While in most European countries veganism is widespread, in Iceland it is just starting to be accepted as a lifestyle. But what can be learnt from the vegans themselves?
Harpa Sif Arnarsdóttir, a 27-year old Master student in public administration and Sæunn Ingibjörg Marinósdóttir who is head of trading for health and organics at Samkaup. Both of them have been vegans for three years and believe a change of attitudes is taking place in Iceland towards veganism. Icelanders have increasingly turned to them for advice on the vegan lifestyle instead of judging them, which was the norm until now. Looking ahead they are positive about the future and believe Iceland has the potential to become a centre of organic farming.
What does it mean to be a vegan?
M: Veganism is a vegeterian who eats no animal products, no dairy, eggs and honey and tries to minimise the harm and suffering for the animal.
A: It varies how far people go with this, vegans are people who don’t wear fur, leather or wool or use cosmetics that have been tested on animals or contain animal products. Whoever identifies themselves a vegan tries to avoid animal products as much as possible – you do your best, but animal products are hidden everywhere and sometimes it takes an expert to spot them.
How is the general attitude toward veganism in Iceland?
M: It has changed a lot in the past one to two years. People didn’t even know what veganism was before. The reactions were a little harsh but it has changed and today people are getting more curious.
A: We think of raising awareness about it in a positive way, but sometimes it can be hard when people are disrespectful towards it. It is such a far-fetched concept to some people, the vegan lifestyle, some feel that it is diminishing to their own traditions, the christmas tradition for example when most people eat meat. In the beginning people made a lot of fun of it and said I was crazy. It felt a little like people were waiting and looking forward to see me fail but as time passed and people saw this was possible and their attitude changed.
What needs to happen for this to become more acceptable in Iceland?
M: It is necessary to inform people. First of all, there is no need for everybody to become vegetarians but it is necessary for people to increase the amount of vegetables in their diet, that’s certain. There are also the moral thoughts, you ask yourself if it is for ethical reasons you don’t eat dogs but eat chicken. Last but not least the United Nations are in order to turn around negative impacts on the earth by pushing people to reduce meat consumption and increase the consumption of vegetables.
A: Vegetarianism and veganism are becoming more popular in Iceland, people are coming to us and asking for advice.
What do you consider the biggest misconception about veganism?
A: I have a very good story about that. In the cafeteria at my workplace there was once a discussion about someone who was a vegetarian and how this person along with all the other vegetarians were grey in colour, weak looking and losing their hair. The discussion went on how that particular person had lost all spark of life from her eyes. I sat still and listened while the discussion went on for half an hour. At the end of the discussion I said I was a vegan and asked if I was missing the spark in my eyes? The whole room was in shock, everybody apologised to me although I didn’t take it personally. I don’t know where this stereotype comes from, but whenever people get ill people say it’s just the flu but when a vegetarian becomes ill it is said to be because of a lack of nutrition.
People also think this is a lot of hassle and expensive but that is a big misunderstanding. This is cheaper than most other diets and not more complicated than other cooking. And the claim that we don’t get enough proteins or nutrition is a big misconception.
M: People also think this is a lot of hassle and expensive but that is a big misunderstanding. This is cheaper than most other diets and not more complicated than other cooking. And the claim that we don’t get enough proteins or nutrition is a big misconception. The diet doesn’t become less diverse, there are so many options with vegetarian diet. People tend to look at the typical dish showing the percentage of food you should eat and expecting that when the meat is taken away, there is a hole they believe won’t be filled.
A: Many believe it is a diet and it is very important to erase that misunderstanding, it creates a prejudice towards veganism. People are vegetarian for various reasons, some do it for animal welfare and then smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. Then there are others who do it for health reasons and don’t care about the animals. I think most people start for some of these reasons and than feel all the benefits from it. I started for ethical reasons but soon realised how beneficial it was for my health and finally I realised how vital it is for environmental reasons and economically important for the society. Iceland has the opportunity to become the centre of organic farming because we hardly use pesticides and we have enough energy to build up a food industry based on organic production. Sometimes you don’t understand why more people aren’t interested in this and that you can in general receive negative feedback for this.
Do you expect any awakening in this matter?
M: I think it has just begun, I think it is in the air. People have become much more acceptable to this.
A: I have so much faith in this, I have so far not found any counter arguments against being a vegan.
M: There are many vegans who speak of a general better mental well-being after the changes, people become somehow peaceful.
A: I completely agree, there is so much pride and joy that comes from having achieved this, it makes you want to continue and it brings you to some inner peace.
Only the future will tell if Iceland will be the centre of organic farming, it may have a long way to go, but a change is in the air for certain according to these two vegans.
Written by Kristrún Kristinsdóttir