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 diet better for our bodies and for the planet than consuming animal products? Rotorua Daily Post 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 Soper Reserve in Mount Maunganui. 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."
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'.
Rotorua's Shirley Braun sold her vegetarian takeaway lunch bar in August. She says two years of working six days a week took a toll on her wellbeing, but she loved providing quality food to vegetarians and omnivores alike.
"People just like the idea they could get a nice healthy salad, something homemade, made on site."
Braun says she stopped using meat substitutes for things like faux burgers after her first year in business.
"Because most vegans didn't want to eat a meat substitute, and those people who weren't vegan or vegetarian said if I wanna eat meat I'll go and eat meat."
Braun says her chef made burgers from chick peas, falafel and kumara, which were very popular.
Sustain offered a wide-ranging menu, says Braun. The cafe served chocolate raspberry tarts along with bliss balls, slices, breakfast bowls with homemade granola and vegan banana bread.
"We had everything covered - vegan mushroom savouries were really popular, as well. We used to get vegan pastry and make up little pies and savouries, vegan afghans, people were mad about those. We couldn't make enough of those."
Braun says food services companies have recognised a movement towards plant-based eating.
"So they're offering lots more products - mayonnaise, pesto, lasagne ... when they start bringing those sorts of products into their lines, you know things are happening."
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 the 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 tiny 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 Rotorua Daily Post 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 supply all those mouths with food.
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 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 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 physio 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's 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 anywhere from 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 says.
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.