The rise and rise of veganism in Britain

Going vegan or vegetarian has become mainstream in Britain, as new coverts join the momentum to switch to a plant-based diet

File photo
File photo

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Fri 29 Oct 2021, 10:46 PM

What do global movers and shakers eat when they meet and confabulate about major issues? Next week, world leaders will congregate in Glasgow for the COP26 summit, with mixed hopes among billions across the globe of what the event will eventually achieve in terms of global warming and climate change. But keeping with the event’s aspirations, one aspect has already been decided: plant-based dishes will dominate the menu, with 80 per cent of the food seasonal and sourced in Scotland. Overall, 95 per cent of the food will be from the United Kingdom, focused on the idea that sustainability should be at the heart of catering for the summit, reducing emissions and promoting environment-friendly food production. Campaigners wanted a 100 per cent vegan menu to be served, but the fact that most of the dishes will be plant-based at such a high-profile international event is music to their ears.

Each item will have an estimate of its carbon footprint, helping delegates make climate-friendly choices. Items will include Edinburgh’s Mara Seaweed, which is abundant, sustainable, does not require fertiliser, fresh water or soil to grow, as well as Benzies carrots and potatoes that use wind turbines to power their cool storage, biomass to provide heating and actively recycle the water they use. Cups used to serve drinks will be reusable, washable 1,000 times; it is estimated that this approach will save up to 250,000 single-use cups. Says Alok Sharma, Cabinet minister in the Boris Johnson government and COP26 president: “There will be a tremendous amount of work to be done at COP26, with many hours of negotiations and long days, so the choice of food that we serve our visiting delegations, staff and all our volunteers is very important. It is exciting to see such innovation in the menus that will be on offer and to understand the thought and effort that has gone into making dishes both healthy, sustainable and suitable for different diets and requirements. We very much look forward to giving our international visitors a flavour of the wide-ranging cuisine the UK has to offer.”

This focus on a plant-based menu at the Glasgow summit seems inevitable given the growing momentum in Britain in recent years to switching to a vegan diet, which is a step further than a vegetarian diet, since it excludes dairy products (‘vegan’ was coined from the first three and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’ in 1944, when The Vegan Society was formed with just 25 members). According to the society, “A vegan is someone who tries to live without exploiting animals, for the benefit of animals, people and the planet. Vegans eat a plant-based diet, with nothing coming from animals — no meat, milk, eggs or honey, for example.” The momentum is driven by philosophical, religious and other reasons, but mainly by widely-publicised scientific research that animal agriculture and animal products are disastrous for the planet, and that cutting out animal products from the diet is the single-most effective action an individual can take to help fight climate change.

A vegan supply chain

From the United Nations calling for a wider global uptake of plant-based diet in 2010, to a host of studies and mass awareness drives by campaign groups subsequently, veganism has gone mainstream, with superstores, restaurants as well as manufacturers of cosmetics, medicines, toiletries, fashion and textiles making it known that their food and goods are vegan, catering to a growing niche customer base. Coffee lovers can now enjoy a flat white with soy, oat, coconut or almond milk instead of whole milk, besides a large number of dishes that earlier used dairy products. Cadbury hit the headlines when it announced that from November there would be a vegan alternative to its signature Dairy Milk chocolate bar. The new Cadbury Plant Bar would substitute almond paste for the ‘glass and a half of milk’ that is supposed to be in the Dairy Milk bar. ‘Veganuary’, a charity organisation that encourages people to try vegan diet in January and beyond, enlisted pledges of more than 580,000 people this year.

Says senior journalist Syed Zubair Ahmed: “It’s been over a year since I last had meat. My journey to being vegetarian was slow. First, I gave up eating beef way back in 1984 when I was a university student. I tried to give up eating meat completely several times since then but it was difficult to resist. Gradually, I stopped cooking meat at home. And then in the first month of Covid I decided to cut out meat completely... Going vegan or vegetarian appears to be a fad in the West but those who have turned vegetarian or eating vegan food know what they are getting into. Even when I ate meat I believed vegetarianism is a higher form of living. Eating meat was fine when we lived with nature 12-13,000 years ago. We have a choice now. Giving up animal products is achieving that higher form of living I have always been hankering after. My next goal is to stop eating all animal products, including milk and eggs. I love oat milk anyway. I believe being vegan is being more civilised.”

According to new research by The Vegan Society, a large number of Britons reduced the amount of animal products they consume since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It found that 1 in 5 (20 per cent) people have reduced the amount of meat they are eating while 12 per cent said they have minimised their eggs and dairy intake. Seven per cent of respondents revealed they have cut down on all three, meaning that 1 in 4 (25 per cent) have actively cut back on some form of animal products since the first lockdown. It also found that more than a third (34 per cent) people are spending more time with their companion animals, and 32 per cent are thinking more about their personal impact on the planet. In a second survey aimed at those who had cut back on animal products, 35 per cent said they were mainly motivated by health concerns, with that figure rising to 39 per cent for those aged 55+, while 30 per cent said the environment was their primary motivation, and almost 1 in 4 (21 per cent) said it was down to animal rights issues.

