- The Plant-Based Revolution
No-one could have failed to notice the burgeoning interest in plant-based food during the last few years. For some of us who remember decades before the change is nothing less than remarkable. In the 1960’s and 70’s being a “veggie” was subject to public ridicule. And the provision of meat alternatives was so poor as to make vegetarianism and veganism heroic choices. And yet, we rub our eyes, and the heroic has now become commonplace, or at least shows the signs of becoming so.
We should be cautious however. This change does not appear to be solely driven by an increase in vegans and vegetarians. In the United States, the number of vegetarians is around 5% of the population, a statistic that hasn’t changed since 2012, and the rise in veganism is from about 1% to perhaps 2% to 3%, though this is hard to calculate (Zampa, 2019). What has changed is the rise in Flexitarians or Reducetarians, those who while not wholly plant-based are reducing their consumption of animal products and consistently eating more plant-based meals. According to a 2018 survey, one in three Americans now consider themselves flexitarians (Gervis, 2018). Indeed, it is reported that 90% of Impossible Burgers sold at fast-food chains in the US are purchased by meat eaters (Zampa, 2019). Not fully fledged moral protesters perhaps, but moving in that direction (Linzey & Linzey, 2018).
This change in consumer demand has had enormous influence on the food market. It is hard to know which came first, did companies realize that plant-based food would make them more money, so they made more products? Or did the ready availability of many more plant-based alternatives mean more people took up a plant-based lifestyle? Either way, the number of plant-based products is growing, and the profitability of those products is as well. As an example, Beyond Meat a US plant-based food company is one of the fastest growing companies in the US: “its total revenue increase[d] by 5.4x in the last two years, from $16.2 million in 2016 to $87.9 million in 2018” and its revenue is [End Page v] expected to increase “from $87.9 million in 2018 to $358 million in 2020” (Trefis Team, 2019).
Even if some of these estimates are exaggerated (and we see no reason for thinking they are) a change in social outlook and social practice cannot be disputed. Moreover, the media which used to ridicule veggies is now reporting veganism as a serious ethical issue. UK television shows such as “The Dirty Vegan,” the “Vegan Village,” are testimony to a newer, younger face of veganism. In one visit to Los Angeles, we were struck by how specifically plant-based eateries are booming. We remember one place in particular: Veggie Grill, which provided high-quality, nutritious, ambitious, and flavourful food—all, believe it or not—at a fast pace, and for many customers. Long may they continue and flourish.
This normalization of plant-based food has been fed by many factors of course. In the first place, the health arguments for a plant-based diet keep piling up. No, we are not saying that veganism will prevent all major diseases (and it would be irresponsible to do so), but the suspicions that many medics had that a plant-based diet is unhealthy or is inadequate have largely given way to more thoughtful assessments based on evidence (Walsh, 2018). Dr. Frank Hu, chair of Harvard’s department of nutrition, has stated that: “an accumulated body of evidence shows a clear link between high intake of red and processed meats and a higher risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death” (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). Rush University Medical Center suggests that going vegan can promote weight loss; reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels; lower your chances of getting certain types of cancer, such as colon cancer; and manage diabetes by lowering A1C levels (Rush University Medical Center, n.d.).
Second, the link between meat consumption and climate change has seeped into the public’s imagination...