Zac Efron. Venus Williams. Benedict Cumberbatch. Beyonce. What do all these people have in common? They’re all vegan. Whether it be for health benefits, carbon concerns or animal welfare reasoning, these celebrities along with 78 million people globally have adopted the vegan diet. In the UK alone, we saw 125,000 individuals sign up to Veganuary 2021, including me! As the connection between factory farming and zoonotic disease becomes more evident, and with Europe seeing cataclysmic levels of wildfires and floods, more and more people are making the move to a flexitarian diet in a bid to save our planet and ourselves.
Many of us may find the idea of cutting meat out of our diet a daunting one. I have found plenty of ways to replace chicken with tofu or bulk up on the vegetables in my Monday stir fry, but I still struggle from time to time and succumb to the temptations of a burger on the BBQ. However, the numbers behind meat consumption don’t lie, so we must keep working on making these small changes to create a better future.
The fact is that more than 3 billion people could be fed using crops we currently use to feed farmed animals. Animal agriculture uses up 85% of UK farmland, despite only providing 32% of the calories we eat, and our current food systems emit a third of the global greenhouse gas emissions – that’s equivalent to the global contribution of China! In regard to human health, research has indicated that the over-consumption of meat is linked to coronary heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer. I think it is safe to say that this is a wildly ineffective and potentially dangerous way to feed a population.
Are alternative proteins the answer?
Alternative proteins encompass plant-based alternatives such as soybean, tofu and pea protein, and cell-cultured ‘meat’ that is grown in a lab. The industry is predicted to grow to £62 billion by 2030, with UK alternative meat brand THIS already reporting a year-on-year growth of over 500%. We can now brew milk in a brewery, instead of in the udder of a cow – and a start-up from Oxford University (Ivy Farm Technologies) is set to become a world leader in producing “slaughter-free” sausages by 2023.
So why are alternative proteins so good that the UK already buys a third of all plant-based alternatives sold in Europe?
1. Environmental advantages – Plant-based foods use 96% less land and 87% less fresh water, while generating 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a traditional burger. Since plant-based protein uses less land, there is a huge opportunity to preserve biodiversity and protect nature
2. Nutritional benefit – Plant-based diets have been used to reverse type 2 diabetes, with the World Economic Forum finding that incorporating meat alternatives into diets could reduce diet-related mortality by 5%.
3. Animal welfare – Less meat consumed means less demand for meat, and less demand for meat means less animals are forced to live out their short lifespan in intensive factory farms!
With one in three Brits calling themselves ‘flexitarians’, it is clear that there is a high demand from both consumers and investors for more protein options. And for the first time ever, protein innovation is being put on the map. The UK National Food Strategy marked a bold change in Government response to protein innovation, with recommendations including a £1 billion investment into research areas including sustainable proteins, a new £50 million commercial ‘cluster’ for entrepreneurs and scientists working on protein innovation and annual £15 million grants for sustainable protein start-ups.
Right now, the UK has a unique opportunity to position itself as a world leader in food technology. Adopting plant-based alternatives into our current diets could save money on healthcare, save lives of individuals dying from diet-related disease AND save the lives of up to 30 animals per month! There is an appetite for change in UK food, and it’s time to cater to it before it’s too late.