To launch KBS’s contribution to the UN PRME 10th Anniversary events, Professor Catherine Robinson provides some reflections on Veganuary, the environmental and business consequences of rising demand for plant-based dietary options.
The month of Veganuary is an opportunity to reflect on the excesses of the festive period, and to take stock of the benefits associated with more sustainable consumption.
As the month draws to a close, we consider the benefits of veganism and its implications for the food industry.
An environmental and social imperative
The benefits of plant-based diets are felt by individual consumers, by nations and by the wider, global environment. While the primary motivation for following a vegan diet is often ethical, vegan diets are generally cheaper and healthier.
Vegans and vegetarians are on average less likely to suffer from obesity and all the associated complications that stem from it. As a result of less health issues, nations boast a healthier workforce that places lower pressure on healthcare provision and improves the productivity of the workforce.
From a wider perspective, the costs associated with meat-eating are borne by not only by individuals or nations but also through the considerable externalities associated with meat consumption.
Pendergrast (2016) highlights the importance of veganism as a ‘response to the environmental crisis’ (p. 1) not least because the use of resources to produce edible meat products is significant. Dedehayir et al (2019) reports that 33% of arable land production globally was utilised to produce feed for livestock and 70% of agricultural land estimated to be used to support the production of meat and dairy products.
But to what extent are consumers responding to these social and environmental pressures?
Demand side changes
In the UK, around 2% of the population are vegan with a further 6% being vegetarian; however, around 12% are flexitarian –largely vegetarian but occasionally eating meat or fish. Together this suggests around 20% of the population are committed to low or no meat & fish diets.
This varies by demographic – women are more likely to be vegetarian as are young people (Alcorta et al, 2021). There is considerable international variation; Google trends data reveals Germany, Austria and the UK to be the nations with greatest interest in veganism.
Long (2022) draws on the latest evidence from the Vegan Society to estimate that the average vegan in the UK is responsible for reducing demand for animals by 37 each year, but while showing strong growth, the absolute number of vegans in most Northern European countries is still relatively small compared to omnivores. Alcorta et al (2021) reports growth particularly in the consumption of plant-based meat substitute products such as burgers and sausages and, at the same time, a marked reduction in meat consumption.
Further downstream, in the hotels and restaurants sector, the social nature of eating suggests that greater diversity in dietary needs shapes the choice of where to eat. Thus, we have seen greater attention paid to vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free menus, creating an opportunity for restaurants and food producers to bring innovative products to market.
Innovation in food products and production
The drive amongst consumers, whether ethically- or health- based, to embrace vegan products has led to the development of new market niches in the food production and service sector.
Dedehayir et al (2021) highlights the dual nature of food product markets, with traditional vegan consumers being early adopters but relatively niche markets, whereas food producers are seeking products that will be more appealing to a wider range of consumers, vegans and non-vegans alike.
The negative image of traditional vegans is something to overcome but finding the middle ground in attracting the wider market without alienating traditional vegans is a challenge for vegan food producers. The paradox highlighted by Dedehayir et al (2021) is that by developing vegan products more attractive to mainstream consumers may raise prices and thus deter traditional vegan consumers.
What does this mean for food production?
Holding other things constant, the growth in more sustainable production of food products will lead to productivity benefits from more sustainable food production. Higher value-added on production of processed vegan products creates an incentive for firms to innovate and food producers should be able to reap these benefits.
And for the consumer?
Such innovations will lead to greater choice in food products available for omnivores and vegans alike. There should be intangible benefits from consumers feeling they are able to make more ethical choices as well as improvements in health outcomes.
In addition, there is the potential for consumers to experience lower food costs, although research suggests that in appealing to the larger omnivore market, vegan food production may face higher costs and price their products in line with direct substitutes (some of which may be meat- or fish-based products).
In summary, in trying to attract non-vegan consumers to vegan food products, innovations often require plant-based products to become more meat-like and this may drive up costs and therefore prices, as well as deterring traditional vegan consumers.
Thus, while the move to greater veganism uptake is viewed positively from almost all perspectives, food producers will need to innovate to get the balance right.
As part of the UN PRME 10th Anniversary celebrations, Kent Business School, in conjunction with the University’s Right to Food campaign will be hosting a number of student-led events beginning in February 2023. The purpose in these events is to raise awareness of food security and reducing food waste.