food shopping

How many vegans does it take to change the world?

I’ve been doing a project recently that required an estimate of the number of people in Britain who have adopted a vegan diet. There’s no official figure for this that I’m aware of, and so numbers are fairly ad hoc and based on surveys.

For instance, last year there were several headlines around the finding that there are now 3.5 million vegans in Britain – 7% of the population. A more reliable figure comes from Ethical Consumer’s annual report, which suggests 3% are vegan, with 11% vegetarian.

These figures are rising. 3% might not sound like much, but it’s a 153% rise on 2016. Ugly portmanteau notwithstanding, Veganuary has captured people’s imaginations and participation this year is likely to be even higher. With every passing year, it becomes easier to be vegan. More options appear on menus, more products on supermarket shelves, more recipe books, bloggers and chefs to learn from. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. The meat industry is debating its response. This month the Spectator ran a front page feature titled ‘The war on meat has begun – and the vegans are winning comfortably’.

How many people does it take to reach a tipping point? Studies vary from 10 to 25%, so we may be a little way off the vegan revolution that’s got the Spectator quaking. Add vegetarians to that though, and a shift in attitudes seems imminent.

I doubt the change will be a mass shift away from meat eating. It’s more likely that the shift will be around the social acceptability of plant-based diets. The vegan jokes will tire. The idea that men have something to prove by eating meat will look increasingly silly. People will stop accusing vegans and vegetarians of being attention seeking or pious. More and more of us will respect friends and colleagues who choose an alternative diet, rather than ridiculing their decision or endlessly quizzing them about it.

We can already see the market forces changing already, and it’s not hard to see why. If 14% of adults are no longer eating meat, that’s potentially a significant dip in profits for the meat industry. And that’s just those that have given it up entirely. That’s reduced sales in the supermarkets, and they’ll want to make up for that loss by strengthening their vegan offer. It’s a large enough group of people now that fast food chains are competing for it. Vegans are a sector of consumer spending that has to be taken seriously.

Whether or not you are vegan or vegetarian or, like me, eat a less precise plant-based diet, this shift in Britain’s food culture is good news. It’s good for our health, good for animal welfare, and good for the climate.

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