Everywhere you look, someone is turning vegan or vegetarian - and telling you all about it. How popular is the plant-based eating scene in the Bay? Is this way of feeding ourselves better for our bodies and for the planet than consuming animal products? Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken explores the impact of a meat-free diet on health, animal welfare and on the planet.
It's just before 1pm Saturday as people queue for tickets at Mount Maunganui's Soper Reserve. They've come to buy products, hear speakers and listen to music, but mostly, they've come to eat. This is Vegan Vibes, billed as the Bay's first dedicated vegan festival.
Food stalls showcase fare such as Hungarian langos (fry bread) heaped with tomatoes and pesto or dusted in cinnamon sugar; vegetarian hot dogs; faux fried chicken; barbecued Miso eggplant and deep fried bao bun; paella; kimchi omelette; and a 'McMuffin' with scrambled tofu, 'bacun', avocado and cheese that looks much like its namesake.
For a sweet tooth, there's vegan gelato, raw tiramisu slice, banoffee pie, Snickers bites and so much more ... Scents of fried dough, spices and pineapple mingle as patrons stand, sit and walk with their meals. "Where did you get that and what's in it?" asks one woman of another, pointing at something resembling a taco. Woman number two motions towards a food truck and says the filling is spicy cauliflower.
Now it its fourth year, Vegan Vibe's stated purpose is to educate and entertain through food, products, talks, performance and exhibitions. It welcomes all eaters, even omnivores. I ate vegan chicken salad with peanut butter dressing from V on Wheels and a cinnamon-sugar langos. Delicious.
"They're very, very yummy," says Hana Stevenson, nodding at her garlic langos.
"We're vegetarian. It's really nice to come to a place where you don't have to worry about what you can eat. You can eat everything. There's so many options people can experience ... you don't have to eat [only] carrots and lettuce."
Stevenson was raised vegetarian, calling herself a 'hippie from the Coromandel' who now lives in Tauranga with her husband and children.
"It's really cool to have discovered this."
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Beside her, 8-year-old Sophie and 11-year-old Lucy munch their langos, one puffy slab heaped with walnut pesto.
Paddy Maddren waits with his two girls, ages 5 and 3, for vegan hot dogs. His family, including wife and twin 18-month-old boys, travelled from Auckland for the event. They've been eating mostly vegetarian for eight months.
"My wife, really, she did it first to lose weight and get healthy and then just went from there. Kids don't seem to mind."
Maddren says he still eats meat, but not as much as he used to. He holds remnants of a vegan wrap. "What's in it?" I ask. "Not too sure," he replies, saying it was pretty good.
There are additional rows of stalls selling vintage clothing, honey, peanut butter, tempeh, soy candles … and a tent for speakers. Shortly before 2pm, Auckland vegan activist Chris Huriwai is talking to a couple dozen people about the slaughter of bobby calves (more about that later). One of his slogans is 'Peace starts on your plate'.
Rachel Garbary is the 29-year-old co-owner of a smoothie and coffee trailer called Vitality Organics. She and her partner have been operating in downtown Mount Maunganui for four years. Garbary says she's not a strict vegan, but mostly eats that way, which means no animal products such as milk, butter, cheese, meat and honey.
"I like to eat intuitively and 99 per cent of the time, my body's craving plants and natural foods. Every couple months if I'm craving an egg or fish, I'll source that. It's more about where the food is coming from, rather than what's going in."
Garbary says many of her customers are already on the veggie trail, and she's noticed an uptick the last few years in the number of them questioning product ingredients or switching from cow's milk flat whites to an alternative such as soy or almond.
"I'm definitely seeing a rise in people who want to clean up their diets and becoming more empowered through eating foods that'll support their health and wellness."
She says she buys organic products and local fruits and vegetables in season. Garbary prefers domestic produce, but bananas and mangos come from overseas.
"I like to keep it as simple as possible, getting as much as possible from farmer's markets without waste and looking at the bigger picture of what we're putting on our plates in terms of food miles."
Even if she avoids animal products, Garbary doesn't call herself vegan.
"I don't like the idea of telling other people what they should or shouldn't eat - you can get vegans who are very attached to that title - and I like to be a bit more intuitive and open and flexible."
She says diet is deeply personal. For some people, going vegan or vegetarian is about health and the climate; for others, it's about animal rights. Above all, Garbary wants us to respect each other's choices.
"I always want to think about methods behind the production. It can be very political depending on your reasons behind it."
Politics show up in places like a local Facebook page, Tauranga Vegans.
Here, members not only share food tips, but links to activities like the recent climate change strike and marches for animal rights. They also seek vegan candidates to support for local elected positions. Some posters seek vegan roommates, with one saying they're tired of living with 'omnis' (meat eaters).
