No meat today: The rise of vegetarianism and veganism
The market for vegetarian and vegan products has grown rapidly in recent years
If the predominant global food trend of the 20th century was a huge increase in consumption of meat and livestock products, the most striking trend of the first two decades of the 21st century has been the beginnings of a move in the opposite direction.
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Meat is more cheaply and widely available, and in a greater variety of forms, than ever before – and yet growing numbers of people are turning their back on products of animal origin.
The reasons are multiple but are mainly related to concerns about the welfare of animals, and/or concerns (real or perceived) about the health risks from eating meat.
Increasingly too, the process of rearing farm animals for food is being implicated in fears over climate change and resource sustainability.
In most developed economies, there has been a surge in interest in vegetarianism, defined as refraining from the consumption of animal flesh, and in veganism, which goes a step further in refraining from eating any other kind of animal-sourced product, such as eggs or milk, or wearing clothes made with leather or wool.
This development is not necessarily at the expense of the meat and livestock industries. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, global meat production is projected to be 16% higher in 2025 than in the base period 2013-15.
This represents only a slight slowdown in growth compared with an increase of almost 20% in meat production in the previous decade. The still-growing global population, with its gradually-increasing purchasing power, will provide a market for this increased meat output.
How many vegetarians and vegans?
Detailed figures on the numbers of people following vegan or vegetarian diets are hard to come by. They are usually not officially collected by government authorities, and the statistics are typically based on consumer surveys of various types.
One 2014 study by the Friends of the Earth and the Heinrich Böll Foundation suggested that around 15 million people in the United States, representing some 4% of the male population and 7% of women, identify as vegetarian.
By contrast, a 2009 survey by the US Vegetarian Resource Group put the figure at 3.4% of the total US population. Even allowing for wide probable margins of error in each survey, this does suggest a rapid increase in the number of people calling themselves vegetarian over the five-year period.
For the EU, the FoE/Heinrich Böll study put the number of vegetarians at anywhere between 10 and 50 million people in the EU, or 2-10% of the overall population.
The only other territory monitored in the survey was India, where for cultural and religious reasons (and economic necessity), vegetarianism is prevalent. In this country, an estimated 375 million people, or around 31% of the population, are reported to be vegetarian.
The number of vegans, who avoid the consumption of animal products of any kind, is smaller, but thought to be growing even more rapidly.
In the United Kingdom, the Vegan Society, which promotes vegan diets, claimed that the number of vegans in Great Britain had quadrupled between 2014 and 2018, and as of 2019 stood at around 600,000, or just over 1% of the population.
In the US, the FoE/Heinrich Böll report estimated that around 2% of the population were now vegans. ‘Veganuary’ – a push to promote vegan foods during the month of January – is now a well-established part of the food-culture landscape.
Alt-proteins and flexitarians
The market for vegetarian and vegan products is also difficult to identify with accuracy, as plant-based foods (grains, fruits and vegetables) form a staple part of meat-eaters’ diets as well.
However, the food industry has been quick to identify a niche supplying consumers who want meat- and dairy-free options, focusing on novel recipes using vegan protein sources such as lentils and chickpeas, and creating meat-free alternatives – sometimes described as ‘alt-proteins’ – for popular meat and dairy product types.
Less prominent at present, but being rapidly developed, are so-called ‘cell-cultured’ meat products – where the meat is effectively grown in a test-tube from animal stem cells. Such products would not appeal to vegans or vegetarians but could play a key role in addressing the environmental and resource allocation problems (discussed below) associated with traditional livestock production.
According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD), the UK was the nation which launched the highest number of new vegan food products in 2018. As many as 16% of food products launched in the UK had a vegan or ‘no animal ingredients’ claim, doubling from just 8% in 2015.
Overall, 9% of new food products launched in Europe in 2018 had a vegan/no animal ingredients claim, almost doubling from 5% in 2015, Mintel said.
