Vegan Historian and Podcaster - Interview with Ian McDonald

Vegan Historian and Podcaster - Interview with Ian McDonald

Have you wondered where humans first got the idea that a plant-based diet may be a better option?

To explore the history of anything takes time and an extensive amount of research. While it’s easy to find out what happened in a particular city last week or five years ago, obtaining information that spans centuries can prove to be a true challenge. One man that was up for that challenge is the host of the long-running podcast called The Vegan Option, Ian McDonald.

Ian’s Mission to Record the History of Vegetarianism

Adorned with the hashtag, #Veghist, Ian’s ambitious project seeks to answer a lot of questions about humanity’s consumption of plant-based foods and avoidance of meat products. Whether you’re interested for the anthropological aspects or over how different cultures influence vegetarianism next, listening to Ian’s 15 episode series will enlighten you about the history of one of the most widely followed diets in the world, vegetarianism.

Meet Ian McDonald - British Vegan and Podcaster

As a self-described British new media person with a passion for radio, Ian McDonald is as outspoken as he is passionate when it comes to the vegan cause. In his former popular podcast that began back in October of 2011, Ian and his co-host tackled a wide range of vegan topics. Now Ian has completed his 15 part series on arguably the vastest vegan topic of all - the entire history of the vegetarian diet. Spanning from India in the iron age and crossing into different cultures and times, Ian’s #VegHist series is a truly remarkable endeavor.

What Led You to Follow the Vegan Lifestyle?

It’s always fascinating to hear how notable vegans fell into the lifestyle. While some were raised by parents who raised questions about what they were eating, others may have been inspired by friends, a book, or a chance interaction. In Ian’s case, he points to a combination of these factors, including a book and an essay that influenced his decision.

Like a lot of young people, I examined the ethics and philosophy I was brought up with. Both an essay by Peter Singer and the biography of Mohandas K. Gandhi prodded me into giving other animals “the benefit of the doubt” and not eating them.

After that, my mother and maternal grandmother kept reminding me of the hypocrisy of continuing to eat dairy products, but I think they hoped I’d resolve the hypocrisy by abandoning my vegetarianism.

What Were Ian’s Biggest Challenges in Going Vegan?

While people may have some idea about what challenges are likely to face vegans, Ian’s response highlights a different issue. When asked of the challenges he faced when going vegan, it wasn’t cravings for a particular food or overwhelming questions from skeptics that proved difficult, but rather the lack of vegans and vegan options in London.

The London vegan community wasn’t the thriving hubbub it is now, and I didn’t know any other vegans. So the lack of a social network was probably the biggest challenge.

Ian’s Podcasting Influences

Although still a fairly new medium, there’s no denying that podcasting is rapidly growing in popularity. Whether you want to listen to a podcast about your job, your favorite hobby, or just about anything else you can think of, odds are there is a podcast out there for you. In Ian’s response to a question about his podcasting influences, he mentions a few popular shows that paved the way for his own projects.
I grew up with the BBC’s main speech radio station, Radio 4. So many of the podcasts I listen to now (like the Friday night satire shows) were programmes I first heard as broadcast radio. But I also enjoyed the first generation of vegan podcasts, like “Animal Voices” and “Vegan Freaks”, that did much to offer moral support to new vegans but have since gone silent, as well as pioneering non-UK public radio, like “On the Media” and “RadioLab”.

Pros and Cons of Hosting The Vegan Option Podcast

Hosting a podcast can be a fun and rewarding experience, but when you have a loyal audience like Ian had developed, it can also be stressful to balance everything and release a high-quality episode every month. Ian elaborates on the high and low points of hosting his popular podcast.

That’s a great question. The lowest points are usually mistakes - when I know I should have done better. Despite keeping the earpieces in, I still recorded in the British Museum with far too much background noise and had to heavily post-process it to make it work.

But the highest points are always when I realize my work has got out there and is being appreciated beyond vegan circles. In particular, when Robin Ince, a comedian and science broadcaster I was already a bit of a fan of, mentioned my show on his radio review column, that cheered me up a lot!

The Vegan Option (@veganoption) _ Twitter

Which Episodes Does Ian Believe to Be Most Memorable?

Though the history series stands as an ensemble, there were some great moments in the first year. The joint interview I did with the UK’s 3 vegan MPs in 2011 (there are now 5) was the first time most UK vegans found out there were 3 vegan MPs, which I think is an important part of veganism being perceived as mainstream.

