Had housemates Ian Theasby and Henry Firth not watched the documentary Cowspiracy in 2014, their careers would be very different today. “We both decided to go vegan immediately afterwards,” says Firth, who made the change overnight; Theasby took a month. The film, directed by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn with an updated version later executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, interrogates the environmental consequences of consuming animal products. “The facts in there are really hard to ignore,” says Theasby.
But making the switch wasn’t quite so simple. “We both ate a typical meat-and-two-veg diet beforehand,” says Firth. “I remember googling ‘vegan takeaway’ and nothing came up. There was one vegan sandwich in Pret, but there were hardly any vegan meat alternatives in supermarkets. Back then, veganism was seen as a negative thing, and that stigma permeated throughout the whole country.”
That was six years ago, when the London-based duo, both 36, were still working in digital marketing. Today, having been galvanized by the misconceptions surrounding veganism, they are two of the best-known vegans around thanks to their hugely successful plant-based recipe YouTube channel, Bosh!. Since its 2016 launch, Bosh! has amassed a cult following (they have more than 2 million followers on Facebook) that has led to bestselling cookbooks and an ITV cookery series, in addition to them being hailed as “the vegan Ant and Dec”. Charming, charismatic, and – crucially – accessible, Firth and Theasby are often credited with veganism’s impressive rebrand as something that is not just for affluent yoga teachers, but achievable for all of us.
As Theasby and Firth will attest, the way we think about veganism has changed a lot in recent years. Today, major supermarkets dedicate entire product lines to plant-based foods while most chain restaurants have vegan menus. There are countless social media accounts, books, and films dedicated to celebrating veganism, many of them hugely successful. Meanwhile, the annual Veganuary campaign that encourages people to try veganism for the month of January, has surged in popularity, with a record 582,500 people taking part for 2021.
And yet, as recently as just a few years ago, veganism was perceived as little more than a fad diet adopted by bohemians and animal-rights campaigners. “There’s been a lot of effort recently into making vegan food seem interesting and substantial,” says Theasby. “It’s important to make these foods as familiar as possible so that people who are used to a meat-based diet can make the transition without feeling like it’s so much of a change.”
Not only are Bosh! recipes affordable and fairly simple, they are creative, too. There’s butternut squash carbonara with crispy sage, aubergine and lentil meatball pasta, cauliflower schnitzel, and even vegan mac and cheese. These hearty, flavourful dishes were a far cry from the sad-looking plate of salad and lentils one might have imagined a few years ago.
But while Frith and Theasby might seem like they’re simply championing a new, healthy, way of eating in a playful manner, there’s a very serious intention behind it all. “We’re in a climate emergency right now,” says Firth. “The science is indisputable. The single biggest thing we can all do as humans to help is cut down our carbon footprint – and this largely comes down to what we eat every day.” As the climate crisis rages on, this message has become more urgent. But it’s not without contention where veganism is concerned.
Roughly 14 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities come from livestock, a figure that has led many to argue that the single biggest thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is cut meat and dairy from your diet. However, in recent years, emerging research has found that vegan staples, such as soya, almonds and avocado, can have a sizeable impact on the planet, too, with production of the former responsible for widespread deforestation and the displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples around the globe.
But, as Firth points out, much of this information has been inaccurately related, particularly where soya is concerned. For example, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) states that 80 per cent of the world’s soybean crop is actually used to feed livestock, especially for beef, chicken, egg and dairy production. Nonetheless, this figure is often flagged by those who are staunchly against veganism and continue to argue that it is not as sustainable a diet as people think.
“The thing is, if you look at beef production and compare it to tofu, red meat is responsible for 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gases,” says Theasby before pointing to a comprehensive study, published in Science in 2018, of the environmental impacts of 40 major foods. The top nine were all animal products.
“Livestock are also very inefficient beings,” adds Theasby. “Animal farming accounts for 83 per cent of agricultural land but provides just 18 per cent of our global calorie intake. So we’re giving up a large percentage of the planet to rear the animals but it’s not providing that much in the way of calories that are getting into humans.”
What does he say to people who argue that, in light of the environmental impact of tofu (which ranked 10th in the study’s list, and other vegan foods, veganism isn’t as sustainable and ethical as people think it is? “Of course, we’re all for humans treating farmers well and fighting for better justice for farmers, but that shouldn’t be used as a distraction from the fact that animal products are all at the top of the list when it comes to foods that are bad for our planet.”
Both Theasby and Firth think that this is a message that is getting gradually louder within our society, partly thanks to the likes of Sir David Attenborough, who regularly touts the environmental benefits of veganism, and an increased awareness about how our diets impact the planet.
“I think it’s starting to permeate in the far reaches of the UK, too,” says Frith, aware that for some time veganism was seen as something accessible only to people in cities. “Everyone knows that we should be eating more plants and cutting down on meat, and that’s what Bosh! is all about. We want to enable people to have more vegan meals, it’s not necessarily about making everyone go fully vegan. We just want to show people that you can have a healthy and vibrant diet that comes mostly from plants.”
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