Meanwhile, data pulled from the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) database recently showed that the number of food patents filed globally for meat substitute products had risen from 190 in 2017 to 255 in 2018 – a jump of 34% in just one year.
Interestingly, the surge in demand for ‘alt-proteins’ is being driven in large part by a perhaps unexpected sub-section of the population – those who still eat meat as well.
For decades, avoiding meat was seen as being strictly the preserve of dedicated activists or health food enthusiasts – but this image is changing fast. One of the most significant new consumer trends of the past decade or so has been the rise of ‘flexitarianism’.
This is a movement of people who are conscious of the perceived health or environmental benefits of eating less meat, but who are not prepared, or not ready, to give up meat altogether.
The livestock industry is attempting to counter the rise of vegetarianism and veganism by focusing on the cultural benefits of the sector and its role in the rural economy, and by directly addressing what are sometimes unfair or exaggerated allegations of mistreatment against farm animals
To use survey data once again from the UK, as many as 14% of British consumers now identify as flexitarians. A reported 34% of British consumers consciously reduced their meat consumption in the six months to July 2018, up from 28% in 2017.
Rather than being denounced as a compromise or sell-out, ‘flexitarianism’ is being embraced by the vegetarian movement as a welcome ‘entry-level’ step in the direction of meat avoidance.
The trend is being encouraged by social media-friendly publicity initiatives such as ‘Meat-Free Monday’, which is endorsed by, among others, former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney.
The livestock industry is meanwhile attempting to counter the rise of vegetarianism and veganism by focusing on the cultural benefits of the sector and its role in the rural economy, and by directly addressing what are sometimes unfair or exaggerated allegations of mistreatment against farm animals.
But the fact that veganism is taking hold at such a fast rate may be indicative of a growing perception that it is unethical to keep animals for human exploitation, however well the livestock are looked after, and even if no butchery is involved.
If confirmed, this trend would have implications for the future course of agriculture in developed economies.
Environment, resource and climate concerns
Increasingly, there is an environmental element to society’s growing attachment to vegetarianism and veganism.
Climate change and climate protection is racing up the political agenda, with the adoption of international treaties such as the 2015 Paris Agreement, and the livestock industry is under fire for its role in generating greenhouse gases.
It has also been blamed more generally for inequities in food resource allocation.
Establishing reliable methodologies for measuring such factors is notoriously difficult, but it is beyond doubt that cattle emit large volumes of methane.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation has calculated total emissions from the global livestock industry at a staggering 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent per year, representing 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and a Japanese study showed that producing a kilogram of beef leads to the emission of greenhouse gases with a global warming potential equivalent to 36.4 kilograms of CO2. This is the equivalent of the amount of CO2 emitted by the average European car every 250 kilometres.
For the millions who are becomingly increasingly concerned about global warming, these appear compelling reasons to at least cut down on consumption of beef, if not cut it out completely.
Other concerns revolve around the natural resources used in meat production. Pressure group The Water Footprint Network has calculated that it takes 15,455 litres of water to produce one kg of beef, compared with 3,400 litres per kg of rice, and compared with 300 litres of water per litre of beer.
Intensively-farmed livestock such as pigs and poultry emit less methane, but these sectors attract concern for other reasons, including their reliance on soya, corn and other farmed feed crops. The FoE/Heinrich Böll report, cited above, claimed that nearly one-third of the world’s 14 billion hectares of cultivated land is used to grow animal feed.
Most of this land could potentially be devoted to growing increased volumes of wheat, rice, vegetables, or other forms of (vegetarian) human food, in the absence of this animal feed demand.
Of course, claims of this type throw up complicated arguments about the millions of smallholders worldwide who make a living from livestock farming, and about the carbon-capturing qualities of grazed grassland versus cultivated arable land.
They also invite questions about what such a wholly counter-factual world devoid of farmed livestock might look like.
