Glass meets film director and vegan activist Nina Messinger

Going vegan to save the world

Glass meets film director and vegan activist Nina Messinger to discover why Veganism has gone from a fringe movement to the planet’s greatest hope

When the United Nations endorses a diet with the phrase, “A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change,” the message and its gravity really couldn’t be any clearer. (Interestingly, and almost laughably, the World Health Organization also widely endorses a vegan diet but was prevented from sponsoring a recent conference on veganism because an Italian envoy to WHO was concerned that a vegan diet would harm meat sales in Italy).

The statistics on how harmful meat production is to the environment are staggering. For example, it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat versus only 25 gallons to produce one pound of wheat. The production of one calorie of animal protein requires more than 10 times the fossil fuels of a calorie of plant protein. Producing a single hamburger uses enough fuel to drive 20 miles and causes the loss of five times its weight in topsoil. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, animal farming produces approximately 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population. This waste and other meat farming run-offs like pesticides, chemicals, fertilisers, hormones and antibiotics pollute waterways more than all other industrial sources combined and is contributing to dead zones in coastal areas and degradation of coral reefs.

Food production is now on a par with fossil fuels as one of the most polluting industries on the planet and a recent UN report found that agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of global freshwater consumption, 38 per cent of the total land use and 19 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with meat and dairy products accounting for the lion’s share of resource use.

Nina Messinger, vegan activist and director of H.O.P.E What You Eat Matters

In addition, an Oxford University research panel recently found that removing meat and dairy from a person’s diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent. Joseph Poore, lead author of the paper, said, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

The study also found that if meat and dairy were removed from the world diet, 75 per cent of global farmland, an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined, could be freed up. This would greatly help global efforts for “re-wilding”, the single most effective way to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and halt the mass extinction of biodiversity that we are currently witnessing.

It’s not just the environment that benefits from veganism. As Messinger points out in her documentary, it’s a humanitarian issue too. Some 10 per cent of the world’s population suffers from chronic undernourishment. A meat-based diet is a major cause of global food imbalance and inequality. A total of 90 per cent of soya beans grown worldwide, 50 per cent of grain, and 40 per cent of fish caught are fed to livestock. We divert enormous amounts of low resource intense plant calories away from people and towards animals in a highly inefficient process that results in a drastically smaller calorie yield, while being significantly more resource intense and expensive. In other words, we are diverting highly affordable, easy to produce foods away from the poor in order to create highly polluting food for the rich.

An image from H.O.P.E What You Eat Matters

And if that wasn’t reason enough to consider veganism, the diet has been found in studies and observations to completely reverse heart disease, cancer cell growth and diabetes, as well as countless other conditions, and is advocated by some of the world’s top surgeons. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital who monitored the health and diet records of more than 130,000 people over the course of 30 years, found that every 3 per cent increase in calories from plant protein was found to reduce risk of death by 10 per cent, and 12 per cent from death by heart disease.

In fact, Neal Barnard, M.D., President of the Physician’s Committee of Responsible Medicine, said of Nina Messinger’s documentary H.O.P.E. What You Eat Matters, which strongly advocates veganism, “This film can save your life.” And in 2015, the World Health Organization categorised processed meat as a “class 1 carcinogen”, bringing it into the same classification as radiation and exhaust fumes.

This is all before even discussing the topic of animal welfare, which, as the documentary proves, is not a subject for the faint hearted. Concern, though, for the wellbeing of fellow sentient creatures is not a new or ‘hippy’ phenomenon. As author Molly Watson reveals in a new book Should We All Be Vegan?, the first documented vegan was none other than the renowned Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who consumed a diet of only raw plants, reasoning that, “For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.” Subsequent adherents to a meat-free diet were known as Pythagoreans, with the term “vegetarian” arising only in the 1800s. Vegetarians/vegans of note throughout the ages include Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Buddha who all cited similar ethical reasonings. As well as Leonardo Da Vinci, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy (the latter two becoming pen-pals on the subject), who all partook in veganism for some or all of their lives.

Messinger herself is an Austrian author, independent filmmaker and founder of H.O.P.E. The Project. Since 2006, she has worked as a speaker, trainer and seminar organizer in the health sector with a focus on nutrition, exercise and mental wellness. After producing several books and films for the German market, in 2017 she released her first English-language documentary, H.O.P.E. What You Eat Matters, which has been viewed over a million times.

