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The Rise of Veganism

Prior to the nationwide Coronavirus lockdown, Greggs — the UK bakery chain — was making the news for all the right reasons.


Not only has their vegan sausage roll proved to be a game changer, but the bigwigs at Head Office felt it right to share the product’s success directly with employees in the form of a £7m bonus payout. And they didn’t stop there...

Their new Vegan Steak Bake resulted in empty shelves in stores across the nation as they struggled to meet demand.

A cartoon image of a classic fast-food meal set on a contrasting black tabletop against a pink background. The meal includes a cheeseburger, a side of fries and a soft drink with a straw. A blue takeaway bag on the right hand side completes the scene.

At the time, many news outlets attributed its popularity to Veganuary — a charity initiative founded in 2014, encouraging the public to go meat and dairy free for the month of January. Their website boasts 500,000 participants across 178 countries worldwide, with more than 500 businesses taking part in Veganuary 2019. Those numbers look sure to grow rapidly — whether affiliated with the charity directly or not — as more and more people attune to the benefits of waving goodbye to beef burgers and bacon butties.

So, what has spurred this transition in public thinking? And are the new meat-free alternatives all they are cracked up to be?

A BBC article from December 2019 reported: “McDonald’s latest fast food chain to join vegan craze”. There will be many out there who take umbrage at the notion that vegan-friendly options are a “craze”.

By definition, “craze” means: something that suddenly becomes very popular, but for only a short time. I very much doubt “craze” will prove to be the appropriate term. I don’t see vegetarian or vegan options as a fad, but a meaningful route to a more sustainable future. In fact, The Vegan Society celebrated their 75th birthday in November 2019!

My sister has been a vegan for years, and we eat accordingly when she comes to visit. I do miss cheese during those periods but it’s surprising how quickly your preferences can change, and how incredibly tasty vegan options can be. During a trip to India earlier in the year, I abstained from eating meat for the duration. It hadn’t felt like a compromise at all. So much so, I genuinely found it hard to resume my meat-eating ways on my return.

Greggs’ vegan sausage roll has been such a resounding (and delicious!) success that I can’t envisage it ever being anything but a staple of their offering for years to come. With their pre-tax profit rising by 15% — prior to the COVID-19 outbreak — their vegan range will surely expand markedly if and when life returns to "normal". 

In a survey of 1,040 adults, the same BBC article details the reasons why people are choosing to eat less meat (more than one option could be chosen). Of the non-meat eaters, the main draw was animal welfare, followed by environment, health and taste. Concern over antibiotics and weight management were the least selected by this group. 

By contrast, the principal reason given by people interested in cutting down meat consumption was health, followed by weight management. Animal welfare was tied with environment, but was selected by substantially fewer respondents versus those who had already stopped eating meat.

A question posed often by veggies — “how can you claim to love animals but still eat meat?” — has surely been debated to death in households across the globe. The quandary that those fluffy, leaping lambs you see on countryside walks could end up with a side of mint sauce come Sunday, has conflicted many for decades. I, for one, am sure that the Greggs vegan sausage roll tastes all the better with the knowledge that it does NOT contain who-knows-what of a pig, and you’d struggle to convince me otherwise!

For some, however, taste trumps everything else. They don’t care if they’re eating animals, if there’s a delicious lamb chop on offer, or a steak, or a pie... The thought of never having a Full English again is enough to bring them out in a cold sweat. Others can mentally distance “pork” from “pig” and “beef” from “cow” enough to quieten any qualms they may have. The inquisitive nature of children is often harder to satisfy. 

Seemingly, however, greater and greater numbers have decided they can no longer stomach consuming animals — in any shape or form. According to research conducted by The Vegan Society in 2018, there are around 600,000 vegans in Great Britain — estimated to have risen from 150,000 in 2006. Of those, around 360,000 describe themselves as “lifestyle vegans”, who further commit to only using or buying cosmetics and clothes free from animal products, for example.

