The Guardian reported on World Vegan Day that a third of Britons have stopped or reduced eating meat according to the Waitrose Food & Drink Report 2018-19, and vegans around the world prepared for a celebration.
But before we pull out the environmentally friendly confetti, let’s look at the actual report.
Under Trend #3, the report states, "One in eight Brits – or almost 13% of the population – is now vegetarian or vegan, with a further 21% identifying as ‘flexitarian’, according to our research. This means that a third of us now have meat-free or meat-reduced diets. In many cases, these are lifestyle choices that have been adopted over the past five years, reflecting the new mindfulness with which people are living their lives."
That’s encouraging right? Well, yes. Except that the report goes on to say, "Half of all those who say they’re vegetarian or vegan also eat meat ‘at weekends’, ‘occasionally’ or ‘on special occasions’."
In other words, these people aren’t vegan at all. In fact, they’re not even vegetarian. And I’m not trying to be the vegan police here, I’m just observing a demonstrable fact. By any reasonable definition of the word, we should at least agree that vegetarian means you don’t consume meat, and yet here we are.
But who cares what people call themselves, right? You can call yourself the magic vegan roundabout just so long as you’re exploiting fewer (or ideally, NO) animals. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The report method provides no meaningful rubric by which to measure reduction. Eating meat on weekends doesn’t mean eating less of it. It only means that you’ve arbitrarily designated certain days on which to eat meat. ‘Occasionally’ is another word that is impossible to quantify in absolute terms. And virtually anything at all can be a ‘special occasion.’ Self-reported data might be affordable and convenient to obtain, but it creates a significant potential for bias.
Bearing this in mind, I went in search of statistics on meat consumption in the UK. What I found was enlightening, if not depressing. According to FullFact.org:
The Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) estimates that meat consumption is pretty stable. Including meat eaten inside and outside the home, it estimates that UK meat consumption was about 79 kilograms per person in 2016, an increase of 2% compared to 2015, but down 1% compared to 2014. Looking back a decade, UK meat consumption levels do not appear to have changed much.
Mind you, the AHDB has no vested interest in lying about this. As an agricultural body, they would be far more alarmed if people were realistically decreasing their animal consumption. Full Fact also says:
In 2015 (the latest year available), purchases of carcass meat (raw cuts of beef, veal, mutton, lamb, and pork) per household fell 4% from the year before. Purchases of non-carcass meat (essentially any other meat product) are more common, and these were down 2% over the same period. Fish purchases were up 2% since 2014.
To reiterate, consumption of land animals has negligibly decreased, but there is also a negligible increase in consumption of fish, which should alarm any ethical vegan who recognizes that fish are animals too.
Overall, this also reveals a limitation in the logic underpinning reducetarianism. Because we are collectively bad at self-reporting and because there is no universally agreed-upon definition of “reducing,” it becomes an abstraction that places a halo over any morsel of meat a person consumes just so long as they accompany it with the assertion that they’re eating less, regardless of how true that may or may not be.
So what's really happening with this explosion of vegan products? Well, Waitrose isn't making things up.
Among other interesting findings, 'vegan' is indeed enjoying a renaissance right now. But instead of an ethical lifestyle choice, people are presumably adopting vegan as another popular food trend. When asked what they want for dinner, some people say Italian, Thai, or Mediterranean...but now they might also say 'vegan!' in much the same way they would say gluten free! Innovation in plant-based products simply expands the food market, not shifts it in any tangible way.
Likewise, the explosion of gluten-free labels in the grocery store expands the market, but the existence of black bean pasta is not displacing wheat.
Of course, this is not to say that the availability of vegan options has NO impact on the purchase of animal products. For example, we do know for certain that milk consumption is on the decline. However, it's less certain how much that’s worth since UK cheese consumption has risen steadily since 2014.
Overall, absent of an ethical or political framework, people are just seemingly switching up which animals they exploit and how they do it. Cows are bad for the environment? No problem. Eat chickens! They're lower on the food chain and allegedly healthier!
Any measurable 'reduction' occurs at such a glacial pace that we're likely to go over the environmental cliff before we're convinced to simply STOP exploiting animals altogether. And when every reliable source predicts that global meat consumption is projected to increase over the next decade, we need to take a sober look at what we call successes and the content we circulate within our own echo chambers.
Once again, the need for media literacy within the animal rights community, especially in the digital age, is clear. After all, The Guardian isn't wrong, per se. Maybe a third of Britons do identify as having stopped or reduced their meat consumption. But if Britons don't know what vegan means (...or vegetarian...or reducing), then what does that matter?
Author’s note: “Full Fact is an independent fact checking organization based in the UK which aims to “promote accuracy in public debate”, launched in 2009. Full Fact is a very well sourced, thorough fact checker. We consider them to be a top fact checker in the genre with the likes of Politifact and Factcheck.org. Media Bias Fact Checker endorses Full Fact as a highly credible fact checker.”