We (mostly) all dream of a day when animals do not have to suffer for human choices, a vegan utopia when animal agriculture is not one of the main producers of greenhouse gasses. I'd happily live in that world, but I'm pretty sure it won't happen in my lifetime (in fact, I'm definite about that!) I'll bet it won't happen in yours either.
Amid talk of 'Future Vegan' and the 'Future is Vegan,' great leaps forward in vegetable proteins, plant based produce, lab grown meat, you-name-it new technologies just round the corner; These will remain expensive luxuries, irrelevant to the majority of people, until the majority of people no longer see a difference between vegan and omni. When vegan food is just 'food' and there's not a 'vegan option' because plant based dishes are an equally satisfying, and 'normal' choice for any diner, 'vegan products' in the fashion boutique or perfume shop, are just 'products', no better or worse than the others (maybe better, but on their own merit, not for ethical reasons.)
I've called this world 'Post-vegan.' Until labels are irrelevant, polarisation is ended, plant-based will not be normal, and if it's not normal it won't be ubiquitous. Until someone sits down and looks at a menu, and asks themselves: "Do I want the beetroot carpaccio, or the beef fillet?" And only be thinking about the gastronomical choice, then the playing field will never be level. Only when the playing field is first level, can we tip it with the ethical/environmental/humanitarian or utilitarian argument.
In a post vegan world, shoppers will buy oat milk rather than dairy milk because it’s on special offer. Plant based ready-meals won’t live in a different aisle from the regular ready-meals. When you visit your neighbour for tea and cake, they’ll have plant milk or vegan cake, not because they knew you were coming, but because they liked the look of that cake in the shop, or they made a vegan cake with an egg replacer, because eggs are just too expensive. In the post vegan world, meat eaters will go to a plant based restaurant, because of the good food, or good prices, not because they happen to have a vegan friend in the party.
There remains a role for labelling of course; Many people choose plant based due to allergies or intolerances, we know the dire consequences of people accidentally consuming dairy or eggs, just as others may react to soy or nuts. Ethical vegans will certainly want to know what they are, or are not, eating. Recent research however, shows that regular consumers are confused and put-off by vegan and vegetarian labelling, they don’t know what ’vegan‘ entails, and don’t know if the product is for them, or a special diet. It seems that ‘plant based’ is emerging as the current front-runner, labelling-wise, but it might not be the be-all and end-all. Ethical vegans might be disturbed at having to find produce In the same aisle as meats, but it’s a price worth paying. And talking of price; Consumers will not go for plant based over omni, until there is no price differential. Obviously, you have to get the horse and cart in the right order, but vegan products can’t continue to occupy a niche market with price points to match. Whether lower prices will increase volumes, or increased volumes will lower prices, one or the other must happen.
I asked “what would this world look like?” I wonder though, whether we’re not beginning to see the first glimmerings of this world coming into being? Firstly, price is on our side; Amid soaring food price inflation, amongst the hardest hit has been the dairy and egg industries in the UK. Certainly with branded butters etc. dairy is at or above parity with readily available dairy-free and vegan alternatives; Flora plant butter is definitely cheaper than Lurpack dairy butter, so the question is not what is better for animals or the environment, but whether you like Lurpack enough to spend the extra? Secondly, vegan products are to be found in every supermarket, corner store, café or restaurant. You’d be hard pressed to visit any eateries or shops these days that don’t have vegan choices. On the one hand, this has been problematical for the specialist shops that have catered to our needs and been a lifeline for many vegans. On the other, a cause for celebration, because there are many consumers who would never darken the doors of a ‘vegan’ shop for fear (real or imagined) or proselytisation or something worse. The same is occurring in the hospitality sector; River Green is one of a growing number of vegan or plant based restaurants and eateries that are attracting custom from across the board. Omnis and vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians alike, will visit, not because they are catered for specifically, but because the offering is suitable for all and of a standard that is comparable to any other restaurant in the market. Have those eateries that advertised their vegan credentials above the door, cornered a market, or actually created a barrier for entry? Should we celebrate the fact that Burger King or McD’s create a restaurant that only offers plant based products, or actually that one of them introduced a plant-based product that was not suitable for vegans? A mega-chain might see a vegan market as an untapped 5%, but catering to that 5% with a product that does not appeal to the other 95% makes no sense commercially. Do the 5% get their product if it hasn’t first been accepted by all the others as a viable option.
The purists will argue that the vegan choice should be an ethical choice only, not dictated by price or quality, and that a vegan utopia won’t arrive until people accept veganism as a way of life and eschew all animal exploitation, putting the principle before the product. They argue that enlightenment will lead to (animal) liberation, and that anyone who still eats meat is beyond redemption. So many instagram posts devoted to whether this person or that establishment is ‘really’ vegan, allows the perfect to become the enemy of the good; A win is a win! Every meal that would have included an animal that instead is vegan or plant based is a plus for both the animals and the environment. Every diner who eats at a plant-based restaurant rather than a regular restaurant represents a positive step, whether or not they become a ‘convert.’ The product should come before the principle.
The future will come not when meat eaters become vegans, but when there are no longer any ‘vegans’ to be catered for. Chefs aren’t cooking plant based ‘options’ for the awkward squad, but are happy to forego animal products in order to create a great dish. Manufacturers make plant based products not because they see a niche market or for ethical reasons, but because they know that said product will appeal to the broadest range of consumers. Shops stop compartmentalising their ‘free from’ offer, so that their customers are exposed to the whole of their ranges and have a full and uncurated choice.
It doesn’t mean that vegans should stop banging on about the reasons we have chosen to forego animal agriculture, nor that vegan brands should not be created or expanded. In a post-vegan world however, vegan brands will just be brands, animal ethics will just be ‘ethics.’ It’s all a long way down the road, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the end of that road, but I’m certain that we’re already travelling on it.
Of course, post ’post-vegan’ comes ‘purely-vegan!’ The world where nobody sees a need for animal agriculture anymore. Yes it’s vegan, but it’s the same as any other product, so there is no need for any labels, that’s my idea of utopia.