Interview with Alex Bourke


Alex mange un croissant vegan à Paris
Alex is a long-time vegan activist and friend from London (vegan since around 1991). A few days ago we were discussing ideas around animal rights and vegan activism, and because the things he told me were really interesting, I decided to do a quick interview with him.

Non dairy milk sales in the UK seem to be skyrocketing, huge vegan VegFest events are happening attracting thousands of visitors, and the feedback from visitors indicates that due to these events many visitors go vegan and many more decide to eat more vegan food.

Like Alex said, "Quitting meat and dairy 'addiction' takes most people some months. We are here to help them. And by not getting patronising and condescending, by praising what they are doing right and helping them with information and samples of food at fun events, we can help them to keep moving in the right direction and get to vegan quickly."

Here is the interview:

Christian Koeder (CK): 
The first question I'd like to ask is: How have the vegan festivals in the UK evolved over the last ten or fifteen years? I used to get the impression they were mostly socializing and shopping events for vegans (which is great, too), but it seems they are also becoming quite effective ways of vegan outreach, of "creating" new vegans. What is the new Vegfest concept?


Alex Bourke: 
The early vegan festivals, which started with the London Vegan Festival, were full of vegans, and now happen in many cities around Britain and Europe with up to 100 stalls in the UK and lots of talks, workshops and cookery demonstrations, attracting up to 2,000 visitors. Vegfests, which started 10 years ago in Bristol, then annually in Bristol and Brighton, and now also in London since 2013, are even bigger and can attract up to 10,000 visitors in two days, with as many as 200 vegan stalls, speakers, entertainers including vegan sports and TV stars and cookery demonstrations. They attract vegans of course, but they also do lots of marketing in mainstream media such as local newspapers and discussions on the radio to inform and attract the veg-curious, people who want to try and find out about vegan food for whatever reason. This has been hugely successful. People can discover vegan food with no pressure to go vegan instantly. Like if you went to try meditation and they demanded you become a monk today, and got angry if you said not today thank you, you probably wouldn't return, even though you are really interested to learn meditation. So Vegfests introduce people to all the many kinds of vegan foods, especially the ones they don't know exist like fake meats and cheeses, the things they would miss, and when they taste them and like them, they start to use them... even if they don't instantly go vegan. Heather Mills, the former wife of Sir Paul McCartney, told me at Brighton VegFest that when she first became vegetarian, she really missed the chewy texture of meat and loved the meat substitutes. She invested in the Redwood company, renamed it VBites and opened a restaurant with the same name, wrote a cookbook, and is expanding the company, giving cookery demonstrations at VegFests to show how quick, easy and tasty it is to make vegan versions of popular dishes like pizza or beef Bourguignon in minutes, perfect for a busy family, using vegan cheeses, sausages, chicken, ham etc. For reluctant vegetarians, these foods make the transition to veganism easy, or to just eating more vegan food. At Vegfests there are also lots of bakers with cakes and desserts – which may be healthy or quite sugary and full of fat, but they are delicious, less unhealthy than the dairy equivalent, and unlike eggs and dairy they are cruelty-free.

CK:
I think this is a really great point: "discover vegan food with no pressure". Unfortunately some vegans still dismiss the necessity of meat and cheese alternatives. Vegans don't HAVE TO eat them, but these alternatives are necessary to spread veganism. I think, we need more and more of these alternatives! Which alternatives to animal products would you most like to see become available as soon as possible?

Alex Bourke:
We always joke no one has invented a vegan fried egg. I'd like to see vegan cheese, ice cream and fake meats in supermarkets the way plant milks are, and see the prices come down so that they are cheaper than the animal versions. They must be cheaper to manufacture.


CK:
Yes, more vegan options everywhere! People here are so used to a huge selection of everything... What do you think of Meat Free Monday campaigns?

Alex Bourke:
Meat Free Mondays, which was started in Ghent in Belgium by Ethical Vegetarian Alternative (EVA) as Meat FreeThursdays (sounds better in Flemish/Dutch), recognizes that many people are not ready to go vegan overnight. When people don't do something, there is often a "hidden" reason that has nothing to do with veganism or animals or health, such as they want to fit in with their family, friends or workmates, and becoming vegetarian would automatically make them an outsider. At least that is what they think. Giving up meat one day a week does not seem so "extreme". Of course once you are doing meat free Mondays, it's easy to add another day, and another. Don't attack people for what they aren't doing, praise that they are doing something, and encourage them to look at doing more, but leave the decision with them. Telling people what to do just annoys them, this is something than many animal rights activists don't realise. Giving up meat and dairy is in some ways like giving up drugs or alcoholism, it doesn't happen overnight, especially when you are still surrounded by your "drinking buddies." A great example of this new approach is the Vegan Society's "Love Vegan" campaign. 

CK:
Last question: Do you have any advice for new vegans who also want to become more active in promoting the idea of veganism? 

Alex Bourke:
To get active, join your local vegan group. Or go to some events, meet other vegans, and start a group. If you don't have vegans in your country, contact groups abroad for support and start something. Then other vegans will appear out of nowhere. It's good to go to events where people are talking about their campaigns and learn from them. Or go and intern (do a "stage") in an organisation in another country and learn skills and make contacts.
I wrote a book about how to get started as an activist with my friend Ronny Worsey. I worked at Viva! (viva.org.uk), one of the most dynamic vegan organisations in the world, and Ronny worked at Animal Aid, another great organisation, and we have also been involved in grassroots activism, especially Ronny, who used to share a house with Neil Lea, who founded the Animal Rights Coalition in the UK, a network of grassroots campaigning groups. Our book, which is online, has chapters covering many of the key areas of activism. campaignagainstcruelty.co.uk

CK:
Thank you, Alex!!!

Alex has just published a new vegan guidebook, Vegetarian Paris, see vegetarianparis.com
Also see Alex's website vegetarianguides.co.uk 

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