When farmers go vegan: the science behind changing your mind

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A farmer recently took his lambs to a sanctuary instead of the slaughter – and these sudden turnarounds are not uncommon

Paula Cocozza @CocozzaPaula

Sivalingam Vasanthakumar now plans to grow vegetables.
 Sivalingam Vasanthakumar now plans to grow vegetables. Photograph: Kumar’s Dosa Bar/SWNS

Afarmer was recently on the road to the abattoir when he changed direction and drove his trailer full of lambs 200 miles to an animal sanctuary instead. Sivalingam Vasanthakumar, 60, from Devon, now plans to grow vegetables.

Vasanthakumar is not the only farmer to perform this kind of reversal. In 2017, Jay Wilde, of Bradley Nook farm in Derbyshire, took his cattle to a sanctuary and decided to become a vegan farmer (the film telling this story, 73 Cows, has been nominated for a Bafta). In the US, the Illinois-based charity Free From Harm has gathered tales of many farmers who have had epiphanies and switched to veganism.

Farmers know the job when they start it – so what brings about such a major turnaround? “What you are looking at is basic cognitive dissonance,” says Fiona Buckland, a life coach. This occurs when “the way you are living your life is no longer fully in line with the way that you feel”, and personal values slip out of alignment with personal performance.

Cognitive dissonance builds until an individual can no longer sustain the resultant unease and instigates change. “It’s the reason someone sits at their desk and thinks: ‘I can’t do this any more,’ or walks out of a marriage,” Buckland says. “The cognitive dissonance is too great. They have to get themselves into alignment.”

Even apparently snap decisions – changing destination mid-journey, as Vasanthakumar did – “percolate in our unconscious” for weeks, months or years. “Maybe he had taken himself to the abattoir too many times,” Buckland adds wryly. She describes Vasanthakumar’s rerouting as “a moment of creative problem-solving”: here are some sheep I would like to keep alive, here is a sanctuary that will take them.

Stephen Palmer, a member of the British Psychological Society, points out that the year is still fairly new, and such decisions may be the result of some January stock-taking. Midlife, he says, is a classic time when people “search out a new purpose and meaning”. But often these reflections don’t come when humans sit and think, but ambush them while they fill the washing machine or queue in the supermarket.

“Your life perspective can take a sudden leap,” psychologist Mike Hughesman explains. A person who had been inured to what they do suddenly realises they don’t want to do it any more. (Hughesman himself temporarily switched to vegetarianism when he couldn’t face the fact that he was eating something sentient.)

“People need to think more and not get trammelled into routines. If something doesn’t feel right, give it thought,” he says. “Sometimes you have to ask those pivotal questions.”