By Juliane Caillouette-Noble, Managing Director, Sustainable Restaurant Association
A record half a million people have signed up to participate in Veganuary this year, further solidifying the month-long commitment to veganism as an annual staple. What started as a simple idea in 2014- building on trends like Dry-January or Movember – Veganuary has become a global movement to create interest in plant- based diets, now extending to 192 countries and countless brands and marketing opportunities.
Veganuary has become mainstream. Everyone from supermarkets to high street chains and everything in between seems to have launched new products or changed their menu to appeal to the growing proportion of the population that is increasingly interested in plant-based eating. Wagamama has announced its move to a 50% plant-based menu featuring new dishes like vegan chilli squid and firecracker curry. LEON has launched a monthly subscription service that offers discounts on vegan items. Greggs continues to grow sales of its vegan sausage roll while Pieminster is charging customers more for its beef pies and ring fencing the surcharge for tree planting. And as can be expected when an idea tips over into the mainstream, the backlash has become louder than ever.
Regenuary goes viral
Last week, Ethical Butcher, a meat supplier focused on regenerative farming and building a better meat supply chain, and a friend of the SRA, posted an idea to Instagram calling for a ‘Regen-uary’ in place of ‘Veganuary’ this year. Within the first 24 hours the post had reached 150,000 people, going viral adding another layer of discussion to the mix. In their post they called for diners to commit to food that is seasonal, local and farmed sustainably, calling for consumers to support a regenerative agricultural system for a month instead of going vegan.
The reception to the post has been passionate. Many involved in the sustainable food movement have celebrated, as intensive farming is destroying the health of our soils. Ethical Butcher pointed out that many staples of vegan diets like avocados, nuts, and soy are all intensively farmed in countries overseas with detrimental consequences to people and the environment. Meat substitutes can be heavily processed, sometimes high in salt, fat or sugar, yet many consumers treat them as if they are ‘healthy’ choices. It is time to break the narrative that meat is the source of all evil, some have argued, pointing to high quality British beef and cheese farmers who are daily stewards of the land.
And yet on the other side there has been outrage from vegans, and some confusion from the bystanders. What does it mean to eat locally and seasonally in the depths of winter in the UK?
Here’s the thing: from where we are standing, as with many things when it comes to sustainability, the choice shouldn’t be one or the other. The answer lies somewhere in the in between, the ‘both, and’ if you will.
It is true that intensive farming is destroying our soil and has devastating consequences for the planet, wildlife, and people. It is true that raising animals can be part of a regenerative solution, and a route to better agriculture. It is also true that we eat too much meat, and that no matter how you cut it, we need to reduce our consumption.
Therefore, engaging the mainstream in trying veganism for the month – pushing more plant-based options onto menus, celebrating innovation and more diversity in product development and shifting people’s eating habits toward more plant-based options is a good thing. If we want to achieve climate targets and make it to a net-zero 2050, it’s beyond a good thing, it’s an essential. AND reminding people that being vegan for a month doesn’t solve all of the world’s sustainability challenges is ALSO a good thing. We need to invest not only in reducing our meat consumption, but also in choosing better—better meat, better produce better farming practices. We need to support our own local food systems, rewarding the growers who are investing in caring for people, animals and planet. We need to do both.
It’s not a binary argument
We should see these two campaigns as complementary, as ideas that work together to help us build a better food system, not as competing, pitting factions of this movement against each other. We need to celebrate the work that farmers, suppliers, chefs and brands are doing along the way, because we need as many diners as possible to care. To quote another favourite Instagram meme, ‘we need 1 billion people doing zero waste imperfectly, not 10 people doing it perfectly’ to make the difference, and therefore we shouldn’t count out the mainstream.
So, for our 2021 resolutions, here’s to eating less AND better meat. To connecting with our local food chain and supporting the farmers, fishermen, growers and producers who are committed to stewarding a better future for our planet. Here’s to mixing it up and trying more plant-based options when dining out (or IN- let’s be honest as it’s 2021 and we are all dining IN), and to supporting more plant-based innovation. Here’s to planting our feet firmly in this decade with a commitment to inviting more people into the movement, making space along the way.