Louisianna Waring, Insight and Commercial Policy Officer at the society, says: “It’s fantastic to see that not only are people consciously cutting back on animal products, but that this trend has continued over the last 12 months. It’s no surprise that the pandemic has inspired so many consumers to make the switch to plant-based alternatives and adopt a more planet-friendly diet. Covid-19 has certainly made people think twice about what they’re eating and where it’s coming from. This is highlighted by the large number of people cutting down on animal products because of their own health concerns.” New research published in the British Medical Journal says that plant-based or pescatarian diets were associated with lower odds of moderate-to-severe Covid-19. The Vegan Society will make its presence felt at Glasgow through its various campaigns (‘Plate Up for the Planet’), adverts and messaging on buses, digital billboards, subway stations, performances and an outreach stand in a shopping mall.

The legislation debate

Campaigners would like the turn to veganism to be backed by legislation, with subsidies for plant-based food, but opinion within the Johnson government is mixed. According to the independent Climate Change Committee, people should be encouraged by the government to cut the amount of meat and dairy they eat, recommending a 20 per cent shift away from those products by 2030, since reducing meat and dairy consumption will cut emissions from agriculture and release land to plant trees to help absorb carbon dioxide. But the Johnson government has said it will maintain people’s freedom of choice in their diet.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has spoken to the media about the importance of veganism to climate change. He may adopt a vegan diet at some point to play his part in the global climate effort, since lifestyle changes would be needed across society if the UK government is to hit its new emissions target: cut by 78 per cent on 1990 levels by 2035. He says: “I’m certainly reducing my meat consumption, not only for environmental reasons but also for health reasons. I’m eating a lot more fish than I ever did before and maybe I can move to a full vegan diet at some point. The number of people who are vegans, who are reducing their meat intake, is going up all the time. I think that there is a lot of societal change that will actually help us and drive the progress to 2035”, admitting that the government should “accelerate the change” and praised the boom in plant-based diets, which is taking place “without government legislation”.

Kwarteng’s views about veganism stand in sharp contrast to Johnson’s. According to the prime minister, veganism is a “crime against cheese lovers”. Asked recently on BBC about his 2020 resolution to lose weight and if he would be ditching meat and dairy products from his diet, he said it would require “too much concentration”, adding that while he “tipped his hat off to vegans who can handle it”, a vegan diet is “a crime against cheese lovers”. Campaigners were quick to point out that vegan-friendly cheeses are now available in every grocery store, besides other alternatives to dairy products.

The latest alt-milk to hit the market — besides almond, soy, coconut, oat — is potato milk; the market for plant milk alone is estimated to be £400 million a year, while the global plant-based alternatives market is pegged at over £115 billion. The Vegan Trademark is already established, helping users identify that a product is free from animal ingredients since 1990. Over 56,000 products worldwide, including cosmetics, clothing, food, drink, household items, and many more display the Vegan Trademark. In 2019 alone, The Vegan Society registered 14,262 products with the Vegan Trademark, which was an increase from 2018, when 9,590 products were registered. The Vegan Trademark is present in 108 countries, with over 50 per cent of products registered coming from companies based outside of the UK. Vegan and plant-based foods are the fastest-growing category of foods people are ordering, according to leading food-delivery companies in the United States, Canada and the UK. Campaigners say globally the number of vegans is nearly 80 million; of those in the UK, 66 per cent are women.

A new report by think-tank Chatham House says post-Covid economic recovery efforts by governments across the globe provide a unique opportunity to put in place measures for a ‘green recovery’. Its report, Food System Impacts On Biodiversity Loss, says: “Over the past 50 years, the conversion of natural ecosystems for crop production or pasture has been the principal cause of habitat loss, in turn reducing biodiversity…Without reform of our food system, biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate…Reform will rely on the use of three principal levers: Firstly, global dietary patterns need to converge around diets based more on plants, owing to the disproportionate impact of animal farming on biodiversity, land use and the environment…Secondly, more land needs to be protected and set aside for nature…Thirdly, we need to farm in a more nature-friendly, biodiversity-supporting way, limiting the use of inputs and replacing monoculture with polyculture farming practices…Dietary change and a reduction in food waste are critical to breaking the system lock-ins that have driven the intensification of agriculture and the continued conversion of native ecosystems to crop production and pasture.”

The flip side

For all the enthusiasm to adopt veganism and stick to it rigorously, it has many critics, besides attracting the old joke: “How do you known someone’s a vegan? Answer: They’ll tell you”. There is also the fact that almost everything edible involves some kind of animal suffering; all one can do is try and minimise it through food choices. One website is dedicated to its point that almonds are not vegan. It may be impossible to be 100 per cent vegan, since plants get nutrients from the soil, which often contains decayed remains of animals, besides pollination by bees and others species. The jury is out and both sides hold on to their positions passionately.

Ward Clark, author of Misplaced Compassion: The Animal Rights Movement Exposed, writes in an online essay titled “The Myth of the ‘Ethical Vegan’”: “Unfortunately for the ethical vegan, the production of their food alone reduces their claim to impossibility. Animals are killed in untold millions, in the course of plant agriculture. Some are killed accidentally in the course of mechanised farming; some are killed deliberately in the course of pest control... Every potato, every stick of celery, every cup of rice, and every carrot has a blood trail leading from field to plate…Ethical vegans, as a class, fail utterly to put any of their professed ethics into action. They claim to not cause harm to animals, but they do; when confronted, they claim to cause less harm to animals than the non-vegan, but they are utterly unable to show that to be true... They are intimately involved, every day, in an activity that causes the deaths of millions of animals...”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar)

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