As covid lockdowns bite, veganism booms
Veganism has continued to grow exponentially in the UK. Is the pandemic a bystander, or has it helped drive the rise of plant-based diets?
Two years ago, the Greggs vegan sausage roll infuriated traditionalists everywhere. As global food brands rushed to release their own vegan products, I questioned whether 2019 would prove to be the ‘Year of the Vegan’ in the UK. Following the monumental success of Veganuary 2021, with veganism having entrenched itself in all aspects of UK food culture, it appears this can be considered not just confirmed, but perhaps an understatement.
No product exemplifies this remarkable culture shift quite like the sausage roll. Greggs sales topped £1bn in early 2019 boosted mainly by the vegan reworking of its signature snack, and even flooding at its main production facility could not prevent a record rise in pre-tax profits for the year. It took the impact of the coronavirus pandemic to dampen the bakery chain’s success — this January it posted its first ever loss since opening over 80 years ago.
But spurred by the clear demand for vegan alternatives, supermarkets and restaurants have caught up over the last two years. Vegan product launches doubled in 2020 compared to 2016, and with takeaways booming in lockdown, Deliveroo have reported a 163% increase in vegan orders year on year. Veganism has not just weathered the pandemic, but grown almost exponentially in sales and adherents in the UK. Is this merely the inevitable continuation of a trend, or has veganism actually benefitted from the same public health crisis which has held back Greggs and countless similar businesses?
It is clear the vegan wave would have continued growing regardless of the pandemic. Research for Sainsbury’s in 2019 suggested a quarter of the UK population will be vegan or vegetarian by 2025, with an additional 50% being ‘flexitarian’ — making efforts to reduce their consumption of animal products but still occasionally eating meat, fish, dairy or eggs. This is borne out by Kantar data, which shows the number of people actively reducing their meat consumption in the UK rose 42% over 2019.
The number of ‘proper’ vegans in the UK is climbing rapidly, led mainly by younger people — Generation Z (born after 1998) is now 20% meat-free, recently overtaking Millennials (born 1979–1997) at 19%. However, middle-aged flexitarians are also a significant driver of changing food trends in the UK, with their greater purchasing power a major contributor to vegan food sales increasing by over double that of non-vegan counterparts in 2020. This demographic tends to respond more to the positive environmental and health aspects of veganism over animal welfare concerns, and awareness of these benefits is higher than ever in the UK.
“The boom in vegan food sales is driven largely by flexitarians. There has been huge progress in just the last few years”. Dawn Carr, director of vegan corporate projects at PETA.
A recent UN Development Programme climate poll indicated that two-thirds of the 1.2million surveyed worldwide see climate change as a global emergency, rising to 81% in the UK. On biodiversity, evidence is mounting that animal agriculture is the primary cause of habitat destruction worldwide, with ‘plant-based diets crucial to saving global wildlife’. It is therefore no surprise that the annual Veganuary survey has seen a consistent increase in those listing ‘environmental concerns’ as their primary reason to take part since 2018.
The health benefits of vegan food are also embedding themselves in public consciousness, from documentaries proliferating on Netflix to the NHS advice page on vegan diets. Marketers are jumping on the flexitarian trend, having found that ‘plant-based’ is a far more attractive term than ‘vegan’ for many consumers (71% found the phrase appealing, as opposed to ‘meat-free’ or ‘vegan’ with 42% and 39% respectively). The most popular vegan influencers also tend to emphasise health and lifestyle aspects of veganism — and with #vegan garnering 107m posts on Instagram and 7.3bn views on Tiktok, social media has a claim to being one of the largest catalysts for those trying to reduce their meat consumption.
But with the third UK coronavirus lockdown ongoing, the pandemic itself also seems to be playing a role in cutting meat consumption — both directly and indirectly. During the first national lockdown in early 2020, 65million more plant-based meals were eaten — an 85% increase compared to pre-lockdown. Research from Mintel shows that nearly one in eight people say the pandemic has made a vegan diet more appealing, rising to a quarter of young people aged 21–30.
There is less direct evidence for the reasons behind this, but the research suggests the health benefits of a vegan diet may again be a firm contender, with over a third of people polled wanting a more nutritious diet in response to the virus. Cooking more from scratch has also enabled those interested in vegan food to indulge their culinary curiosity, as well as prompting a keener eye on family finances — the average home-cooked meat-free meal costs 87p per head compared to £1.80 if meat or fish are on the menu.
“Even before the spread of COVID-19, we were seeing a growing interest in plant-based food and drink across global markets. It may well be that the pandemic is accelerating this trend”. Alex Beckett, associate director of Mintel Food & Drink.
The surge in vegan products over 2019 was perfectly timed for a nation suddenly largely unable to leave home. While the savvy advertising of fake meat products like burgers and steaks has stolen headlines, ready meals are in fact the fastest-growing area of the meat-free market. In 2020, 16% of supermarket ready meals were plant-based, compared to just 3% in 2018. With easy options available, stress-free vegan food was demystified — even the cliché fear of having a vegan round for dinner was wilting fast, with a fifth of households happy to cook a fully vegan Christmas dinner.
Meat and dairy producers have reacted in alarm, unveiling a series of adverts aimed at recovering some of their flock who are now cutting their consumption of animal products. Tellingly, this campaign has focused on promoting the health and environmental benefits of domestic meat and dairy rather than animal welfare, indicating that the industry believes these angles are the biggest threat to their customer base.
They may well be correct — during the first 2020 lockdown, 60% of consumers said they had changed their shopping habits for health reasons and 54% for sustainability reasons. However, domestic farming overall may have been boosted by the UK’s changing diet. Tesco have even pushed vegetable suppliers to increase production, with a spokesperson for grower TH Clements attributing the surge to “the scratch cooking and vegan booms that are currently taking place”.
These changes are not confined to the UK. Chinese consumers — currently responsible for 27% of global meat sales — are looking for alternatives in the wake of the pandemic, with Beyond Meat becoming the first major ‘fake meat’ brand to open production facilities in the country. With Xí Jìnpíng aiming to cut meat consumption by 50% by 2030, chiefly for environmental reasons, plant-based alternatives are set to become ubiquitous in supermarkets and fridges around the world.
Future food historians may disagree about the extent to which the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the inevitable rise of veganism, or whether the increase during the 2020s was mainly down to awareness of the environmental and health concerns of eating animal products and the corresponding surge in flexitarian diets. However, it seems likely that all will agree the virus did contribute to this social and cultural milestone for UK food. Whether it played a greater or lesser role in this shift, the pandemic has certainly helped cement the place of veganism in society after its first tentative steps into the mainstream in 2019, the UK’s ‘Year of the Vegan’.