Veganism 'is not in decline' despite sales of meat alternatives falling

Vegan and vegetarian groups have hit back at suggestions interest in their diet is in decline.

Following news that Meatless Farm is set to cease trading, and with big brands like Heck and Oatly reducing their product lines, concerns have been raised about the number of people eating plant-based diets – with The Week asking ‘is the plant-based bubble bursting?’.

Most meat and dairy alternatives saw a decline in sales this January compared to the same period last year.

This is despite 2023’s Veganuary campaign, when people pledge to eat only plant-based foods for a month, having a record number of sign-ups which usually boosts sales.

But with the cost of living crisis increasing the price of almost everything on supermarket shelves, and a rise in the number of supermarket own branded vegan products, the issue isn’t exclusive to vegans.

Jasmine Clark is senior environment campaigner at Viva, a vegan campaign charity which goes undercover to investigate standards in the farming industry.

She says looking solely at meat alternatives to judge the size of the vegan population is reductive – as meat eaters have also cut higher priced items, like meat and fish, from their diets due to increasing prices.

Jasmine explained: ‘People take a narrow view of veganism and meat alternatives in general. It doesn’t take into account the wider food landscape and the different food that makes up the vegan diet.

‘There are reports meat and dairy consumption has also dropped – people are moving towards cheaper food and opting for more vegetables, pulses and beans.

‘There’s a conception of veganism being expensive, but a 2021 study of high income countries including the UK found the vegan diet was the most affordable.

‘It’s a diet based not on meat alternatives, which are a great introductory step, but when you look at the whole food base – beans, lentils – it works out much cheaper.’

Jasmine also suggested the closure of Meatless Farms, which has been taken over by Vegan Fried Chicken, could be down to an increasing number of available meat and dairy alternatives, meaning shoppers’ cash is spread wider.

She added: ‘We’re seeing more alternatives which are cheaper coming into the market – last year Aldi expanded their vegan range by 50%.

‘When making vegan options more mainstream, there’s more competition for the original companies which are a bit more expensive.’

The types of products available also play a role. From 2020 to 2022 interest in plant-based fish has increased by 343%, Jasmine says.

‘Vegan fish alternatives are really new, so it depends on the product. There are so many vegan burgers out there, some will do better than others,’ she said.

The Vegetarian Society is also defiant, saying the number of vegetarians and vegans isn’t decreasing, and the meat alternatives market is struggling the same as many others during the current economic climate.

Richard McIlwain is chief executive of the society and wanted to stress that not all vegetarians and vegans are ‘middle class Waitrose shoppers’, saying the diet is much cheaper if meat alternatives aren’t relied upon.

When asked why sales of meat and dairy alternatives have declined, he said: ‘Some brands haven’t made it, this is still a very early market, there are some success stories but some have fallen by the wayside.

‘You have to remember some brands like Linda McCartney and Quorn have been around since the ’90s and are still doing well.

‘Food across the board is more expensive and people are generally cutting back on what they’re buying and vegan products are part of that.

‘Some of the alternatives have a price premium because they don’t have economy of scale, so obviously if your budget is tight you’ll stick to own brand and more traditional vegan foods.

‘I don’t think the bubble has burst, there’s general economic pressures, and I think in the next 18 months it will start to grow again.’

Richard and the Society’s stance is that animal agriculture, and the lack of diversity in land use as a result, is one of the leading causes of climate change.

This, he says, means ‘we will have to wean ourselves off meat at some point’ and in order for that to happen, there needs to be realistic meat and dairy alternatives available.

He says vegan cheeses are especially lacking, and another area he hopes to see improve in future is the introduction of faux meats which look convincingly real.

Richard explained: ‘At the point someone can recreate a T-bone steak and it looks, feels and cooks the same, that’s the point where meat eaters have no excuse any more.

‘Vegan cheese doesn’t work for a lot of people and I think the industry recognises it’s a problem.

‘There’s a cognitive dissonance – everyone knows abattoirs are not a nice place, they know it’s cruel and alternatives exist, but they don’t want to give it up and they don’t want someone to have a go at them about it.

‘If we make it easier to give people the products they like and enjoy, they just don’t come from animals, people are more likely to eat credible alternatives.

‘Change is uncomfortable for people, I think if we pushed for people to adopt a traditional vegan diet there would be more resistance, but I think we are on the cusp of a revolution about how our food is produced.’

The Vegan Society says the number of vegans in the UK is continuing to gradually increase. Current estimates reckon around 1.35% of the population, or 700,000 people, are vegan.

A spokesman added the drop in sale of plant-based substitutes hasn’t been felt across the board, with THIS Isn’t Meat reporting their largest increase in sales this year.

They said: ‘In the last few years we have seen some product categories in the UK have double or triple digit growth, this boom was always likely to lead to a readjustment in sales where the market stabilizes, innovates and increases again.

‘The whole market has a great many products and both vegans and non-vegans are interested in supporting it.

‘Availability and price are also two key areas that can hinder growth and we continue to engage with supermarkets and policymakers on these issues.

‘As the cost of living increases, many consumers are looking to cut the cost of their grocery shopping, and the first items to go are often those in a higher price bracket which includes, meat, dairy and plant-based meat substitutes.

‘In June last year, our cost comparison research across the major supermarkets, showed vegan sources of protein, such as dried lentils, peanut butter and baked beans continued to be the cheapest options.’

The consensus across vegetarian and vegan groups is clear: the answer to whether the vegan bubble is bursting is a resounding ‘no’.

All three organisations featured have sections on their website dedicated to recipes and meal plans to cook vegetarian or vegan food on a budget.

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