Vegan protests against the killing of animals for meat have ramped up recently, with activists last month blocking a meat fridge at a Hamilton Countdown. They held signs saying, "It's not food, it's violence", and "Stop eating animals". The same group staged a similar protest in Auckland.
It was part of an international grassroots movement called Direct Action Everywhere, which uses confrontation to try to disrupt the normalisation of meat eating.
Non-profit animal rights organisation Sentient Media says 150 million animals are killed worldwide each day for food - and that's only on land. Video of factory farms shows pigs crammed into jail-like pens; baby chicks being pulverised by machines and the now-infamous video of bobby calves in New Zealand being dragged away from their mothers, thrown into trucks and beaten to death.
Activists say veganism is about more than what people eat - a protest by a Tauranga vegan group last November involved seven protesters holding signs outside the Tauranga Racecourse with sayings like, "Horse Racing Kills" and "Cruelty is not Entertainment".
Organisers told the Bay of Plenty Times they hoped their peaceful demonstration would inspire people to think differently about horse racing, especially after the death of a horse involved in the Melbourne Cup race.
"We are advocating against seeing horses as an object or unit of production or entertainment," said Nina Lopez.
"You can dress up and get drunk and have a good time in a field with your mates any time, it doesn't need to involve animals."
Growing Cadre of Plant People
Sales of dairy milk alternatives, like soy, almond and lactose-free milk, have risen 250 per cent globally since 2000.
An article in The Guardian last year says the number of vegans has increased 160 per cent over the past 10 years. The popularity of the topic of veganism is evident on social media; #vegan has nearly 85 million posts on Instagram.
Businesses from My Food Bag to supermarkets and local cafes are hopping on the vegan train. A Vegan Food and Living report released early this year ranked New Zealand third in the world for veganism.
Research shows nearly one in 10 Kiwis are vegetarian or mostly meat-free. A report earlier this year said people identifying as meat-free grew 3 per cent, from 7 per cent in 2017, and had steadily risen since 2014.
No large-scale farming operation is immune from problems, say experts. The Guardian reports veganism isn't as environmentally-friendly as you might think, as we stock trolleys with mangos from India, lentils from Canada, beans from Brazil and gogi berries from China.
"Eating lamb chops that come from a farm a few miles down the road is much better for the environment than eating an avocado that has travelled from the other side of the world."
The article says Western society's demand for avocados and quinoa has pushed up prices so high, people in their countries of origin can no longer afford them. And critics say industrially-grown soybeans, corn and grains require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides.
Also, growing and processing of plant products can involve animals like deer, rodents, birds and freshwater fish being harmed or killed.
Veganaustralia.org reports it's common agriculture practice: "These can be wild animals harmed during clearing land for plant farms and food factories, animals used to produce the manure, fish meal and blood and bone used to fertilise plants, insects killed by pesticides, other 'pest' animals killed to protect crops and stored grains, wild animals harmed by harvesting machines and animals harmed during transportation and processing of plant products."
Plus, the article says some crops are fertilised by bee colonies managed by commercial beekeepers.
Researchers in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics say the collateral death toll involved in crop production includes billions of wild animals.
"Traditional veganism could potentially be implicated in more animal deaths than a diet that contains free-range beef and other carefully chosen meats."
But they also pose the question of how collateral animal deaths might compare with those of chickens or pigs who spend their entire lives in confinement.
Veganaustralia.org says there's a fundamental difference between animal farming and plant farming.
"Animal farming requires the suffering and death of animals. Plant production does not. Because of this we should encourage better plant farming practices."
Those practices include using green manures, companion planting and encouraging natural pest control.
Climate Science and Diet
Our global population is expected to swell to around 10 billion people by 2050.
Scientists say we won't have nearly enough agricultural land to feed all those mouths.
What's the most sustainable way for us to survive? Business Insider Deutschland reported researchers from six US universities published findings last year showing veganism and regular, substantial meat consumption would lead to severe food shortages. But they said a lacto-vegetarian diet (including eggs and dairy products) may be the most efficient way to maintain sufficient long-term nutrition. Researchers say the vegan diet leaves too many resources unused, and different crops require different types of land for adequate yield.
Vegans eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, soy, legumes (beans), nuts, and seeds, so there's an assumption plant-based diets are healthier than omnivorous regimes.
Nutritionists say that's not necessarily so, pointing out french fries, faux burger patties and fake processed chicken can all be high in sodium and fat.
Registered dietician and nutritionist Fiona Boyle of Tauranga says she sees vegetarian and vegan teenagers whose mums have tasked them with preparing their own food.