But also there have been some humbling human stories - such as the woman who grew up in Israel amongst the socially conservative vegan religious group the Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, left for America, and ended up homeless.

Ian Completes the Epic History of Vegetarianism

Known as Vegetarianism: The Story So Far, Ian’s 15-part podcast series tracks the earliest beginnings of vegetarianism across the world and explores how it came to still be known as a popular and healthy diet all these years later. Ian discusses details of the series, including his motivation for creating it, most profound episodes, and the overall value that history provides.

What was your motivation for taking on a project of this scope?

Because it hadn’t been done yet, and I felt I could take it on and do the story justice.

The scope grew the more I discovered, and the less I wanted to leave out. When I first thought of it it was a couple of episodes long - less than an hour. The series I pitched to Kickstarter backers was would have been 2 ½ hours long. I ended up making something nearly 10 hours long!

Best episode of the vegetarian history series?

That’s difficult because they’re obviously a series, and most of them don’t stand alone. If I’m trying to show how good the series is, I might look at the episodes about the Roman Empire (5) and the Enlightenment (11), because they tell really interesting stories by themselves.

But if I want to encourage people towards veganism, then it would be the final episode, because most people can relate to recent history. And it would be the broadcast edit, because that ends with a direct appeal to go vegan.

What was the most profound takeaway that you had after completing the series on vegetarian history?

That we’re part of a really big story - that we take the baton from many many people standing behind us.

What value do you think is provided from learning about history?

I think it’s very empowering as individuals (and cohering as a movement) to know where we come from. And it can also help avoid repeating some of the same mistakes, such as allying ourselves too closely to social trends that can fall as well as rise.

What was your approach in planning the different episodes to cover such a wide-spanning topic?

Once I’d done my basic research, and I had my list of topics to cover, I’d do whatever I could to group them into coherent episodes with individual arcs, or at least themes. I also tried to make sure that every episode had at least one interview “on location”.

This would sometimes involve exercises like breaking episodes into segments, writing segment names onto pieces of paper, and moving the pieces of paper around.

This all resulted in a full layout of the 15 episodes on 10 pieces of A4 (letter-sized) paper, strung across the ceiling like a washing line. And it’s been up for the last two years.

Ian’s thoughts on Veganism in the United Kingdom

While the United States and Great Britain have many similarities, both are also their own, very distinct cultures as well. A wide range of factors affect how popular and widespread veganism becomes in a particular place, and Ian has seen the trend come full circle in his home country. Remembering the days when he’d be lucky to meet another vegetarian at all, Ian explains how the vegan lifestyle is rapidly gaining prominence in the UK.

Is the vegan lifestyle becoming more mainstream in the UK?

Yes, yes, thrice yes! I used not to be able to eat out without running into someone I knew, the vegan community was so small. Now, I have 8 entirely vegan eateries within a 15-minute walk from my flat.

What message would you convey to someone who truly believes that humans are meant to eat animals?

One of the biggest arguments vegans encounter from their non-vegan friends is that animals are here on the planet to be eaten. Whether derived from the biblical connotation or simply a matter of convenience, it’s easy to see the profound arrogance inherent in that belief. In response to this question of man’s entitlement to animals, Ian points instead to a quote from Greek History that puts the issue into perspective.

”If God fashioned animals for the use of men, how do we use flies, lice, bats, beetles, scorpions, and vipers? If we define things in terms of our use, we have to admit that we were generated for the sake of the most destructive animals such as crocodiles.”

  • Porphyry (Greek philosopher, “On Abstinence from Animal Food”, probably written in Sicily around 270).

What would the world be like if everyone was vegan?

A bit further away from serious climate change, and with fewer resource wars. In terms of ethics, I think the next frontier would be wild animal suffering. People would have stopped arguing about whether animals are here for humans to use, and moved onto how far we should interfere in nature to reduce suffering.

Want More from Ian? Connect with Him Today on Social Media!

With the Vegetarianism: The Story So Far series wrapped up and the Vegan Option set for a comeback in the near future, Ian McDonald remains as active as ever. Whether he’s organizing events with other influencers to spread the message of vegetarianism and its history or commenting on notable advancements by vegan lawmakers, Ian is continuing to be an outspoken supporter of the vegan cause. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites to support Ian and his projects.