It’s official: vegetarianism and veganism are now mainstream lifestyles for Brits. An astonishing 3.5 million people now identify by the moniker ‘vegan’, and the trend extends out into the lives of meat eaters as well; according to the BBC, “more than a quarter of all evening meals in the UK are vegan or vegetarian.”
We know plant-based diets are on the rise (a 350% increase over the past ten years, according to one report), but what’s driving this shift in consumer behaviour? And how will the market react?
The Benefits of Going Vegan
Extensive press coverage of the benefits of a vegan diet appears to be a significant driving factor in the consumer shift. Likewise, the worrying concerns surrounding high levels of meat consumption have been explored in the UK press for some time. Misinformation surrounding the perceived ‘lack of essential nutrients’ of a vegan diet has also been challenged by reports, with the NHS stating: “as long as they get all the nutrients they need, children can be brought up healthily on a vegetarian or vegan diet.” Sceptics of the nutritional value of a vegan diet can look to Heavyweight Boxing Champion David Haye as another example of it can satisfy all, regardless of lifestyle.
Being vegan is likely to come with some significant health benefits: vegan diets have a natural tendency to reduce calorie intake according to Healthline, and some studies have found vegan diets lessen the likelihood of getting type 2 diabetes. Vegans are also more likely to get more essential vitamins and minerals due to their diet being based on vitamin and mineral rich fruit and veg (generally speaking). But vegans can also miss out on a few essential nutrients if they don’t get the balance quite right, like the Omega-3 from fish oils.
It’s also worth noting that intolerance to dairy products may also be a secondary driver for changing behaviours. The US National Library of Medicine estimates some 65% of the human population has “a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy.” Alternatives to dairy products now are ubiquitous on the supermarket shelves, making it easier than ever before to have a vegan diet.
From the Stomach to the Skies
As well as providing significant health benefits (in a time when obesity is a growing concern), veganism also has the potential to slow down humanity’s detrimental impact on the earth. Livestock farming is responsible for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and if all humans suddenly went vegan, that emission rate would drop to around 4.5%, according to some reports. New plants grown in the place of livestock farms would also help reabsorb more carbon emissions, thereby reducing our impact further. Government targets to cut emissions may soon fall on the farming industry, resulting in subsidies for companies looking to reduce the environmental impact of meat production through technology (more on that later).
Animal Suffering – Another Significant Driver of Changing Behaviours
Ignoring the often brutal conditions livestock endure throughout their lives was relatively easy until the advent of social media; now, however, news feeds are awash with activism from those promoting animal welfare rights. In the same vein, more and more documentaries are being made which show the harrowing conditions animals suffer from birth to death in many farms (including dairy).
Additionally, the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has brought the conversation into the mainstream by setting out Labour’s agenda for tackling animal cruelty. In the agenda, he including policies like: “designing post-Brexit farm subsidies to move away from intensive factory farming, [and] banning live exports of animals for slaughter or fattening and introducing mandatory CCTV in all slaughterhouses.”
The Market Response
The shift away from meat-eating appears well and truly underway, and forward-thinking businesses are already preparing for a new era defined by veggie-based diets. The carnivores who care about animal welfare and want the benefits of vegan diets are being satiated by increases in alt-versions of traditionally full-blooded meals. The vegan ‘bleeding burger’ got a resounding thumbs up from most, and there’s more to come in the form of tech-based solutions. Huge steps in growing proteins from brewing yeast has resulted in products akin to milk and eggs.
Emerging trends may indicate a large proportion of consumers will have plant-based diets in the future, but many will still favour flesh over the alternatives, no matter how close the alternative comes to the real thing. Although still in its infancy, the technology to grow meat in a laboratory is quickly improving. The benefits of such a tightly controlled product include the obvious: animals do not need to die; and the less obvious: lab conditions mean contamination (as present in chicken in the form of the campylobacter) could all but be eliminated. There are, however, downsides to such production; the ability to grow meat is a solution to several problems, but it is unlikely to bring the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Alt-protein supporter Bruce Friedrich, of the Good Food Institute, told the Guardian: “from our perspective, health is not the point.” Instead, reducing carbon emission and eliminating cruelty are the driving forces behind these advancements.
There’s still time before lab-grown replacements hit the shelves at a competitive price; healthcare providers would do well to look at this period as an opportunity to continue educating people on the benefits of vegan and vegetarian diets before a cruelty-free alternative to industrially-produced meat comes along.
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