Delving further into the statistics provided by The Vegan Society, and the facts and figures prove very persuasive:

  • If the world went vegan, it could save 8 million human lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoid climate damages of $1.5 trillion.

  • If the UK population was killed at the rate farmed animals are killed around the world, it would end in just 11 hours. 

  • Over a billion farmed animals in Britain are killed each year in slaughterhouses. 

  • Over 10 million pigs, 15 million sheep, 14 million turkeys, 15 million ducks and geese, 982 million broiler chickens, 50 million 'spent hens', 2.6 million cattle, 4.5 billion fish and 2.6 billion shellfish are killed in the UK each year — over 8 billion animals. 

  • Interest in 'veganism' increased seven-fold in the five years between 2014 and 2019, according to Google trends. It now gets almost four times more interest than vegetarian and gluten free searches

The purported health benefits also provide considerable food for thought:

  • A global move to a vegan diet would avert 8.1 million premature deaths per year. 

  • A 2019 study, totalling over 300,000 participants, by Harvard scientists discovered that eating a vegan diet can cut your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by almost a quarter (23%). 

  • A 2019 study of more than 12,000 people found those who ate mostly plant-based foods were 32% less likely to die from heart disease. 

  • A vegan diet may help those overweight reduce body fat and promote weight loss without restricting calories. 

  • We could feed twice as many humans with today’s global harvest (in 2019) if we did not feed farmed animals but rather consumed the yield ourselves. 

  • World Health Organisation's first step to healthy eating is: "Eat a nutritious diet based on a variety of foods originating mainly from plants, rather than animals". 

  • The World Health Organisation report in November 2015 ranked processed meat as a group 1 carcinogen (the same category as cigarettes, alcohol and asbestos). Eating just 50g per day (two rashers of bacon) increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. It also classified red meat as a group 2A carcinogen. 

  • Vegan diets have been linked to a 35% lower risk of prostate cancer. 

  • High blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, is less common among vegans. 

  • Body mass index and cholesterol levels are lower among vegans. 

  • Those who eat seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables per day have a 33% reduced risk of premature death, compared with people who eat less than one portion.

A cartoon image of a figure in a lab coat stood next to scientific instruments, tending to indoor plants on a yellow table in front of a large window.

Unsurprisingly, the big hitters in the fast-food industry are unlikely to be getting in on the act for health or ethical reasons. Nevertheless, the tide of public opinion is turning and there are big bucks on offer for those who take the change seriously. 

KFC, Subway, Burger King and many more are shaking up their menus with substitute offerings — before it’s too late. For a company literally named Kentucky Fried Chicken, that’s a really big deal. But there are big rewards to reap. According to market researchers, Mintel, the UK market for meat-free foods was worth £740m in 2018, up from £539m only three years ago. What’s more, retail sales are expected to increase to £658m by 2021.

Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are leading the way with their plant-based alternatives — flavoursome and practically indistinguishable from the “real thing” once you’ve added a bit of garnish, sauce and a brioche bun...  And it’s not just burgers. “Impossible Pork”was launched at CES 2020 to much fanfare. The baton has been passed from long-standing staples such as Quorn and Linda McCartney, blessing veggies and vegans with more choice and variety than ever before. 

So, perhaps it’s time more of us moo-ve on from meat eating. Innovations in science and product development are making vegan-friendly options increasingly accessible — and tasty! What do we have to lose? 

I fully expect future generations will look back at meat (and probably alcohol) and question why we ever consumed the stuff. Just as we questioned the habits of our grandparents — “why would you do that? Didn’t you know how bad it was for you?” — we will surely look back on our time as meat-eaters as unhealthy, unnecessarily and (maybe even) inhumane.

Need further convincing? Check out Simon Amstell’s 2017 mockumentary Carnage. Set in the year 2067 when veganism is the norm, it certainly offers plenty of food for thought… just don’t watch it on a full stomach! You have been warned.


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