The long legacy of vegetarianism

Tomorrow (1 October) is World Vegetarian Day. To celebrate, ProVeg takes a brief look at the history of vegetarianism and its key role in the growth of plant-based diets around the world.

While veganism has become elevated in the public consciousness over the past few years, for centuries it was vegetarianism that led the way and which represented a kinder worldview that rejected the killing and consumption of sentient beings. And, although both diets have accelerated in recent decades, increasingly gaining traction in the mainstream, vegetarianism has a history that goes back millennia.Ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras was an early advocate for the diet and, as such, vegetarianism was frequently referred to as a Pythagorean Diet in the West until the term ‘vegetarian’ was popularised in the mid-1800s. In fact, the organisation that is now known as ProVeg was previously the German Vegetarian Society (Deutscher Vegetarier Bund), which was founded in 1892. From Leonardo da Vinci to Mary Shelley to Thomas Edison and Einstein in his final years, many of the West’s leading creative and intellectual figures have embraced vegetarianism as a kinder and healthier way to live.

In Asia, vegetarianism has an even longer and more extensive history. The diet has been present in India since the 5th Century BCE, while the concept is also clearly present in Buddhism, which originated between the fifth and sixth centuries, and in plant-based foods such as tofu, which have been consumed in China for more than 2,000 years as well as being a staple of Indonesian, Japanese, and Thai cuisines, and being exported to the African continent before the advent of European colonisation. 

In the 1960s, vegetarianism started to gain mainstream traction in the US and UK, gathering momentum in the 1970s with the North American Vegetarian Society establishing 1 October as World Vegetarian Day in 1977, with the aim of promoting “the joy, compassion and life-enhancing possibilities of vegetarianism.” 

From its history, it’s evident that vegetarianism has always been clearly aligned with plant-based eating rather than focussing on the right to eat cheese! It’s also worth noting that, as with meat, prior to the advent of industrial animal agriculture, dairy products were not as widely available as they are today, and so a pre-20th-century vegetarian diet would have been pretty close to a contemporary vegan diet. 

But not completely aligned! 

In India, most traditionally vegetarian food is close to vegan but for the presence of ghee (clarified butter) and occasional helpings of paneer (cheese curds). Indonesian vegetarian cuisine is predominantly vegan but sometimes contains small quantities of fish oil – or a whole egg! And in the 70’s vegetarian classic, the Moosewood Cookbook, American author Mollie Katzen playfully suggests that anchovies are vegetables! Nonetheless, there is a clear continuum between these vegetarian diets, the growth of the plant-based movement, and the rise of both veganism and flexitarianism. And while plant-based eating has been loudly heralded in the West in recent years, most of the world’s vegetarians are in South America and Asia (with Israel, Australia, and Northern Europe following in their wake).

So let’s put our hands together for the world’s vegetarians and the long legacy of vegetarianism, for reasons of both health and compassion. While it’s true that some contemporary vegans might sniff at the idea of vegetarianism, over the course of the last few thousand years, it has paved the way for the current plant-based revolution, while avoiding the slaughter of countless animals. Which can only ever be a good thing!

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