In 2018 she started H.O.P.E. The Project to create awareness about the vital importance of a whole food, plant-based diet and of living a healthy, sustainable and compassionate lifestyle.

What prompted you to make the H.O.P.E. film and create the H.O.P.E. movement?

I have long had the vision of a more conscious world in which people can grow old in good health, a world in which we respect and preserve nature, where all living beings are granted their right to life and physical integrity, a peaceful world in which compassion, respect, dignity and love are cherished. H.O.P.E. What You Eat Matters and H.O.P.E. The Project are my contributions towards this world, and both carry a very strong message, that every individual can make a difference simply by choosing what to eat.

An image from H.O.P.E What You Eat Matters

You have decided to make the film completely free for anyone to watch. Why is it that you didn’t go down the usual route of trying to monetise the film? How does the H.O.P.E. movement fund itself?

I decided to release my film for free because I want its message to be accessible to, and reach, as many people as possible so that lives, human and animal, might be saved. Everyone has the opportunity to watch my documentary on the internet at any time, anywhere. Anyone can share the film with family or friends, can help us spread our message by sharing on social media and can organise free public screenings. Our new Plant Power Stories – a short film series featuring individuals who have recovered from severe illness simply by changing their eating habits – are also available free of charge.

H.O.P.E What You Eat Matters was produced without national or regional film subsidies as I wanted to produce a 100 per cent independent film. It was financed through private funding, donations and I also borrowed money from family and friends. H.O.P.E. The Project is also funded by donations.

What is H.O.P.E. The Project?

H.O.P.E. The Project was created by my team and myself in order to help spread mass awareness about the vital importance of a whole food, plant-based diet and of living a healthy, sustainable and compassionate lifestyle. H.O.P.E. stands for Healing Of Planet Earth. All our work falls under the umbrella of H.O.P.E. The Project, including our award-winning film H.O.P.E. What You Eat Matters.

My husband and I recently turned vegan after watching your film and I’m quite surprised by the hostility and ridicule with which we’ve been met by meat-eaters. Why, in your experience, are people so hostile about going vegan?

First of all, I have to acknowledge and respect the fact that the negativity from friends and co-workers has not stopped you from a living a lifestyle based on your values and knowledge. In Western Europe, however, we vegans now have it easier than our parents’ generation, because in the last ten years, veganism has become a normal, everyday phenomenon. In larger cities, it has become a big enough trend that it can’t be easily dismissed. No top restaurant in Western Europe can afford to ignore the growing vegetarian and vegan clientele. Also, more and more food producers have begun to offer exclusively or additionally vegan products.

And yet, still we can experience hostility as vegans. I see two main reasons for this: on the one hand, a powerful animal-exploitation industry, which includes not only the agricultural industry but also the downstream meat and dairy industries and, among others, the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, fear that the trend will have negative effects on their lucrative businesses – which is already the case. And so, with a lot of money and contacts, politicians, the media, doctors and the public are influenced to denigrate the vegan diet as unhealthy and unnatural and to portray vegans as cranky, weird outsiders. This always happens when new developments and insights prevail, replacing old traditions and customs. You may have heard of the resistance to the original railroads and the automobile, which was said to be causing the most serious health issues because of the high speeds. Or the witch-hunt that took place in the Middle Ages against scientists who contradicted the dogma of the church that the earth is flat and the centre of the universe.

A second reason is the unconscious feelings of guilt of meat eaters, who now know how cruel the attitude and killing of most “farm animals” is and the catastrophic impact of meat consumption on our environment. And every vegan is a reminder of those uncomfortable truths that they do not want to face.

As the vegan movement continues to grow, which it will, I hope that this hostility will begin to diminish.

An image from H.O.P.E What You Eat Matters

What has been the reception to the H.O.P.E. movement?

Our work has been very well received and the support and feedback we’ve had about our film and our Plant Power Stories has been heart-warming. I want to thank every individual who has taken the time to speak to me about our work in person, has sent emails, has left comments on our social media posts and has helped spread our message by sharing our work. I’ve had countless messages saying, “This film has changed my life for ever” and “I’ve been moved to tears”. It’s gratifying to know that the work we put in has paid off and that people have been touched, and ultimately changed, by it.

