The Slow, the O-So Slow Rise of Vegetarianism

As a dietary choice vegetarianism has been around for years.

I actually became veggie in the mid 1980’s. At that time vegetarians weren’t that common. It would have been considered a strange and unusual practice to adopt. In fact, vegetarians were probably considered a little bit odd. In those days there was no vegetarian options on the supermarket shelf, no labelling guidelines as to what foods were vegetarian and only very limited – if you were lucky – offerings available when dining out.

That was forty years ago. Things have moved on a bit since then. But not by as much as you’d think. And certainly not in terms of the numbers!

The growth in vegetarianism has not been rapid. Currently it is estimated that in the UK there are just over three million vegetarians or vegans which is approximately four and a half per cent of the population. It’s a significant number but it can hardly be described as a dramatic dietary shift – more of a slow dribble rather than a tidal surge.

The adoption of a vegetarian diet has been limited and lacklustre not just because it is hard to change people’s eating habits or that there are vested societal interests promoting the continuation of an omnivorous diet but it is because – significantly – the motivational drive that inspires people to become vegetarian is so varied. People become vegetarian for so many different reasons:

  • Health reasons – A vegetarian diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. It can also help with weight loss.
  • Animal welfare reasons – A plant-based diet means that there is less cruelty and suffering for animals.
  • Environmental reasons – Eating vegetarian is good for the environment as it requires less land and it also causes less pollution.
  • Religious reasons – Some faiths – Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism – advocate a vegetarian diet.
  • Financial reasons – Meat is expensive. When the pressure is on household budgets it is cheaper to eat vegetarian.
  • Fashionable reasons – Vegetarianism can be a trending thing. Peer group pressures can make people go through a vegetarian “phase”.
  • Global resource reasons – If we didn’t produce meat our agricultural output would be so much more, meaning that we would be far more able to feed the worldwide population.
  • Personal preference – Some people just don’t like the taste of meat.

In fact, looking at this list, you’d think that with so many reasons for becoming vegetarian the growth in this dietary choice would be massive and unstoppable. And yet it seems not.

Yes there are more vegetarians about; it is more acceptable to be vegetarian and vegetarians do now tend to have more choices. But a vegetarian diet is still not common practice. Vegetarians are still in the minority.

There is an explanation for this. Vegetarianism hasn’t fully taken off because – as described – there are just so many different and diverse reasons why people choose to become vegetarian. There is no over-arching consensus. We each choose to be vegetarian for our own varied personal reasons.

So, as vegetarians, we may have ended up in the same place, but we’ve not all been pulling in the same direction. In fact, we’ve all been operating at slightly different angles. As such, for the vegetarian movement, it has taken and continues to take us a long time to get anywhere.

There has been no great momentum, no driving force, no singular motivation which explains why the adoption of a vegetarian lifestyle has tended to be so piecemeal, so gradual and so disjointed.

As a movement, we may not have been conquered by division but we have certainly been immobilised by division – a division that, it has to be said, is largely of our own making.

The vegetarian cause – if it wants to progress – needs to identify a single motivational message, something that all vegetarians can be sympathetic towards and unite behind. That message needs to be:

  • Clear to understand – A straightforward message that can be encapsulated in one sentence.
  • Emotionally appealing – It must tap into our desire for change.
  • Consequently apparent – It should direct us towards action – If I think this then I should do this.

My suggestion – and the reason why I am vegetarian – is summed up in this phrase:

I don’t believe another living thing should die so that I can live.”

It’s a simple, singular, resonating principle that people can choose to live by.

We would not take another human life so why should it be acceptable to take the life of another species. All life has value and importance. All life should be preserved. It doesn’t matter what form that life takes.

Unfortunately, to extend this argument – as a vegan might – to say that no animal should be exploited so that we can live does not readily follow on from this. The operational nature of our society is based on us making use of others. The taking of milk from a cow is not that different from having a person work in a factory producing something for somebody else. It would be very difficult to argue that we should not exploit animals when our economies rely on us making use, perhaps even taking advantage, of our fellow beings.

In their efforts to drive vegetarianism, those promoting this dietary choice should seek to champion the one abiding motivation. It is the surest way to create a groundswell of opinion that will advance their cause.

People should never have to ask – as they often do of me – why are you vegetarian? Instead, they should already know the main reason why a vegetarian choice has been made.