The rise of veganism: How the growth of sustainable diets may affect the political economy of food production in the UK

With vegan and environmentally-friendly diets on the rise in the UK, this blog asks what these changes in consumption behaviour imply for the political economy of food production and how might the state support such a transition?

This blog is Part 4 of our new series on ‘Studying an uncertain future‘ written by members of SPERI’s doctoral researchers network.

In recent years it appears that every month is becoming dedicated to a social, personal or charitable endeavour. From Dry January and Februhairy to Stoptober, Movember and Decembeard, almost every month is now cause for change. This trend of re-naming or re-branding months, referred to as ‘Punths’, aims to raise awareness, or indeed money, for a multitude of causes. Since 2014, Veganuary has become a prominent part of the Punth calendar, receiving a record 400, 000 signatories worldwide in January 2020. As one of these 400, 000, I began to consider how our changing diet may come to change the economy.  

Veganuary 2020 saw many of the UK’s larger high street restaurants, including McDonalds, KFC, Subway and Burger King make a concerted effort to tap into trends of changing consumer demand, as UK consumers increasingly occupy new positions along the dietary spectrum, from Veganism to Vegetarianism to Flexitarianism. Europe has emerged as the world’s biggest Vegan market during this time, with the supply of meat free products growing by 451% between 2014-2018 meaning the continent now accounts for 39% of global meat substitute sales.

This growing demand was foreshadowed by The Economist who christened 2019 ‘The Year of the Vegan’. During that year, the UK overtook Germany as the world leader of vegan food launches, with 1 in 4 products or 23% of domestic food consumption claiming to be animal free. While these statistics can often polarise UK consumers around pro and anti-vegan positions, what is often neglected from the debate is how could the growth in demand of meat-free products affect the UK political economy?

Revenue for farmers of all types of livestock reduced in the UK during 2019, linked in part to the rise of veganism, as the average income per farm fell. At the same time, supermarkets recorded a £184m fall in meat sales, as some predict bankruptcy for the beef and dairy industry by 2030. It is clear that new food systems will come at the expense of the old.  

To arrest this decline, more government subsidies have been mooted. Whether or not they come to pass remains to be seen, but as global meat production provides only 18% of our calories with 83% of farmland, the case for assistance is not a strong one. For the UK, who produce under 60% of domestic consumption nationally, changes in the global economy could, in reality, prove opportune for reimaging national industry and addressing one of a number of import dependencies.

All of this is to say little of the contribution of meat production to the ongoing climate breakdown. For fear of evoking ‘apocalypse fatigue’ which many members of the ecological movement stand accused of, I assume that reducing our meat consumption is the most immediate means to reduce our carbon footprint to be well established. Meeting the UK’s emissions targets will therefore require leaving the sectors which rely on meat production to the same fate as the animals they envelop.    

In keeping with the theme of this blog series, I argue that over the next ten years the case for a vegan diet, or at the very least a significant decrease in meat consumption, will not simply be a moral or ethical debate of animal welfare, but a case of ecological necessity. The following therefore outlines three potential pathways, each demanding a different degree of political intervention, which may not only reduce the impact of domestic food production and consumption on the environment, but also an opportunity to reshape the UK economy.         

  1. Free market veganism – In essence, this avenue entails little in the way of policy. Instead, given the thriving UK vegan market noted above, intervention could be argued to be unnecessary. Yet, as changing diets begin to upend elements of older food systems, including abattoirs, butchers and other organisations down the supply chain, broader questions of the UK workforce lie somewhere down the line.   
  2. Meat Tax – Sometimes less provocatively named a sustainable charge/levy, the tax has previously been accused of being an arbitrary, if not punative. CE Delft instead argue that ignoring the environmental cost of meat production in terms of emissions, air and water pollution, and losses to wildlife, meat production has essentially been subsidised. By including these costs, they estimate that this would increase the price of steak in the UK by 25%. Income from this could then be used as grants for low carbon food producers such as Yorkshire based The Tofoo Co, who experienced growth of 200% since 2017 or to soon to be unemployed farmers.
  3. Cultured/Synthetic Meat production – Undoubtedly the most obscure and ambitious of these interventions, synthetic meat involves producing meat in a Laboratory environment by using animal blood cells. Impossible Foods Inc’s, The Impossible Burger, is perhaps the most famous exemplar of the possibilities for synthetic meat. In 2013, a lab-grown burger cost $280, 400 to produce, by 2021 it is expected to cost $10. Should synthetic meat carry on this trajectory, free from the inherent scarcity of animals, the future could see the cost of producing ‘meat’ reduce to infinitesimal sums, rendering traditional meat production obsolete. Becoming an early adopter of this technology could set into motion a new domestic industry, allowing the UK to become a food exporter of the future. 

Promising as though free market veganism has proved, competing with a subsidised food system will always prove problematic. Until meat production is forced to face reality, the environmental case for the meat tax will no doubt remain strong. For the future of the UK economy, however, the potential for synthetic meat belies a profound opportunity to address its import dependency, technological sophistication and to do away with inefficient models of food production. More importantly, it hands the opportunity to eat our way to ecological sustainability on a plate.

Read all the blogs in our series on ‘Studying an uncertain future‘.