You can't help but feel vegetarianism and veganism have lost some of alternative cachet. Clearly no longer exotic novelty lifestyles limited to the McCartneys, Green Party members, IBS sufferers and white guys with dreadlocks, recent research from analysts at Mintel has shown that one in eight adults in the UK are now vegetarians or vegans, and that this includes one in five 16- to 24-year olds. Surviving on a diet of plants is now unavoidably lamestream.
According to Mintel's report, though, the rise of vacillating, part-time vegetarians who are actively trying to reduce their meat consumption is more significant than the growing number of categorical, self-identifying "vegetarians" or "vegans". This has led to an evolution on the supermarket shelves – the number of food products carrying a "vegetarian" claim has apparently doubled to 12 per cent, while one in eight meat-buyers would now consider buying half meat and half vegetable protein across a week's shopping. Even the less obviously meat-containing products like chocolate or sweets are playing to this growing market, with 11 percent now alleging to be animal-free.
Bearing all this in mind, I decided to reach out to Brian Kateman, host of a TEDx talk about "ending the battle between vegans, vegetarians and everyone else" and co-founder of a movement called Reducetarian, which aims to bring together the burgeoning community of individuals who have committed themselves to eating a diet of less meat. I wanted to ask him how and why this is all happening.
First off, says Brian, the data-centric world in which we live means health problems, the well-being of farm animals and the environment are issues which are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. "Right now it's hard to not know that climate change is happening," he explains. "It is happening, and we know it. The data shows us that eating a more plant-based diet really is more healthy for you. And certainly the animal welfare component is incredibly powerful. We know that animals are treated incredibly poorly in these areas. We've seen video footage from these sort of undercover investigations, which are particularly powerful."
Secondly, people are also growing to move beyond the all-or-nothing vegetarian or vegan mindset; it isn't necessary to completely eliminate meat from your diet. "Initiatives like Reducetarian are so appealing because it's so easy to eat less meat now," says Brian. "It's not hard; just look at all the options that have emerged in restaurants and supermarkets over the past few years. So it's a combination of being more aware of all of these important issues, but also the ease and convenience of eating less meat."
The meatless message is above all taking off in the form of online pledges, often framed as "challenges". For example, there was a 40 percent rise in sign-up to the Vegan Society's Veganuary month last year, while similar campaigns like Meat Free Mondays, the #VeggiePledge and VB6 continue to home in on student campuses and non-working middle-class parents. Way back in 2013 – well ahead of the game – the Norwegian army introduced its own mandatory meat-free Monday.
Meanwhile, presumably sensing an opportunity for either endorsements or kudos, famous people (and unashamed meat-eaters) like Lil B and Beyoncé have recently decided to launch, respectively, a vegan-themed emoji app and a meatless food delivery service.
Many formal Reducetarians, Kateman tells me, also subscribe to the cult-like "effective altruism" movement, which essentially takes an empirical, rationalist approach to finding out how to make the world a better place. So, he says, rather than dropping the bacon altogether, it may in fact be more sustainable to continue to eat it, but in moderation. "There are all of these different messages around encouraging people to eat less meat. There's veganism, there's vegetarianism, there's semi-vegetarianism, there are plant-based diets, there's 'eat less meat', there's 'eat more fruit and vegetables'. We have all of these different messages, but the important question is, 'Which is the most effective?' Part of being an effective altruist is thinking about how your message and intentions actually translate into deliverables and outcomes, and that's something that we take very seriously." He says studies conducted by The Humane League go some way to proving the effectiveness of Reducetarianism, but more research is still required.
I asked Kateman whether an element of moral licensing might come into play when some people sign up to these schemes. In other words, are these aspiring young people, by eating that vegan meal, just "doing their bit" for the environment and thereby exempting themselves from doing another good thing in future (say, walking to work or eating another vegan meal)? Is all of this just a token gesture, a fad?
Kateman is quick to defend the movement. "The idea is that the best meal a person could have is one without meat. And there will be times when a person will choose to eat meat, but I think that there is an awareness when ordering or cooking that, if it is a meal without meat, it is perhaps a healthier, more moral meal. I hope the nature of the word 'Reducetarian' will push people past that moral licensing, and remind them that their work is never done. This idea of gradualism and moderation is not new, it's been applied and used before."
As more people become cognisant of the true external costs of meat, a phenomenon explored in David Robinson Simon's enlightening new book Meatonomics, Kateman says we're going to see increased investments in cell culture technology. It's already happening: "Beyond Meat, which is a large company that offers alternative meat products, recently had a multimillion dollar investment, and we're going to see increasingly more of this," he says. "Same with restaurants – food markets are going to open up to this new target audience. It's going to become very normal to eat less meat, and perhaps eventually not eat real meat at all. At least, if more alternatives become available and this technology accelerates to the point where we have cell-cultured animals."
To sustain the movement, Kateman plans to release a Reducetarian cookbook, develop a curriculum for classrooms and work on an app "where people are able to track their meat consumption and see how it translates," in real terms. Eventually, he envisions a world in which every student union and school council has a "Reducetarian rep". And by putting a name to the trend, he claims the movement is offering an identity to the 95 percent of people around the world who aren't vegetarians or vegans. "We need to have a shared conversation about our shared commitment to eating less meat," he says. "And that's regardless of where we fall along the spectrum."
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