“The World’s Fastest Growing Revolution”


Translation: Sahara Rós Ívarsdóttir

“At its core, veganism is concerned with animal protection; boycotting products that take advantage of or exploit animals in any way, whether it be for clothing, food or entertainment, like the circus or zoos,” says Birkir Steinn Erlingsson, vice president of the Vegan Association in Iceland. However, he says that veganism is not about details no one can control in a modern society; rather, it is about boycotting such products as much as possible. “You’re still vegan even if you hit a few flies while you’re driving.” You are not obligated to get rid of products you bought before you became vegan, like a down parka or a leather couch.

The role of the Vegan Association of Iceland is to provide education on veganism, make it accessible for people, create events that draw attention to veganism, and support vegan activism. According to Birkir, the association has up to 400 members.

On the other hand, he says he’s not sure how many Icelanders are vegans. “Actually, conducting a survey on that is next on the agenda. My guess would be that the typical 3-5% of the nation is vegan or on the borderline.” There are over 20,000 members in the Facebook group Vegan Ísland, so there’s clearly a great amount of interest in veganism in Iceland. “There has been dramatic change these last years. You can see it, for example, in the variety you see in the grocery store and in people’s attitudes. Everyone knows what it is today, but few people did five years ago.” Birkir believes that activists around the globe who have preached this message through the internet have contributed most to this change of attitude.

Dedicate a whole month to veganism

Recently, the so-called Veganuary came to an end. Veganuary is a challenge to the general public to go vegan for the whole month of January. This is the fifth time Veganuary was celebrated here in Iceland. “Veganuary was founded by people in Britain who decided to start it by making it as easy as possible for people to get information about veganism and to try being vegan. I think this was started in 2013. Then in 2014, the Association of Icelandic Vegetarians, which is now called the Vegan Association, participated in this project with them. This is a way to make veganism accessible, raise awareness and dedicate a whole month to veganism.”

The Vegan Association has been responsible for various events during the month of Veganuary in cooperation with the Icelandic Environmental Union: informational meetings, movie screenings, symposiums on diet and human rights, and finally a vegan potluck. One of the events involved well-known Icelandic vegans sharing why they are vegan. Participants included actor Arnmundur Ernst Backman, media personality Guðrún Sóley, DJ Margeir, power lifter Hulda B. Waage and the musician Sóley, along with Benjamín Sigurgeirsson, president of the Vegan Association.

People could register for the challenge through the association’s website, and Birkir says there were around 320 participants. “I think that is quite good for Iceland. Of course not everyone registers; we can assume that there were maybe about 500 participants.”

Birkir thinks it’s entirely likely that some participants gave up on veganism at the end of the month. “The time it takes for people to decide whether they would really like to do this varies. Not everyone is prepared to go vegan since it would naturally require a major lifestyle change.”

Important to find yourself a good reason

He recommends people find themselves a good reason if they want to adopt a vegan lifestyle. “My decision is mainly based on ethical treatment of animals and environmental reasons, but good health is a part of it as well. These are the main things that keep me vegan. It can be difficult to go against the flow, so you need to have a good reason for doing this. It’s important to constantly remind yourself of your reason in the toil of everyday life, because that’s when it’s easy to forget.”

Birkir recommends the Facebook group Vegan Ísland (Vegan Iceland) to those who know little about veganism but would like to try being vegan. “It’s also a good idea to participate in a challenge called Challenge 22 (challenge22.com). It’s a 22-day challenge where you get help from nutritionists for free and they make things as easy as possible for you. They say it takes 21 days to change a habit, and here you get 22 days to nail this down.” He recommends people keep things simple and find vegan versions of their favorite dishes, for example, instead of looking for exotic ingredients and complicated recipes.

Encounters most criticism online

Opinions on veganism vary, but Birkir says he encounters most criticism on the internet. “People dare to criticize something like veganism in comment sections or by writing articles. But there are few who are willing to debate face to face because most people don’t know much about veganism. If you know a lot about it, then the odds are pretty good that you lean closer to veganism than anything else. But of course there’s always someone ready for a debate.”

Birkir believes that the reason for all the harsh criticism of veganism lies in the nature of the movement itself. “If you’re vegan, you’re automatically communicating that everyone else is doing something wrong since veganism is an ethical stand against animal abuse. Simply by being vegan, you’re saying that those who eat meat, for example, are doing something wrong. You don’t even have to say anything. Of course people have been brought up eating meat and therefore automatically feel defensive when they’re criticized for it.”

Birkir believes it is important to gather information and face the facts. “If we suddenly saw countless studies revealing that we humans could not live without eating meat, then of course I would not be recommending that people be vegan. But what we’re seeing now is the exact opposite.”

76% less land needed if everyone adopted a plant-based diet

The connection between veganism and environmental affairs has recently been a prominent topic of discussion. “A film called Cowspiracy, which dives deep into the facts of the matter, was released in 2015. The main reason is that we need such a huge amount of land to grow feed for the animals,” says Birkir, adding that we need 16 kilos of plant food to produce one kilo of meat. “Needless to say, we would need less land for farming if we would eat the plants directly.”

As an example of how animal agriculture affects the environment, Birkir mentions that “91% of the destruction of the Amazon rainforests is due to cattle farming. These are shocking figures.”

“A new study conducted by Oxford last summer was the most extensive study ever conducted on food and the environment, and it suggests that if everyone would eat a plant-based diet, we would need 76% less land for farming. Just by hearing this, everyone should come to realise that we need to do something about this.” Studies such as this one have begun to yield results through official policies: “The United Nations would like the general public to decrease its consumption of meat products by 90%.”

Many people doubt that farming in Iceland has such a bad effect on the environment, but Birkir mentions ditches as an example of the direct effects of animal agriculture on the environment. “Here in Iceland ditches are the main source of carbon dioxide emissions. When wetlands dry up, there’s a release of carbon dioxide. An overwhelming number of ditches have been dug compared to how many of them are actually being used. They are made for animal farming, but we wouldn’t need them if we were growing vegetables in greenhouses instead.”

Birkir remarks that technically people are not vegan unless they live a vegan lifestyle due to ethical reasons regarding animals, but he is not really bothered if environmentalists use the label of a plant-based diet. “It’s better to spend your energy elsewhere.” He says that the use of the plant-based label could actually benefit the cause. “When people start consuming plant-based foods, and consider themselves vegan for health and environmental reasons, the result is often that other people start getting to know veganism and realize that animals are being treated terribly.”

We condemn animals to horrible captivity

Birkir says he is optimistic about the future, but his optimism is dependent on his mood. “We’re seeing this vegan movement grow so quickly. This is the world’s fastest growing revolution. It’s just a fact. There are millions of people participating in this and I can see this growing into something gigantic in years to come.”

Birkir says that people are quite concerned with environmental issues now, so veganism will increase in popularity in the next few years. “We need to do something right now, and it seems people are starting to realize that. The most important issue right now is the environment; if we don’t start taking care of it now then we won’t have a future and our children won’t have a future either. If we can’t take good care of the animals, then we must at least take good care of our children and their futures.”

Finally, Birkir says: “Generally speaking, I believe it is good for people to increase their sympathy for animals, because if you start sympathizing with a little chicken, you are more likely to have sympathy for everyone else, even the little ants and of course other people out in the world. They say that the foundation of hatred in the world is speciesism, condemning another species because it’s different.” He points out that white people have condemned black people just because they look different. “We condemn cows, pigs, chickens and lambs into horrible captivity in the same way, simply because they look different and we don’t understand them.”