Is Richard Branson vegan?

He’s one of the founders of Virgin, a brand that started out in the music industry, later expanded to the airline industry, and is now a conglomerate of hundreds of companies in various fields. Apart from being a self-made billionaire, he’s also known as an author and an adventurer who set multiple world records. But is Richard Branson vegan?

No, Richard Branson is not vegan. Despite expressing concern for the environment and a desire for a world where animals are no longer killed for food, he still consumes all animal products except beef. He also serves meat, dairy, and eggs to millions of his customers.

Environmentalist or greenwasher?

Richard started talking about the environment many years before he started talking about meat. He specifically focused on climate change. And since his thoughts on meat are related to that, it’s worth mentioning first.

In 2006, he publicly pledged to invest all profits from all his transportation companies for the next ten years (around $3 billion) in developing cleaner energy sources. A year later, he also offered $25 million to whoever could come up with a way to safely remove one billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year. And two years after that, he founded the Carbon War Room, an NGO and think tank set up to help different sectors lower their emissions.

However, in 2014, it was revealed that he had invested less than 8 percent of the amount he pledged, while his airlines’ emissions had risen by around 40 percent because he kept expanding. No one came up with a viable way to remove a billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, so the prize was never awarded. And in 2018, a study that compared airlines’ carbon emissions gave Virgin Atlantic only 51.3 out of 100 efficiency points and ranked it 83rd in the world, behind many airlines from developing countries.

According to Richard, the quest for clean energy failed despite his best efforts, and the study misrepresented his airline. But according to others, Richard is deliberately misrepresenting himself to attract environmentally conscious customers and avoid extra taxes and restrictions by governments.

Richard’s views on oceans and fish

Regardless of his intentions, it’s an undeniable fact that Richard talks about the environment often. And he doesn’t just focus on emissions, he also focuses on the oceans and animals. He actually has a lot of personal experience with that because he lives on a small 30-hectare island in the British Virgin Islands.

Mentioning rising temperatures, CO2 emissions, overfishing and plastic pollution as some of the main culprits, he has said that the resulting ocean-related problems are more powerful hurricanes, rising seas, acidification, species migration, species decline, and the dying of coral reefs. To combat this, he’s a strong supporter of a legally binding high seas treaty, “a global framework that will do for the ocean what the Paris Agreement seeks to do for the climate.”

It should be noted that he consistently mentions “overfishing” as one of the problems, not fishing in general. He has expressed no fundamental problem with the killing of fish, even though we don’t need fish in our diets at all. And he has also never suggested that people should stop eating fish to decrease demand.

Another ocean-related problem that Richard hasn’t mentioned, possibly because he’s unaware of it, is that the animal industries on land produce a lot of excrement which often finds its way into rivers and oceans and is a main factor in creating the 500 ocean dead zones that we currently have.

The animals on Richard’s island

Richard’s home, Necker Island, is also home to over 140 different species of animals. One of the animals is a dog named Tofu, who doesn’t eat meat. Richard has said that none of his dogs eat meat: “We ensure they get the right balance of nutrients and we’ve found they are much healthier as a result. It’s also better for the environment.”

Apart from dogs, Richard has introduced other species to the island as well, like flamingos, scarlet ibis, white ibis, giant tortoises, and several species of lemurs. He has done this mainly for conservation purposes. Richard has breeding programs for them, and the lemurs are locked in cages part of the time.

He also started “a farm of free range chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys” on the island. The chickens are bred for their eggs. It’s unclear if the ducks, geese and turkeys are killed and eaten.

Raising chickens for eggs is often considered harmless, but that’s actually not accurate. Wild chickens only used to lay 10 to 15 eggs a year, like many other birds, but today’s chickens have been bred to lay hundreds of eggs a year. That’s incredibly taxing on their bodies, and they’ve only been bred like this so we can eat eggs we don’t even need. On top of that, the male counterparts of egg-laying chickens are often killed because they don’t lay eggs.

Richard’s short film on the rhino poaching war

Richard has supported other conservation efforts as well. One of those efforts is the South African short film Sides of a Horn, of which he is the executive producer. Sides of a Horn shows the social impact of the rhino horn trade. It’s 16 minutes long and you can watch it here in its entirety for free:

Why Richard cut ties with SeaWorld

The documentary Blackfish, which showed the reality of captive animals at SeaWorld, came out in 2013 and made a big impact. But tour operators continued to sell trips to SeaWorld and similar theme parks. So, in early 2014, the global charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation launched a campaign to protest that. They made a video with Richard’s head superimposed on a naked body and lines like “don’t make a whale pay so you can make some profit on your Virgin holiday”:

They also released an infographic which stated some bleak facts about the lack of space, the short life expectancy, and the stress captive orcas faced at SeaWorld.

Virgin Holidays responded by saying that they would launch a six-month “engagement process” to investigate the debate around captive cetaceans. But years later, the company was still selling trips to SeaWorld.

In 2018, however, one of their competitors, Thomas Cook, announced that they wouldn’t sell trips to SeaWorld and similar theme parks anymore. And in 2019, Virgin’s own research showed that 92 percent of British people on vacation preferred to see animals in their natural habitats. That’s when Virgin Holidays finally decided to cut ties with SeaWorld as well.

