‘Acting fast and slow – a necessary contradiction’
No-one can be in any doubt that we are facing a climate and biodiversity crisis which, together, pose genuine existential threats to humanity. Yet we cannot wait for governments to act. While they may occasionally make the right noises, manifesto commitments around the environment are not yet a core vote winner.
Instead, I firmly believe we can look to business for solutions. Business leaders drive change and innovation. However, when it comes to sustainability, we are not yet free of the make, use, dispose model that has driven unsustainable consumption since the 1950s.
Yet the one key sector in which this model will necessarily persist is of course the food sector.
In many ways, the food system we have today in the developed world is one of our great successes. And yet at the heart of this success story lies a major problem, one that is driving the climate and biodiversity crises. The food system on which we all depend is no longer fit for purpose.
Animal agriculture devours around three-quarters of all farmed land on earth, requiring clearance of native forests for intensive animal agriculture and mono-culture cropping for feed. This is driven largely by our demand for meat and beef in particular, the most climate intensive food in terms of average kg of greenhouse gas emissions per kg of food.
In my opinion, stepping away from eating meat is the one solution within our grasp that, if implemented, could create a healthier and more sustainable future for all of us.
Of course, we also need to think hard about the role of eggs and dairy. Can we build kinder and more sustainable slaughter-free models? Can we utilise plant-based eggs and dairy in processed foods, reserving the raw material for more traditional culinary uses. A less but better model? Important questions and a focus for Vegetarian Society research.
However, the focus of this article is unashamedly on how we might wean ourselves off meat. Increasing our consumption of traditional vegetarian foods such as pulses, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits will be important. But we need to accept that many people enjoy meat and it has a cultural relevance particularly around social occasions. If we want to move away from meat, I believe we will need to provide replacements with the look, taste and texture of meat.
The sub-title of this article is ‘Acting Fast and Slow’. I have of course riffed on Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. But this is not the decade for thinking in isolation of action, we need solutions at scale and fast. And herein lies the contradiction. Because when it comes to diet the consumer is not ready for ‘fast’. The mantra ‘no one likes to be told what to eat’ is a cliché but no less true for it.
It is for this reason that our annual National Vegetarian Week campaign is not a ‘challenge event’. We did not require this year’s 17,000 individual participants to go veggie for the full week. We encouraged them to go ‘slow’ i.e., at their own pace. While some signed up for the whole seven days, others pledged to swap out meat for just one meal and we celebrate that. And while swapping out meat for a veggie option may not seem like much, it’s a forward step.
Once people realise that a bean chilli or a plant-based mince looks and tastes delicious, they will go further. Indeed, our post-campaign survey endorses this view with almost 97 percent of participating meat-eaters stating they planned to eat more vegetarian food in the future and almost one in four reporting that they were now interested in adopting a vegetarian or plant-based diet.
And, over the past two years we have deliberately focused National Vegetarian Week around the climate and biodiversity crisis. Our analysis suggests this provides a more inclusive rationale for participation than a focus on animal suffering because deep down as a nation while many people love their meat most don’t want to be faced with the reality of how it is produced.
Indeed, a recent survey of 2,000 adults across the UK, undertaken by YouGov on behalf of the Vegetarian Society, found that over half of all young adults agreed they would choose to eat more sustainably if carbon footprint labelling was included on food packaging. And it’s not just the younger generation who would be willing to choose sustainable eating habits, with over one in three adults (37 percent) aged 55 and over agreeing that they would choose to eat more sustainably given the information on menus.
The campaign’s environmental framing has so far proved successful with a doubling of participation rates in 2023 plus support from almost 50 local authorities and many businesses, including our headline sponsor Cauldron. This gives a great platform for further substantial growth in 2024.
But these types of bottom-up grassroots approaches can be supported by business, as key players in a complex value chain, as we look to fix our broken food system. As demand for new ‘alternative meat’ products grows, businesses have a real opportunity for growth, particularly, with analysis from Mintel suggesting the plant-based sector could be worth $130bn by 2030.
But the success of new product ranges will depend, in my opinion, on four key areas. Firstly, and perhaps obviously quality. Consumers will inevitably compare meat-alternatives to the look, taste and texture of the meat it seeks to replace. Delivering quality across all these aspects will be critical.
Nutritional value is also key. Already, we are seeing a push back on meat-alternatives, based on their classification as ultra-processed. Consumers will almost certainly be turned off by a chemistry set list of ingredients on packaging. Simplifying ingredient mixes and focusing on nutritional value with low levels of fat and salt will be critical.
Thirdly, consumers will naturally be suspicious of novel foods. Building confidence will be key and environmental benefits will be at the heart of this discourse. Schemes such as carbon labelling will be crucial and I suggest that all forward-looking businesses should be introducing voluntary carbon labelling on products, while also encouraging government to introduce mandatory labelling. Particularly, as our research suggests the next generation support these measures.
And finally, business should be ready to play a role in a system-focused ‘farm to fork’ approach. Which crops do we need to grow, which technologies (plant-based, fermentation, cultivated meat) should we major on, what new production facilities do we need and how do we build consumer confidence? We already have a tentative blueprint in work currently underway in Denmark, where a strategic approach to growth in plant-based diets engaging actors throughout the value chain is underway.
Ultimately, we cannot wait for governments to act. I believe that supportive policy and fiscal measures will come only when consumers are ready for dietary change and businesses are investing in that change. This means that for now – responsible businesses can lead the change. But you are not alone. In particular, working together with organisations such as the Vegetarian Society, we can deliver high quality engagement campaigns bringing consumers, manufacturers and retailers together in our shared ambition for a more sustainable future.
Richard McIlwain is the CEO of the Vegetarian Society