Is New Zealand As Progressive & Eco As It Seems? What It's Like To Be A Vegan Kiwi

February 23, 2021

New Zealand is a world leader: it was the first country to give women the vote, is considered the world’s least corrupt country, has held a strong anti-nuclear stance since 1987, and now has the world’s queerest Parliament. We’ve also got strong leadership under Jacinda Ardern, who made international headlines when she banned military-style semi-automatics and assault rifles six days after the tragic mosque terrorist attacks in 2019. New Zealand has also proven to be a pretty desirable place to live, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and political instability. In fact, according to Google Trends, searches on “how to move to New Zealand” skyrocketed from 0-100 (literally) 90 minutes after the start of the first 2020 U.S. presidential debate.

But how progressive are New Zealanders when it comes to veganism and animal rights? Meat, dairy, eggs, and honey are the country’s biggest exports. We’re also well known for our ridiculously high sheep-to-person ratio (currently 6:1). So, how desirable is New Zealand for animals and vegans alike?

Animal Rights Law

New Zealand’s body of animal protection laws earned itself a ‘C grade’ in the World Animal Protection’s books last year. According to their Animal Protection Index, which ranks 50 countries’ animal welfare policies and legislation, New Zealand’s efforts are comparable to those in Malaysia, India, and Germany. However, we fall behind the ‘B-graded’ likes of the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. In 2015, New Zealand was praised for legally recognizing animal sentience, and for banning the use of animal testing for cosmetics. Furthermore, sending cattle, sheep, goats and deer overseas for slaughter has been banned since 2003. However, exporting these animals for breeding purposes remains legal. This legal loophole has produced fatalities across the board. In 2019, a cargo ship transporting 43 crew members and 5,800 cows from New Zealand to China capsized at sea, with only one living survivor recovered.

Animal rights groups have also criticized New Zealand’s lack of independent enforcement of animal welfare laws on farms. Currently, New Zealand’s 160 million farmed animals are protected by only 26 registered animal welfare inspectors working for the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). MPI’s primary function is to promote New Zealand agriculture and exports, so there is a clear conflict of interest. Where competing concerns for farmed animal protection and economic growth clash, the animals almost always lose out. Hence, establishing a separate Crown entity for animals is arguably the next most important legal development for farmed animals.

Acceptance of Veganism

Tensions between the protection vs exploitation of farmed animals in New Zealand also come to a head in discussions around veganism. New Zealanders love companion animals, with 64% of households having pets, a rate second only to the United States (67%). However, most families still draw an arbitrary distinction between the companion animals they share their homes with, and the animals they serve at the dinner table. This cognitive dissonance is commonly observed worldwide, but is particularly prevalent here, where our country’s economy is largely built off the backs of farmed animals. Even though New Zealand abandoned protectionist policies in the 1980s, our last regional economic development minister urged that veganism “needs to be stopped in its tracks.” Despite our agriculture industry producing half of our total greenhouse gas emissions, politicians are reluctant to bring veganism into the conversation on climate. At a renewable energy summit, Jacinda Ardern joked “I’m from the Waikato [the country’s largest dairy farming region], I don’t know that I’d be allowed to go home if I became vegan.” However, promisingly, our Ministry of Health has been praised for promoting plant-based diets as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving food choices.

But just like any social movement, the animal rights movement is people-led, not government-led. New Zealand is considered the fifth most vegan country in the world, based on a study that observed the frequency of vegan-related search terms on Google. Our largest supermarket chains saw plant-based sales increase 30% in 2020. Several vegan start-ups have sprung up in response to this growing demand. Sunfed Meats launched Chicken Free Chicken in 2016, which has double the protein of chicken and triple the protein of beef. In 2019, they debuted Boar Free Bacon and Bull Free Beef at Meatstock, making history as the first ever vegan meat company at the festival, and the most popular stand that year. Plans are also underway to build New Zealand’s first vegan milk factory in the Southland region; ironically, this was also where the country’s first dairy factory was built. The factory will be carbon-neutral and process locally grown crops like oats, hemp, and peas. Even our country’s biggest foodies have embraced veganism, with a Masterchef Winner’s plant-based cookbook being New Zealand’s #1 bestselling book in 2020.

Life as a Vegan

As I only went vegan in 2018, I’ve found it reasonably easy to eat out as a vegan. Although bacon and egg butties, fish and chips, sausage sizzles, and wine and cheese boards are Kiwi cultural icons, you can now find veganized versions of such delicacies. The days where fries and salad were the only vegan options on the menu seem to have predated my vegan journey. I find there to be at least one clearly labeled vegan option on the menu more often than not. Finding food on the road has also proven to be relatively unchallenging. At many service stations around the country, you can find vegan pies, sausage rolls, and even vegan and gluten-free ice creams produced by our largest ice cream manufacturer.

I didn’t know any other vegans when I made the switch three years, so I felt isolated. Being vegan in a non-vegan world, I felt like Neo when he took the red pill in The Matrix. However, I quickly found various local vegan Facebook groups, with members who regularly meet up. These get-togethers range from monthly potlucks, running events, and animal sanctuary visits to vegan chalking nights, public outreach, and annual animal rights marches. Attendees come from all walks of life, and we all have unique journeys that led us to going vegan.

Cautious Optimism

Despite New Zealand’s laws and politicians being largely unaccommodating towards a vegan vision, various start-ups and grassroots movements are paving the way for a more ethical and environmental society. We’re a small country, but we’re known to make big waves around the world when confronting injustice. As a nation of animal lovers, I see no reason why the unjust exploitation of animals should be an exception.

Related: Why You Should Visit Christchurch, New Zealand on Your Next Eco Trip

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Photo: Andy Kerr via Unsplash

Patricia Paynter
Patricia is a full-time university student in her final year of her Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Property degree. She was born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand, but aspires to travel and broaden her horizons, post-study. She is also an aspiring philanthropist with a long list of causes she hopes to advance during her lifetime including animal rights, sustainability, poverty eradication, gender equality, and access to education. You can find her over on Instagram @patricia.lee.paynter.


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