There is no questioning the incredible work that parkrun has achieved over the last 14 years since that first event completed by a baker's dozen in Bushy Park, London.
Parkrun has been the most successful, revolutionary, global health movement of the 21st century.
Every weekend, hundreds of thousands of people take part in a free 5k run in over 20 countries. It is open, welcoming, and entirely run by volunteers at the grassroots level. I have 40 in my bag. I have volunteered there. I have paced other runners. I am part of that community of over 5 million people who have taken part.
I am also a vegan, and appalled - but not necessarily that surprised - by the partnership announced earlier this week with the Happy Egg Co.
Can I count the ways in which I am appalled? It all flows from the contradiction between the positive impact that parkrun has had on individual lives and the running community, and the clear evidence on ethical, health and environmental grounds of the negative impacts on individual lives and communities of animal-based foods.
I, like thousands of others, am also appalled by the way that parkrun has handled this messy affair, especially the email sent yesterday by CEO Nick Pearson to parkrun organizers.*?
I am surprised that the Happy Egg Company made it through parkrun's ethical background checks.
Pearson writes in that email that 'over 90 percent of approaches we receive from potential partners do not make it through this ethical code, despite often representing significantly greater levels of financial investment'.
But as reported here yesterday, multiple investigations over recent years have raised question marks over the Happy Egg Co's animal welfare standards. Investigations of the brand's facilities by animal protection agency Viva! between 2010 and 2015, revealed footage of crammed conditions, and unhealthy animals.
Beyond that, I would like to ask the parkrun management team, if they visited any of the farms, if they knew about and/or witnessed the maceration of male day-old chicks, a 'by-product' of the egg industry, even free range, or if they had looked further into what free-range actually means for chickens. (And yes, this is RSPCA Freedom Food Approved…)
I would ask if Nick Pearson understands that chickens only lay eggs every 26 hours if they are very out of kilter with their normal body rhythms, having been pushed there by industrial production methods and breeding over the past decades.
I would also ask if parkrun asked what happens to the egg-laying chickens after their productivity levels drop below commercially required productivity standards.
And I wonder then if parkrun thinks these macerated chicks or hens sent to their early deaths are 'Happy' then?
Pearson also writes that parkrun's 'strong ethical code…governs who we would and would not partner with' and 'which aligns to our vision of a healthier, happier planet'.
And yet, only days after the IPCC released its report stating we have less than 12 years to save the planet, parkrun chose to announce their partnership with an organization from the industry that is, perhaps more than any other, most responsible for climate change.
Chicken consumption is the fastest rising sector of the animal-agriculture industry according to new data released by Faunalytics. They are the most abused, exploited creatures on the planet. Even egg-laying free-range chickens will be pushed to bodily failure years before their natural lifespans. And feeding animals grain to feed us is an incredibly inefficient way to feed the planet.
To support animal agriculture, at whatever level, is counter to the direction in which we need to travel as a human community if we are to avoid the worst catastrophes of climate change. An organization which states it is working for a happier planet cannot, must not, partner with animal agriculture producers who shore up the belief that it's okay to continue to exploit other beings at the cost of our planet.
Sky News shared footage from a Happy Eggs Co. facility
Pearson writes that 'for those who choose to consume animal products, eggs are an excellent source of protein and vitamin D'.
But so is almond milk. And eggs are also high in cholesterol. There is mixed scientific evidence around whether or not dietary cholesterol raises cholesterol levels in the body.
But there is also evidence to suggest that gut bacteria metabolize the choline found in eggs (and meat, and butter) into trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO) which can raise the incidence of heart disease.
When Nick Pearson emailed all parkrun organizers yesterday (October 18) it was shared by many online. As one agitated vegan wrote on the Vegan Runners UK Parkrun group, it was a: "Patronising, condescending and appallingly articulated response. He may as well have written 'this will pay the mortgage… you lot can just f off'."
In many ways I would respectfully agree. Pearson's tactics seem to want to divide and rule, deflect, and demean the large vegan community's valid concerns.
To begin with, Pearson accuses 'a number of activists, that are not from the parkrun community, [in] using this story as a platform to further their agenda' while not providing any evidence of this. Pearson continues, 'it is critical therefore that we take the views of our own community seriously, whilst retaining some perspective about where the majority of criticism is originating'.
But in saying this, Pearson invalidates the legitimate concerns of all the many hundreds, if not thousands, of vegan or plant-based runners who are part of the parkrun community.
Because that is where a great deal of criticism is coming from; not from opportunist provocateurs. It is from the thousands of runners who volunteer, race direct, pace, and support, who are also vegan.
If Pearson hadn't noticed, the number of vegans in the UK has grown hugely in the past decade. And Vegan Runners is the largest single running club in the UK - just look at its takeover of the Stockport 10k!
Personal choice… again?
What is perhaps more understandable but even less acceptable, is that, like nearly everyone outside of the vegan community, Pearson falls back on the fallacy of 'personal choice' as a justification for the consumption of animal products – and so a justification of the partnership.
"There is a view," he writes, "that a partnership with a free-range egg company somehow dismisses their right to be both vegan and a parkrunner - but this is not the case. We support the right of all parkrunners to make whatever personal lifestyle choices they feel appropriate."
So why then has parkrun not partnered with Fray Bentos' Deep Filled Pies? Or with Monster Energy Drinks? If it's all down to personal choice, and if parkrun supports that, why not a partnership with these groups too?
Personal choice for the human consumer, of course, never takes into the account the lack of choice for the day-old chick being thrown in the macerator. Or the egg-laying hen now worn out, long before she should be, and thrown into the slaughterhouse-bound truck.
Perhaps the most alarming moment in the entire email comes right at the beginning. In attempting to defuse the situation, Pearson wants to 'reassure' us that 'despite concerns that have been voiced, the overwhelming majority of the parkrun community, and of the UK population in general, choose to eat eggs'.
So when did Pearson become a front for the egg industry? He wants to 'reassure' us that most of the UK population in general choose to eat eggs.
But half of the UK population, in general, choose to break the speed limit every day - leading to thousands of injuries and hundreds of lives lost every year. Most of the UK population in general choose to eat unhealthy amounts of sugar, too - where's the partnership with Nestle? And most of UK population who voted in the referendum voted for Brexit…
How can we fix this?
There's plenty more in the email. But what is lacking from Pearson, and parkrun, is a more intelligent reception of vegan lifestyle practices and an awareness of the trends towards low animal-product diets, a more developed evidence base around the health issues, and, to be honest, a more nuanced and sensitive need for respect for those members of the parkrun community who find this partnership at best odd, and at worst an affront.
Perhaps what needs to happen next is that parkrun sit down with The Vegan Society, and the UK's largest running group, Vegan Runners, and begin by listening to their community, rather than dismissing them by claiming it is a small bunch of non-community activists high-jacking the issue for their own agenda.
(And by the way, what agenda is that? Those pesky vegans, trying to reduce animal suffering, live healthier lives and save the planet…)
Not wanting to confuse running with dancing, but for anyone who's watched Strictly, we know even the most trained and well-meaning professional can take a misstep. This is Pearson's. The best he can do now is back up, learn the steps again, and invite some more of his community to the dance.
* The email quoted above was shared online from a parkrun I am not connected with. My views here are wholly my own and not connected in any way with the organizers of my local parkrun in Newcastle where I have volunteered, and nor are they in any way representative of the views of the Tyne Bridge Harriers, the running club of which I am a member as registered with England Athletics.