"They do a plate of veges. That's not going to be helpful because they're missing out on an important source of protein. You need to balance meals ... meat, eggs and cheese offer very important nutrients. Just taking them out and not replacing them with the correct protein choice is not going to be healthier for you."
Boyle says B12, Omega 3 fatty acid and iron deficiencies can result from plant-based diets. She says our bodies absorb nutrients much better from food than from pills and encourages people to eat a range of healthy foods.
"Understanding what protein-rich foods are, the role of nuts and seeds; it's about doing some research and becoming aware of what you need to eat."
She says soy milk has a good amount of protein, but rice, almond and oat milks do not. They also lack minerals needed for young children's growing bones.
"My view is they still need that source of iron and calcium from dairy foods and enough energy for growth as well."
Stickability of vegetarian and vegan diets has been an issue: An article in last month's The Listener said, "US research organisation Faunalytics found 84 per cent of vegetarians and vegans abandoned their diet in 2014. A third of these did so within three months of going meat-free, and another 53 per cent within a year."
Plant-based diets can also mask eating disorders. At least one study published last year in the US National Institutes of Health journal found vegans and vegetarians tended to display more orthorexic eating patterns, meaning they were overly-fixated on healthy eating.
Those who balance vegan diets show it can be done successfully. Some of the world's top-performing athletes are vegan; so are some of the Bay's top performers, like physiotherapist and coach Brad Dixon, who, days before his 44th birthday, placed third in the Tauranga marathon while fuelled on a plant-based diet. His friend, Mel Aitken, who won the women's marathon, shares a similar eating style.
Bay Business Opportunities
V on Wheels has been delivering plant-based frozen meals since 2016.
Founder Mila Arena says she started her business from home to serve Tauranga clients, but in the last six months has grown her delivery area to the entire North Island.
She's stocking shops like Huckleberry and Bin Inn. Whereas she used to make and deliver all the meals herself, she now works with a chef and has much of the food couriered. Arena says the company delivers between 20 to 300 meals per week.
"I have freezers everywhere and try to keep them full. If there are heaps of orders, the stock is there. I just have to work faster to restock."
Arena, a native of Argentina, says she went vegetarian eight years ago for "compassion reasons", but then had a bout with sickness that encouraged her to try to heal herself through nutrition.
"I realised it was so easy to make just vegan food, and anyone can eat it."
Arena has won two Innovator of the Year awards locally as the first vegan online meal delivery service in New Zealand. She says her most popular dishes are lasagne and curries.
"The point of the business is to bring clean meals to people and go back to their roots of what they're eating ... just avoiding preservatives and chemicals and product ingredients that are too processed."
Bay foodies have a growing number of vegan, vegetarian and plant-friendly cafes and restaurants to visit, including George Cafe, The Nourished Eatery and Gratitude Cafe. Indian, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants also get high marks on Trip Advisor for being vegetarian-friendly.
Kitchen Takeover's Secret Garden
The art of presentation, new taste sensations and hundreds of chatty diners combined over six nights this past week during an event called The Secret Garden. The vegan pop-up restaurant held at Mixture Cafe in Mount Maunganui is the food baby of Tauranga's Stacey Jones.
Jones started Kitchen Takeover last year to offer Bay residents a mystery feast with top-level cuisine. Her first event, a 10-course Vietnamese-themed banquet at Spongedrop Cakery in the Mount last February, sold out in two hours. Jones cooked all the food herself. For the next event, she hired international chef Shane Yardley to prepare a meal with the theme of Hunter Gatherer at Central Deli.
"Seventy per cent of the food was foraged or gathered from our local region," said Jones.
The first dinner had 30 people for one night; the second event fed 100 people over three nights.
"It's the full experience ... a secret location, you find out one hour before the event, there's no menu, no venue, no wine list to look at. It's sort of a leap which makes it quite exciting."
Kitchen Takeover's Secret Garden was a five-course plant-based degustation. It featured chef Yardley's beetroot ravioli stuffed with broccoli and almonds; smoked miso tofu wrapped in collard greens and a palate cleanser of coconut yoghurt rock cooled with liquid nitrogen for a 'wow' factor.
Jones says, "I think there's a perception around it [veganism] for some people anyways that's it's a bit dry and bland, and we wanted to showcase what's possible. To look at pushing trends and what's hot in the food world, because that's what Kitchen Takeover is about. We've really designed the menu to just be amazing foods that happen to be plant-based and vegan."
As an invited guest of The Secret Garden, I enjoyed the richness and variety of seasonings in the dishes; staff explanation of what was on our plates and the company of fellow foodies during the three-hour feast. I polished off the entire menu and left quite full.