The numbers of people following a plant-based diet have soared over the last 10 years. In the UK, polling by the Vegan Society indicates that around 1% of the population identified as vegan in 2016, an increase in 350% in a decade. More recent polls suggest that the figures are increasing exponentially – a YouGov poll conducted in June 2018 put the figure at 2% of the population, and other pollsters have estimated that as many as 3.5 million people – 7% of the UK population identified as vegan in early 2018.

As well as the rising numbers of people that are going (without the) cold turkey, carnivorous consumers are also consciously reducing their meat and dairy consumption. A survey of consumers in the US and Canada revealed that 39% and 43% of people are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods in their diet, and 31% of Americans are practicing meat-free days.

Food and restaurant consultants have highlighted veganism as the major global trend of 2018, and the food industry has been racing to keep up with the demand. There was a 185% increase in vegan products launched in the UK between 2012 and 2016, and international meal delivery service Just Eat reported a 33% of its restaurants now offer vegan options. The growing “alternative” or lab grown meat market is also expected to boom in the coming years – with investors like Richard Branson and the world’s second largest beef producer, Cargill, the industry is expected to be worth $40bn by 2020. Combined, these trends are suggestive of some big shifts in our relationship to food and farming, which could spell good news for the future of the planet.

Wider relevance

The exponential growth of veganism is of striking importance because, after the energy sector, agriculture is the most significant contributor to global warming. The food system contributes around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions – of which up to 80% are associated with livestock production. This amounts to more than the emissions of every car, train, ship and aircraft on Earth. Greenhouse gas emissions are not the only problem – 88% of our water use is for food production – but heavily weighted towards meat; whilst a pound of carrots requires 14 gallons of water, a pound of beef requires 1846 gallons. 70% of the planet’s agricultural land is devoted to animal farming, and land for bovine cattle has been a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon, estimated to amount to 65%-70% of the total.

It is for these reasons that many experts say the most significant action an individual can take to reduce their carbon footprint is to change their diet to cut out meat and dairy. Research from the University of Oxford estimated that going vegan could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by up to 73%. At a global scale, the researchers argued, this could be transformative – if the world converted to plant-based diets it would cut food-based emissions by two-thirds and avoid climate related damages of 1.5 trillion USD.

Vegetarian and vegan diets have long been practiced in many parts of the world – India for example has more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined.  But what is striking about this rapid transition is the growing awareness and interest of plant-based diets in the countries that are driving global warming through their meat industries – in North America, Europe and Australia. In China too, which currently outstrips the US as the largest agriculture emitter, the government has issued guidance to encourage its people to reduce their meat consumption by 50% by 2030.

Finally, what is highly significant about this rapid transition is that the trend is being led by young people – 54% of vegans in the UK are under 35 years old. Young people are showing greater interest in experimenting with vegan diets than their parents – in the UK, 20% of all under-35-year olds have tried a vegan diet, and 60% of “Veganuary” participants in 2018 were under 35. This is encouraging as it is suggestive of a potential generational shift in eating habits, which if it continues to grow apace, could be vital to combating further environmental degradation.

Context and background

Globally humans eat around 230 million tonnes of animals a year, which is twice as much as we did thirty years ago.  While some cultures already enjoy predominantly vegetarian diets, and many indigenous and traditional cuisines are characterised by being mostly diverse, plant-based diets, with only small amounts of meat, more meat-based Western diets have been on the rise. The average Brit eats more than 11,000 animals in their lifetime – 1 goose, 1 rabbit, 4 cattle, 18 pigs, 23 sheep and lambs, 28 ducks, 39 turkeys, 1,158 chickens, 3,593 shellfish and 6,182 fish. These quantities exceed the amounts recommended by the medical community, with detrimental effects on our health and the high costs for our public healthcare systems. In comparison to vegetarians and vegans, meat eaters have higher rates of obesity, cancers and heart disease. It is estimated that a global switch to plant-based diet would save up to 8 million lives by 2050.

Despite its health and environmental benefits, veganism has long been a fringe movement. The term was coined in the 1940s in England by Donald Watson, who led a breakaway group of the Vegetarian Society who sought to follow “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals”. Alternative names that were considered at the time included ‘dairyban’ and ‘benevore’ but ‘vegan’ caught on and in 1960 the American Vegan Society was established. The movement grew in strength throughout the 1960s, being closely associated with the New Age and hippy counter-culture of the time. Statistical monitoring of veganism from its beginnings is scare, but most studies suggest that it remained a niche but steadily growing movement throughout the last decades of the 20th century. Until very recently, veganism has continued to be associated with alternative or hippy lifestyles, and has had little influence on mainstream diets, with vegan options in restaurants and supermarkets tending to be very limited.

