention the pro-animal agriculture biases throughout the report, and on the scientific advisory committee – according to Greenpeace, the report was also reviewed by meat and dairy organisations. Still, this report, published by a major health organisation and peddled by the livestock sector, reveals just how widespread the misinformation regarding vegan nutrition truly is.

Alex shared that with the help and availability of peer-reviewed data and “countless meta-analyses all pointing towards the correct information,” more and more people are learning “the nutritional benefits of consuming a plant-exclusive diet.”

El Ebiary echoed this: “Unfortunately, obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other food-derived illnesses have killed more people and created more damage than any wars or terrorism in the region. Our Ummah has never been more unhealthy.”

She added that challenges come from “multiple fronts,” including culture, religion, and tradition, which she said “value meat” over health and the environment. Alex agreed and said the religious aspect can be a particular challenge. “A lot of Muslims tend to believe that eating meat is an obligation rather than an act that they were given permission to take part in. It’s important to note that these two are very different from each other,” he said.

“Just because we ‘can’ do something, does not mean we ‘should’. After all, the Prophet’s (Pbuh) diet itself was mostly vegetarian, and Islam is one of the most pro-animal rights religions that exist in this day and age.”

Alex said that he believes that this is something that may change with time. “As the number of Muslim vegans and Muslim animal rights activists grow, more and more people are coming to the realization that animal rights and veganism are fully compatible with the religion of Islam,” said Alex.

Both Alex and El Ebiary founded their organisations to dispel these kinds of myths and misconceptions and spread awareness about what veganism is and the impact it can have.

“The VegSocietyEgypt was founded to be an educational group for vegetarian and vegan people dedicated to animal rights, environmental sustainability, plant-based recipes, and transitioning tips and resources for those in Egypt and worldwide,” said El Ebiary.

Similarly, the Middle East Vegan Society was founded as a hub for veganism activism to spread awareness and educate people in the region. “At the moment, we have several projects in the making, the most important one being the Vegan Islam Initiative, a comprehensive guide on the links between veganism and Islam, prepared by vegan Muslim animal rights activists from across the region, in order to help people see the importance of following a plant exclusive diet as a Muslim as well as the importance of taking care of other animals,” Alex explained.

The organisation has also created the Vegan Guides Initiative, which provides guides on being vegan and buying vegan products in nearly every country in the MENA region. “These guides are being prepared in collaboration with vegans from each of these countries and will be available in both English and the local language (Arabic, in most of the cases).”

Facilitating the transition to a more just system

Food and culture are deeply intertwined in the Mena region, and both Alex and El Ebiary highlight the need to unpack the misconception that Mena cultures and veganism don’t mesh. Both point to the wealth of vegan recipes in the MENA, which are already staples across different cultures in the region. Moreover, both emphasise the importance of making plant-based food accessible and affordable to help facilitate the transition to a more just planet.

El Ebiary noted the “delicious” fruits and vegetables growing in abundance along the Nile region, “seyami” fasting menus that offer mainly plant-based meals during Coptic and Christian fasting holidays, and the standard mezze platter options that include the classic Mediterranean vegan staples. “There will always be a plethora of vegan options available in Egypt and throughout the region,” said El Ebiary.

Elsewhere, she noted that dishes such as Bamya (okra) and Basilla (peas) can be made in the same way, just without meat. “It will save money, take less time to cook, and still taste great.”

Discussing how the MEVS is working to create food systems change, Alex noted the organisation’s corporate outreach program, which is reaching out to businesses (mostly in the food and beverages industry) to help them make healthy and sustainable plant-based options available and affordable for the everyday consumer.

According to Alex, a recent survey by Euromonitor International even showed that views towards plant-based diets are “more amenable” in the MENA region than anywhere else in the world. “We are confident that with the right help and information, both businesses and establishments will take the right measures to help their employees and customers make better choices,” he said.

Yet, while veganism is advancing, there’s still a way to go, and, as El Ebiary notes, we must put an end to the outdated systems that continue to oppress and exploit animals. “This comes from top-down policy changes, including more laws about better treatment of animals, more education about veganism, more government subsidies and incentives on plant farms, and a complete transformation of our food industries.”

When asked whether COP27, the world’s largest climate crisis conference, did anything for veganism awareness, El Ebiary said it had “zero impact” – a thoroughly disappointing verdict. Indeed, COP27 served meat on its menus and failed, like its predecessors, to spotlight animal agriculture despite being one of the biggest contributors to climate change.

“Our group was never notified that the conference was even happening. I found out about it later when I saw memes about all the foreign jets that wastefully flew in for the climate change conference,” said El Ebiary.

El Ebiary added that the meat and dairy industries are “powerful lobbies” that work hard to keep the facts about animal agriculture a secret from the climate change agenda.

As COP28 draws nearer, questions remain about whether food systems change will be on the menu. For the sake of the billions of animals suffering and being killed every year and the millions of people currently paying the cost of the climate crisis, it needs to be. The time for change is now.

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena

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