2019 is set to be the Year of the Vegan, with more than 3.5 million people in the UK now choosing a plant-based diet – up from just 500,000 in 2016.
Whether it’s to help save the planet, improve health or reduce the exploitation of animals, more people than ever are opting to cut out meat and dairy. An astonishing 250,000 Brits signed up to Veganuary this year, up from a mere 3,300 in 2014.
With the trend continuing to skyrocket this year, businesses are racing to keep up with the seemingly unstoppable growth in consumer demand for alternative proteins.
Rise of veganism
Last year, the UK launched more vegan products than any other nation, making it the country’s fastest-growing culinary trend of 2018 with a market worth of £310 million.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet the protein needs of a growing global population through animal‑based foods.
Perry Rudd, Head of Ethical Research at Rathbone Greenbank Investments, told Good With Money: “The rise in popularity of the Veganuary movement is evidence of a growing trend for meat and dairy-free diets. Motivation for these alternative choices might stem from the desire to reduce animal exploitation, diminish environmental impact, or minimise health risks.
“Individual choice aside, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet the protein needs of a growing global population through animal‑based foods, particularly among the aspiring middle classes in emerging economies.”
According to scientists, avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest thing we can do to save our environment. It is significantly more effective at protecting the planet than reducing air travel or buying an electric car.
Beef production emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of edible protein than plant-based sources such as beans, peas and lentils. It also requires 20 times more land. To put this into perspective, if the world’s cattle were a country, it would rank third in terms of greenhouse gas emissions behind China and the US.
Scientists say that we must all look at changing the way we eat if our environment is to stand a chance of survival, and consumers seem to be catching on fast.
Sales of meat alternative Quorn rose 12 per cent in the first half of 2018. The company is set to spend £7 million in research and development this financial year. In November 2018, Beyond Meat, a Californian producer of plant-based meat substitutes, announced it was attempting to raise $100 million (£77 million) on the back of rapidly growing interest in vegan foods.
The high street is also adapting with incredible speed. Big chains such as Marks & Spencer and Pret a Manger have introduced vegan ranges, Wagamama has a new vegan menu, Pizza Hut recently joined Pizza Express and Zizzi in offering vegan pizzas, while last year Guinness went vegan and stopped using fish bladders in its brewing process, after two and a half centuries.
Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Iceland are all expected to launch (or have launched) ‘bleeding vegan burgers’, inspired by California-based Impossible Foods, which has managed to replicate the taste and nutritional benefits of beef with plant-based products.
Mealworm protein for animal feed is already supported extensively, with companies such as Beta Hatch having successfully raised initial funding of £1.6 million.
There has recently been a surge in start-up businesses offering synthetically-produced alternatives to meat and fish. Advocates for cellular agriculture argue that the process is more efficient in terms of land, water and energy consumption.
Dutch company Mosa Meat has already raised £6.7 million to commercialise its lab-grown meat, aiming to reduce the cost of its synthetically-grown beef burger to £7.60 per unit by 2021 (the 2013 prototype cost £253,000 to produce).
San Francisco-based Just is developing lab-grown foie gras, while California’s Finless Foods is researching cellular agriculture for a range of luxury seafood. Along with Bill Gates, Tyson Foods Venture Capital has invested in Memphis Meats, a lab-grown meat producer in the US.
To date, little is known about the environmental impact of lab-grown protein. Mr Rudd warns that the quick growth in demand for alternative sources of protein could have unintended negative consequences.
He said: “There are no guarantees that lab-produced meat, for example, will be healthier, cheaper or have less environmental impact than meat produced from animals. And any increase in demand for plant-based alternatives could lead to food producers requiring more land and increasing the use of chemical inputs.”
The time and money being invested in researching protein alternatives nevertheless indicates a growing number of options that businesses will have to commercialise healthier and lower-impact sources of protein.