Enabling factors

The key driving factors people cite for their conversion to veganism relate to health, animal welfare and environmental concerns. According to statistics from the US in 2014, the most common incentive for veganism was to improve their personal health – with 69% of vegans stating this is a reason for their choice to cut out meat and dairy.  Animal protection and feelings of disgust around animal products are the next most cited reasons, with 68% and 63% respectively. The other significant motivation is concern for the environment – with 59% of vegans citing this as an important factor for their choice to follow a plant-based, and thus more ecologically balanced, diet.

Undoubtedly though, all of these issues have been around for a long time – so what explains the rapid uptake in veganism in recent years? The major explanatory factor in the rapid rise of veganism over the past 5-10 years has been the use of the internet to spread both negative messages about the farming industry as well as to portray positive images of a vegan lifestyle. Online interest in veganism is clear from google trend reports – which show a 65% increase in searches for ‘vegan’ over the past 5 years. Vegan advocacy documentaries available on online streaming services– such as Cowspiracy and What the Health – have been key to spreading the message of the ecological destruction and animal cruelty wrought by modern agriculture and our meat-based diets.

As well as spreading messages on the negative impacts of meat and dairy, online communications have been crucial to getting beyond veganism’s ‘hippy’ image problem and building a supportive community. With 66 million #vegan tags on Instagram, the social media tool has been the main vehicle through which vegans have spread their message, shared recipes and provided support in an ever-growing online community. Successful Instagram accounts packed with visually appealing vegan recipes have launched many celebrity chef careers, and the proliferation of images of healthy, vibrant and varied vegan meals has been vital to debunking myths around the limits and tedium of a vegan diet. The annual Veganuary campaign in the UK in which people pledge to go vegan for the month of January was launched in 2014 with 3,300 people signing up. The campaign, which provides an online support group – with regular messages, tips and recipes sent to those who sign up – reached to 168,000 participants this year.

Scope and evidence

  • 350% increase in the number of vegans in Britain from 2006-2016; 542,000 people said they were vegans in 2016. A survey in 2018 has put the figure as high as 3.5million people.
  • 168,000 Veganuary 2018 participants, of which 60% were under 35, up from 3,300 on its 2014 launch.
  • 185% Increase in vegan products launched in the UK between 2012 and 2016.
  • 54% of UK vegans are under 35, 20% of under-35s in the UK have tried a vegan diet.
  • Vegans tend to be liberal-leftist politically: in the US, vegans are 52% liberals versus 14% conservatives and 34% neutral. They are generally well educated and are more likely to be found in urban than country areas, with prevalence in big cities.
  • The majority of vegans are women – 74% in USA, 66% in Germany and 57% in UK.

Lessons for a rapid transition

  1. Long established ways of behaving considered ‘normal’ can shift quickly – Even in very personal areas of behavioural change, where state and business influence is indirect, such as day to day dietary choices, shifts in consumption patterns can happen very fast
  2. Mixed motivations can help – Change seems to happen faster when multiple motivations for behaviour shift come together. In the case of reducing meat consumption, a combination of health issues, environmental concerns, as well as moral and ethical concerns about animal welfare have appealed to the broader public than any single, one-dimensional focus.
  3. Media is key – Both mass media and social media play an important role in enabling shifts and communicating the benefits of behaviour change, as well as ‘amplifying trends’ – for example the sharing of appealing images and recipes online has been vital to shifting perceptions around the desirability of a vegan diet.

References

Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) (2018). Consumer Focus: The rise of plant-based food products and implications for meat and dairy https://projectblue.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/Consumer%20and%20Retail%20Insight%20Images/PDF%20articles/ConsumerInsights%20WEB_1653_180725.pdf

Baum + Whiteman (2018) Food and Beverage Trend Report https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/0c5d00_90935d6fda344991a8fc2452eb112c83.pdf

The Guardian (2018) The unstoppable rise of veganism: how a fringe movement went mainstream https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/apr/01/vegans-are-coming-millennials-health-climate-change-animal-welfare?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

The Guardian (2014).  Eating less meat essential to curb climate change, says report https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/03/eating-less-meat-curb-climate-change

The Independent (2018) Number of vegans in UK soars to 3.5 million, survey finds https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/vegans-uk-rise-popularity-plant-based-diets-veganism-figures-survey-compare-the-market-a8286471.html

Martinelli and Berkmaniene (2018) The Politics and the Demographics of Veganism: Notes for a Critical Analysis. Int J Semiot Law (2018) 31: 501. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-018-9543-3

University of Oxford (2016) Veggie-based diets could save 8 million lives by 2050 and cut global warming http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-03-22-veggie-based-diets-could-save-8-million-lives-2050-and-cut-global-warming

Springmann et al. (2016) Analysis and valuation of health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change PNAS April 12, 2016 113 (15) 4146-4151;  https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1523119113

WRI (2014) Everything you need to know about agricultural emissions https://www.wri.org/blog/2014/05/everything-you-need-know-about-agricultural-emissions