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Squashed: why has the vegan and vegetarian movement lost steam?

Still eating meat? Most of us are.

And while it’s been about half a century now since hippie and granola-types were first making vegetarianism cool —along with decades of studies on the health hazards connected to meat consumption— the trend has still a relatively minor influence in both Canada and other countries in the developed world.

What happened to the dream of a new veggie utopia?

It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon on a well-travelled stretch of Bank Street in Ottawa’s downtown core and outreach coordinator Jevranne Martel is gamely stopping foot traffic with her stack of pamphlets while two of her volunteers chalk up the sidewalk with vegan messages — “Fish are not food!” it says right in front of the pet store.

Martel works for the international organization Vegan Outreach and travels the length and breadth of Canada, spreading the gospel about veganism. On Bank Street, she is all smiles and eager to engage, saying that half of the battle is in not being too dogmatic in her approach.

“My dad used to be a pig farmer, I was a big steak and potatoes girl,” she says in conversation with Cantech Letter. “People can understand and relate to that. For me, I see a lot of people wanting to talk about their stories.”

At the same time, Martel reveals that pushing the idea of an all-out meatless way of life —which happens to be the end goal for her group and many others like it —is sometimes a real roadblock.

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“Some people you talk to, you realize that it’s just too intense for them,” says Martel, “People are really emotionally connected to their food.”

Veganism and animal welfare are in the news lately. Vegans, vegetarians and animal lovers everywhere having just celebrated World Meat Free Day on June 12, meanwhile in Canada, a less celebratory event has made the headlines: another in a string of animal rights videos exposing cruel farming practices, this time involving chicken abuse by a farm labour company in BC.

Filmed undercover by a member of the animal rights group Mercy For Animals, the new footage shows workers for the company Elite Farm Services Ltd., based in Chilliwack, BC, kicking chickens while loading them onto trucks and ripping off legs and wings from live birds. The company is contracted by Sofina Foods Inc., which sells meat under the Lilydale brand to grocery chains such as Loblaws and Safeway.

Elite Farm Services has since stated that the employees caught on video have been fired, while Loblaw has sent out a statement, saying that it has “zero tolerance” for the mistreatment of animals and that they “expect our suppliers to ensure animals are treated in accordance with government and industry-accepted guidelines for humane treatment.”

Mercy For Animals has filed formal complaints with the RCMP in BC, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the BC SPCA, saying that the video speaks to an “ongoing pattern” of animal cruelty perpetrated by elite Farm Services.

“When I saw this footage, it’s the first time in my career that I have truly had to stop to take breaks,” says Krista Hiddema, a Mercy For Animals vice-president, to CTV News. “This is the worst footage I have ever seen. The level of abuse is simply sadistic.”

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The welfare and mistreatment of animals within the agriculture and food industries is becoming more a part of public consciousness, says Peter Fricker of the Vancouver Humane Society. “We have certainly seen a growing awareness of factory farming issues and animal welfare issues generally, at least judging from media interest,” says Fricker to Cantech Letter. “I think this has to do with campaigns by animal rights organizations, undercover investigations by some groups and perhaps the use of social media to engage more people in the issues.”

The sentiment is echoed by other animal rights groups across the country who have seen a noticeable uptick in interest concerning animal welfare, veganism and vegetarianism. David Alexander, Executive Director of the Toronto Vegetarian Association, says that the rush of vegan and meat-free restaurants opening up lately within the GTA and in other Canadian cities is itself a sign of the times.

“Business are succeeding and realizing that there’s a real market out there for vegan dining,” says Alexander, to Cantech Letter. “Grocery stores which might have had few options in the past are now stocked with a good variety of vegan and vegetarian food choices.”

The trend towards eating less meat is clear. Annual per-capita meat consumption in Canada has been on the decline since 1999, with the biggest change found in the consumption of pork and beef, both of which have seen hefty declines as consumers now favour chicken as their meat of choice. The fact that prices for pork and beef are hitting record highs hasn’t helped, either, with a marked drop in per capita meat consumption starting after the 2007-08 recession.