Richard’s thoughts on meat

Richard has spoken about the downsides of meat many times. And he cut beef out of his diet in 2014, a decision he later summarized as follows:

“Realizing the folly of the world’s conventional meat consumption, I was compelled to give up beef a few years ago. The main reason for my decision was rainforest degradation, and my eyes were also open to farming and slaughterhouse practices. I quickly found that I didn’t miss beef at all – there are so many alternatives that it didn’t really affect my meal habits.”

In his more extensive explanation at the time, he also mentioned emissions and water use: “It’s estimated that 14.5% of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock – which is more than the contribution from all forms of transport. … Modern beef farming is also a huge drain on water resources. A 2010 study calculated that it takes 1799 gallons of water to make just 1lb of beef.”

Apart from highlighting that “there are many issues that impact upon climate change, but few as negatively as livestock” and realizing that “conventional meat production cannot scale to feed the world’s growing population and appetite for meat,” he has also acknowledged the moral argument against it.

When the Netflix movie Okja came out, which tells the fictional story of a girl who tries to save a genetically modified pig from slaughter, Richard watched it and publicly praised it. He said the movie had “a timely message to act humanely and honestly” and called it “a chilling statement against factory farming.” He has also said multiple times on other occasions that he “hope[s] that in the next few decades the practice of killing animals for food will largely be a thing of the past.”

One way in which he thinks this will be accomplished is through cultured meat. Cultured meat is produced by taking cells from animals and using those cells to grow meat in an artificial environment. He has invested in a company that is developing this kind of meat, which he refers to as “clean meat.”

The other way he thinks it will be accomplished is through the plant-based products that are “already widely available.” In his own words: “I also think a shift toward more plant-based diets is also an important part of the solution. I’ve been cutting down on eating meat for a number of years and have noticed a great improvement to my health and lifestyle without any compromise on taste!”

The downside of only cutting out beef

All of Richard’s arguments apply to all animal products. We don’t need to use and kill animals for food, plant-based products are fundamentally more efficient and less polluting than animal products, and completely plant-based diets can benefit our health significantly. With even the taste argument out of the way, he doesn’t have any argument left to keep consuming animal products. The fact that he still does is inconsistent.

The idea of cutting out animal products one at a time appeals to many people, though. And people often start with cutting out beef because it’s worse for the environment than, for example, chicken. But there’s a downside to that, which is often overlooked:

Cows are big animals, while chickens are small animals. So, if you stop eating beef and eat more chicken as a result, you may have lowered your carbon footprint, but you’ve actually increased the number of animals you eat. People who stop eating land animals but keep eating fish do this to the extreme.

A simple solution to that is to go vegan without a transition period. Many people have done this successfully, sometimes motivated by documentaries like Dominion and helped by vegan challenges like Challenge 22 and Veganuary, all free resources.

Richard sells meat to millions of people

Apart from the animal products Richard personally consumes, he also buys them in much greater numbers to sell to customers. He doesn’t sell them separately, but as part of package deals through his transportation and vacation companies.

A Virgin Atlantic ticket includes a seat and a meal. And although Virgin Atlantic is just one of Richard’s companies, that company alone “serve[s] millions of meals onboard every year.” Customers can typically choose between three meals, two of those meals contain meat. The third one doesn’t contain meat, but still contains other animal products like dairy and eggs. So, through this single company, Richard is already selling meat and other animal products to millions of people.

If Richard means what he says about wanting the killing of animals for food to end, he can make a huge difference by simply replacing the meals that he sells through his own companies with plant-based meals.

Is cultured meat a solution?

Richard presents cultured meat as a downside-free alternative to conventional meat. But, unfortunately, that’s not accurate.

To produce cultured meat, living cells are taken from animals, and those cells are then multiplied in an artificial environment. In theory, stem cells can be multiplied indefinitely, but this is difficult to do in practice. So, the industry might never take live animals completely out of the equation.

The main challenge, however, is that cells can only grow in an environment that’s similar to their natural environment and contains all the nutrients they need. So, the industry uses fetal serum for this, mostly from cows. Fetal bovine serum is obtained by killing a pregnant cow, removing her fetal calf from the womb, sticking a needle directly into the fetal calf’s beating heart, and extracting the serum while making sure the fetal calf doesn’t die before the procedure is over. This cruel practice is at the center of the cultured meat industry, and they haven’t been able to develop a viable plant-based alternative yet.

As long as there’s no viable plant-based alternative to fetal serum, producing cultured meat is less efficient than producing conventional meat. If a plant-based alternative is developed, it will become more efficient. And it will also have other advantages over conventional meat, like lower emissions and less contamination. However, even in that best-case scenario, it will still be more efficient and environmentally friendly to simply eat plant-based products directly.

So, of the two possible solutions that Richard has identified, the best one is already available to us right now. It makes no sense to avoid going vegan now and instead wait an indefinite amount of time for a less effective solution. Hopefully, Richard will come to that realization as well.

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