Among the responses that have made me especially happy is Sir Paul McCartney’s. He said, “This important film highlights the choices we must make to help protect this planet and all its inhabitants.” H.O.P.E. What You Eat Matters has also been featured by major organisations and news outlets including One Green Planet, Food Matters, Veg Source, Plant Based News, Livekindly and Vegan Life magazine. The film has been shown at many film festivals worldwide and at events like VegFest, Viva! Festivals and Yogific’s Yoga & Vegan Festival. I am so pleased the film has resonated with viewers and am deeply touched by the continuing response. May it reach many more people from all over the world and help make the world a better and more peaceful place.

The UN expressed strong support of a plant-based vegan diet as far back as nine years ago, saying that mass animal rearing is as harmful to the planet as fossil fuels and that meat consumption was unsustainable with a growing population. There have also been very credible studies published on the health benefits of a vegan diet. Why have governments been so slow or, more accurately, done nothing to update health and environmental policy?  

In my view, the reasons for this are the power of habit and the influence of the powerful lobby of the animal-exploitation industry on politics. But the threat of massive loss of jobs and taxes is unfounded. A sustainable vegan food industry will create at least as many jobs – most of which are considerably more humane. And vegan businesses pay taxes at least as reliably. In addition, there are enormous cost savings for the state due to a physically and mentally healthier population. Then there are the environmental costs, which burden the animal-exploitation industry through massive environmental destruction at home and abroad and burden the state due to the flow of refugees generated by them (including increasing global hunger, not to mention monocultures, extinction of species, poisoning of soil, water and air, scarcity of water and expropriation and expulsion of peasants). All these connections are well known to politics, and it is up to all of us to ensure that the consequences are drawn from the available scientific studies.

You must come up against a lot of resistance to veganism. What do you find are the most effective tools or facts for helping resistant people to consider veganism?

Everyone is different and everyone has their own story, their own experiences and preferences. Therefore, one must also address each person differently in order to interest them in veganism. Not everyone is convinced by scientific facts or the endless misery and suffering of animals and the destruction of the environment if they do not experience the environmental destruction and the connection with the meat consumption close up. But almost everyone is interested in maintaining their own health. And almost everyone can be tempted by delicious food. For that reason, I have given the health benefits and variety of a whole food, purely plant-based diet in my film a lot of space alongside the environmental theme and the suffering of the animals. Hence we are also supplementing my film with our Plant Power Stories series.

What prompted your journey to veganism?

I have not eaten meat for nearly 20 years. As a child, I witnessed the slaughter of a cow, and for the first time, I became aware of the connection between a living, feeling creature and the piece of meat on the plate in front of me. It was at that point that I lost my appetite for it. In my early 20s, I began to visit lectures, seminars, and training sessions in the health field, where I repeatedly heard of the healing power of a (purely) plant-based diet as an alternative. I found that fascinating and as a result I devoted myself to studying this topic intensively. In the process I gradually changed my own diet – with astonishing results. By renouncing animal-based foods and eating a whole food, plant-based diet, I felt not only spiritually but also physically better. My agonising psoriasis and my migraines disappeared, and I felt much better and considerably more energetic.

In the UK there has been a 350 per cent rise in the number of vegans from 2006 to 2016. With the climate crisis now becoming a lot more pressing in people’s minds, have you noticed a shift in people’s attitudes and the numbers of people converting to veganism?

I do not have any specific figures but the worldwide reactions to my film are overwhelming, and from what I know, the vegan diet is starting to turn from a niche market to a mainstream. Just look at the boom of Beyond Meat on the stock market. Also, the growing awareness of the climate and refugee debates show that this world is a complex entity and that we can no longer ignore what is happening elsewhere because, sooner or later, we will have to deal with it. We will need to pay more attention to the suffering of the animals, as we become more and more aware of how our souls consciously or subconsciously suffer and harm when we torture our fellow creatures. For me, this growing global sensitivity raises hopes that humanity may at last begin to create a more humane, peaceful and joyful world. Our future lies in our hands and on our plates!

by Nicola Kavanagh





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