But there is no doubt that the carbon footprint of many types of livestock production is significant, and that this is one among many factors driving increasing interest in vegetarianism and veganism.
Faux-chicken and veggie burgers
Meanwhile, the move to develop non-meat food alternatives is now firmly in the mainstream and is attracting the attention (and investment dollars) of some of the industry’s biggest names.
In 2018, fast food giant KFC announced plans to develop a ‘faux-chicken’ product to sell in its UK and Ireland outlets – a vegetarian alternative to its iconic main products.
Interestingly, the company said it will promote the new product primarily as a lower-calorie alternative, rather than simply as a vegetarian product.
US meat giant Tyson Foods is developing its own products to sell to the ‘alt-protein’ market, while Unilever is among the investors in Plant Meat Matters – a consortium dedicated to producing the perfect meat-free steak using innovative shear-cell technology.
Beyond Meat is similarly driving R&D for meat substitute products; it is backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and, earlier this year, raised more than US$240 million in a share issue which pushed the company’s valuation up to around US$1.5 billion.
There is certainly still some work to be done before meat-free alternatives are universally accepted. The previously-cited Mintel study found that 39% of UK respondents said that vegan meals were ‘boring’, while 41% said they are overpriced.
Steaking a claim: How to label meat-free goods?
A more pressing issue, perhaps, is the question of how plant-based or cell-cultured meat substitute products should be labelled.
Meat producers in Europe and the US are fighting back against their vegan competition by seeking to reclaim sole use of words like ‘burgers’ or ‘sausages’.
In the United States, this is an issue which has generally been legislated in individual states rather than at a federal level, but certainly attracted nationwide attention.
Thirteen US states, led by Missouri, have so far enacted laws to restrict the use of terms such as “meat” on products that do not come from traditionally farmed animals. However, a coalition of animal welfare and plant- and cell-based food advocates have joined forces in a lawsuit aimed at overturning the legislation in force.
They argue that no consumer would be misled as to the true provenance of a product labelled ‘veggie burgers’ or ‘plant-based turkey slices’. But, in a case which perhaps carries echoes of the endless controversies over Geographical Indications, meat producers insist that a ‘burger’ can only truly be a ‘burger’ if it contains meat.
The argument is a critical one, as the rapid spread of meat-free alternative products is likely to be slowed significantly if the fledgling industry is denied the use of such instantly-recognisable terms as ‘burgers’ or ‘sausages’.
In Europe there are currently no such laws in place – but they may be coming soon.
The European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee voted in April 2019 to amend the current EU basic regulation on food labelling by making it illegal to use traditional meat-related terms for vegetarian or vegan substitute products.
The amendment would specifically reserve the use of terms like ‘steak, sausage, escalope, burger and hamburger’ for traditional animal-sourced meat.
A separate EU regulation, already in force for almost 30 years, makes it illegal to use terms like ‘cheese’ to market non-dairy products.
However, because the Committee’s amendments were not endorsed by the full Parliament before its dissolution prior to the May 2019 elections, the Committee’s report does not have official status. As of summer 2019 it remained unclear when, and in what form, the dossier would be re-submitted for MEPs’ consideration.
Meanwhile, another small cloud hangs over the vegan dietary horizon – a concern that those who do not eat eggs or dairy products may be missing out on an important source of dietary protein.
A study published in 2016 by the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found no evidence that those following a vegan diet were deficient in proteins or amino acids.
The study did note, however, that some vegans “rely heavily on processed foods and may not eat a sufficient variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
The UK National Health Service has given advice that pulses are a particularly important food group for people who do not eat meat, fish or dairy products.
This has in part contributed to an increase in demand for products such as lentils and beans, and the European Commission reported that the area sown to dry pulses in the EU increased by 64% between 2013 and 2015.
To a large extent, however, this increase was due to the fact that such products were favoured by EU agri-environmental policy because of their soil nitrogen-fixing qualities – rather than a transformational increase in market demand.