Still, Alexander admits that so far the trend likely speaks more to a growing segment of the population who have some interest in meatless products and meals, rather than to a big jump in the number of full-time vegans and vegetarians across Canada. “About 30 per cent of the population are into buying meatless products now,” says Alexander. “Our work is not just in supporting people who are already vegetarian or vegan but also in supplying the information and knowledge needed to connect with people who still choose to eat meat but maybe not as often.”

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And therein lies the big divide within the veggie community —is it best to stick to one’s principles and strive for nothing less than a meat-free society or do you look at the lack of big gains over previous decades and pull back your ambitions? As a lifestyle, ethical or health choice, while vegetarianism has grown in popularity since the 1960s, the trend hasn’t caught on the way some might have hoped. Vegans and vegetarians make up between five and eight per cent of Canada’s population —a healthy number, to be sure, but still a minority.

The lack of progress may seem mystifying to some. On the health file, research shows that by a variety of measures such as cardiovascular health, rates of cancers and longevity, vegetarianism is a win. Environmentally, advocates have for years highlighted the unsustainable amounts of land, energy and greenhouse gas production involved in the meat industry. Add to this the moral unsustainability of intensive animal farming and the choice, again, to some, seems obvious. So why haven’t there been more converts?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the majority of people who take up veganism or vegetarianism will, at some point in their lives, eventually return to eating meat. For instance, while vegetarianism is the choice for about 12 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 years of age, that number shrinks to five per cent for those aged 55 and older.

There are a number of reasons, but worries about the healthiness of a meatless diet, particularly with regard to getting enough protein and certain vitamins, are most prominent, coupled with the fact that some people miss the ease of going out or preparing meals at home when you’re a meat-eater.

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“Demographics bears it out,” says Alexander, whose association conducted a survey of current and lapsed vegetarians and found that getting enough nutrients and eating out were the top reasons why once-vegetarians started eating meat again. Others said that a lack of energy or missing the taste of animal products made a difference, while still others pointed to the added difficulty of being around family or work situations where being vegetarian was in some sense an issue. “We found that there are practical elements involved when someone goes back to eating meat, but there are social ones, too,” says Alexander.

Thus, the question is, how to grow the movement? Many now say that instead of pushing hardcore veganism, which requires no consumption or use of animal products, an unnerving prospect for the neophyte, that perhaps a softer, more realistic tone is in order. Hence the rise in more middle-of-the-road manifestos like flexitarian (eat mostly plants but some meat, too), reducetarian (keep trying to reduce the amount of meat in your diet) and even VB6 (only veggies before 6 pm).

Even those who support full veganism are seeing the value in a more measured approach.

“We totally advocate for a vegan diet,” says Liz White of Animal Alliance of Canada, who spoke to Cantech Letter, “but people come to these decisions in many different ways, so our approach is not to attack anybody but to realize that it’s a progression of decisions that people make. The more that gets exposed about how animals are treated [by food agriculture] and about the acknowledged sentience of these animals, the more people will start to think alternatively.”

At the same time, effecting social change on issues like factory farming and cruelty to animals means taking a hard line approach, which can make it difficult to drum up support. “Apathy and issue fatigue are definitely major hurdles we face,” says Fricker. “But so are corporate resistance and government reluctance to change. There are powerful vested interests in animal agriculture and they are generally supported by government policy.”

And it’s striking that balance between pushing people too hard and not enough that has been a decades-long pursuit for animal welfare organizations, with many groups believing that now the time is right for veganism and vegetarianism to go big.

It’s something that Martel has witnessed from her street-level view. “I do see it as growing,” says Martel. “Vegans themselves are becoming more activist and wanting to get involved. I’ve seen a big shift in the public willingness to listen to us.”

Martel says, “People are wanting to get into a lot more detailed conversations than in the past, and that’s making for a lot of progression in the movement.”

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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