We know that reducing meat consumption helps reduce carbon emissions – but are people actually doing it? With more vegan products than ever on the market and lab grown meat on the horizon, it might come as a surprise that meat consumption is actually rising.
Veganuary recently shared that January 2021 was their most successful year yet with a staggering 582,538 pledging to go vegan for a month.
So, what’s going on?
For a lot of us living in the global north where eating meat has been a huge part of our food culture since industrialisation, it’s easy to forget that it is not easily accessible for people living on the poverty line. But as the world becomes wealthier and the middle class in the global south is growing so too is meat consumption. As incomes rise, so do living standards and people start to incorporate meat into their diet.
In fact, meat production has more than tripled in the last 50 years with over 340 million tonnes produced each year. According to data published by Global Meat & Poultry Trends, this rise is set to continue. “In many parts of the world, meat is among the least affordable food options. It is generally pricier than locally available grains, beans, vegetables, and fruit. However, as average incomes rise, more people eat meat, first as an occasional treat and then finally as something they consume multiple times a week, if not daily,” David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts.
We know we don’t need to remind you of the negative impact this is having on the environment and the climate. This is one of many areas where the global north, which has been emitting more carbon for decades, will need to make bigger commitments towards lifestyle changes to allow development in the global south, which has historically contributed much less carbon. Environmental activist, Helena Barnett (@earthbyhelena) discussed this in a recent Instagram post titled “Why Industrialised Countries Need to be Doing the Most to Fight the Climate Crisis”.
Fake vegetarians and vegans?
Something else which may surprise you is the number of people surveyed who say that they are vegan or vegetarian but who are actually still eating meat. Plant-based diets are aspirational but people are finding it difficult to transition long term. In a survey recently carried out in Canada, “one-third of those who identified as vegetarians and more than half of those who identified as vegans ate meat relatively regularly.”
It seems that people generally accept that reducing the amount of animal products in their diet is a good thing, and there is much admiration for those who do, but most people are still finding it difficult to ditch meat entirely. “We did a survey where we asked people about their perceptions of veganism and found that non-vegans actually often said that they admired vegans,” Samantha Calvert, Vegan Society.
What really prevents people from giving up meat and dairy?
A couple of years ago, lack of choice and potential social awkwardness would have been high on the list of barriers but plant-based options are available in most restaurants, supermarkets and for those budding home cooks, new vegan cookbooks are hitting the shelves all the time. While it may be an exciting challenge to go vegan for a short time – for Veganuary or on weekdays – the difficulty with going full time may have more to do with the fact that our relationship with food is complex. Our food is steeped in tradition and culture. It’s often how we show love or how we celebrate. And while traditional dishes can be “veganised” for those determined to steer clear of meat and dairy, it is surely a barrier for many.
Further complications in our relationship are food sensitivities and eating disorders. For some people, food restrictions can be extremely triggering and detrimental to their mental health. For others, it may be their physical health that suffers. Meat substitutes and plant-based protein sources are frequently made from gluten, soy or nuts – all foods commonly occurring allergies.
Is the vegan movement too exclusionary?
The vegan movement has done an incredible job at moving public perception away from the “lentil-loving hippie” that it was typically associated with. However, as plant-based popularity is growing (especially online) the movement has a new stereotype – thin white women.
BIPOC vegan influencers are increasingly calling attention to the lack of diversity represented in mainstream veganism. They often miss out on paid opportunities and brand collaborations with companies preferring to “play it safe” and favour white influencers. White veganism, much like white feminism, ignores both the contributions and the cultures of BIPOC. And it’s not just brands, some well-known vegan influencers have recently come under fire for their failing to address white supremacy within the movement. This is a disturbing trend and is very likely deterring people from aligning themselves with the vegan community.
What is the way forward?
From a climate perspective, the global north needs to do the heavy lifting and significantly reduce carbon emissions – shifting towards diets that are more plants and less meat is an essential part of this.
If trends continue, and more and more people become interested in trying out life without chicken wings and bacon, long term success will be found in a more inclusive movement. A movement with representation and diversity that mirrors our actual societies is likely to be more sustainable. “Flexitarian” or “climatarian” diets focus primarily on more plants, as well as locally sourced and seasonal food with lower carbon footprints and most importantly – space for adapting to your own needs and circumstances by allowing small amounts of more sustainability sourced meat and dairy.
Image credit: Photo by Szabó Viktor via Pexels
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