The days when veganism was thought of as some sort of dreadlocked, yurt-dwelling, subculture are far behind us and, whether financially, morally or physically motivated; the UK’s animal appetite is waning.
Whilst this is good news for our fur and feathered friends, there have been human casualties.
Worst hit have been the cattle farmers, who’ve seen impacted sales and faced closures on both the meat and dairy front. The dropping price of milk has claimed over 1000 UK dairy farms in the past three years but, whilst it’s true that there’s much ado about dairy in the press at the moment, the decline in the industry has been happening since veganism was barely a twinkle in the dietary eye. Numbers of producers have dropped from 14,500 to around 9,500 in little over a decade and this suggests that there are bigger forces at play than the relative new popularity of The Vegan.
It’s surprising to find that whilst any Google search for “veganism and the dairy industry” will return dozens of results from pro-vegan sites – demonising the rearing of animals for food – there’s very little noise coming from the other direction. The finger of the UK’s farming fate is pointed, for the most part, at the imbalance between production costs and value earned, with rising competition from other meat and dairy-yielding countries. It’s simply no longer as profitable as it once was to farm cattle in Britain.
Whilst veganism and its offshoots have an abundance of well-documented benefits – personal and planetary – they leave us wondering what the future holds for an already fragile animal industry. And, for those about to embark on their own culinary enterprise, it’s worth considering what’s influencing the move away from animal produce and what shape the food sector might take in the future.
The message has undeniably become one of; “meat = treat”.
It might surprise us all to know, then, that the consumer group driving demand for meat and dairy alternatives is actually made up of those who don’t identify as vegetarian or vegan. It has its own term; Flexitarianism – mostly vegetarian but with the occasional meat-based digression.
A 2013 study by Mintel.com of American consumers found that “while only 7% [of consumers] identified as vegetarian, some 36% indicated use of meat alternatives”. It’s those who still eat animal produce who have been spending their vote against animal produce.
The study also indicated that the choice to adopt plant-based alternatives had shifted from necessity to more of a general interest in different food types. By illustration; new vegetarian product launches have doubled in the past five years thanks to a choice-aware, less boundary defined, consumer audience.
None of this is too surprising when we consider how different our culinary landscape looks to how it did a decade or so ago. Combine this with the wealth of information we are now able to so easily seek out and we have the makings of a food revolution. All that’s needed is a bandwagon.
Speaking as one who watched Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, and immediately abdicated myself of the term “meat-eater”, popular culture’s influence over our lifestyle choices cannot be underestimated.
We have a tendency to operate with a group mentality and the media has played a substantial role in normalising, if not idealising, the plant-based diet. Traditional medias no longer act alone. They’re reinforced by omnipresent social campaigns and Cowspiracy is testament to the power of this approach. Within a year of its release it had over half a million likes on Facebook and an army of devotees vowing to renounce meat and dairy for good.
The success of this documentary owed to its ability to tap into not only our social conscience but also our individual survival instinct. We all knew that climate change was happening, we perhaps just hadn’t realised how quickly – or how directly – we were all spurring it on. Per person statistics make it that bit harder to sweep our own accountability under the carpet, it seems.
Alone, these documentaries probably aren’t enough to drive change but the argument is made all the more compelling – particularly to an engaged younger audience – by its advocacy amongst a growing cult of celebrities, each with their own powerful social presence. None more so than Cowspiracy executive producer, and environmental campaign heavyweight, Leonardo DiCaprio.
The wellness boom
If the environmental argument weren’t persuasive enough, the health debate has surely got people thinking.
According to social research agency NatCen, as many as 3 in 10 Brits have consciously cut back on their meat consumption since the beginning of last year with 53% of those citing “health reasons”. Indeed, in 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) placed red and processed meats in the same category of health risk as tobacco and asbestos – if consumed excessively.
Aside from the stats around cancers and heart disease there’s been an introduction of terms – like “lactose intolerant” – making us think twice about our consumption of meat, milk, and a whole plethora of other dairy products.
The health and wellness industry is positively booming in the UK and we need only look at how far organic produce has come to be able to imagine where the animal-free market might be heading. Where milk sales are dwindling, there’s been an increase in the growth of organic milk demand – although even organic methods are now being called to question in terms of their sustainability.
Research suggests that the meat and dairy substitute market will be worth $5.2 billion by 2020 with Europe driving highest demand.
Availability and changing attitudes
Whilst it’s undeniable that putting the fear of God in people will encourage them to change their ways, it hasn’t all been scaremongering.
The simple fact is that, where vegans were once a segregated bunch – banished to some dark and dusty back shelf of a supermarket – animal-free is now easy and accessible.
“You can walk into any [supermarket] and be confronted by a huge range of dairy-free milks and other vegan-friendly products”
- Keith Coomber, Vegan Life Magazine.
It’s also more than just a question of whether we consume animal produce or not these days. “Meat n two veg” – or a glass of milk with dinner – used to be the staple of the British family diet but there’s now an abundance of exotic choice and it’s fuelling a move away from tradition.
“Food habits changed before beverages. After a while it wasn’t as natural to drink milk with Thai curries and pasta.”
Demand for variety has changed how our supermarket shelves are stocked and this has opened the floor to a wave of new and exciting food brands.
Swedish brand Oatly, who make traditionally dairy-based products using (you got it) oats, were pioneers back in the 90s but were received with puzzled looks. Fast forward a few decades and, thanks to mainstream adoption of their ideology, a rebrand, and a good marketing strategy we’re starting to see other startups take to the “lab” with their experiments. There’s much more to be milked than cows!
The Oatly idea was simple: “[taking the] concept of producing a drink directly from oats instead of first feeding oats to a cow and letting the cow process them into milk”. The brand now has a market in around two dozen European and Asian countries, and it’s seen revenue increase by almost 40 percent in the last year.
Feeding our future
A global switch to veganism is probably unrealistic but a global reduction in animal product consumption is both feasible and, I think the majority would agree, warranted.
Whilst the agriculture industry looks at more sustainable practices and the government at considerations such as surcharges on meat and dairy, there’s opportunity opening up in the alternatives market.
And where sustainability is concerned, there’s promise. The Open Agriculture Lab (OAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently suggested that as much as 40% of an urban diet could eventually be produced by consumers, in their own homes and gardens. This paves a path for innovators to come up with new solutions which make that viable.
The opportunity to find alternatives spans beyond inventing the new tofu, vegan-friendly restaurants, engineered materials and cosmetics. It’s all up for grabs.
Supported by compelling and now easily accessible information, we have a responsibility to strive for sustainability – and new entrepreneurs have an exciting challenge ahead of them.
Times are changing and it’s about adaptation – food for thought.
All ‘Opinion’ pieces are the opinions of the author, not Quick Formations.