An Injustice of Global Proportions
It’s no secret that livestock raised intensively for food production in many high-income nations endure a tremendous amount of unnecessary suffering.
Bucolic imagery on food packages and food advertising shows chickens, cows, and pigs that appear well cared for and comfortable, living out their lives in freedom on green pastures. These marketing images belie the reality of farmed animals’ lives, which are often short, squalid, painful, and cruel.
Contrary to marketing messages, a typical chicken breast or a carton of milk purchased in a grocery store today is most likely to be a product of industrial livestock farming. Animals raised in these systems are reared indoors in cramped and unsanitary conditions, fattened as quickly as possible using feed laced with growth-promoting antibiotics. Research by the Sentience Institute suggests that less than 2% of animals and fish raised in the United States food system come from alternative low-density, high-welfare farming systems.
Beyond the concerns for animal welfare, intensive livestock production takes a heavy toll on our environment. Livestock animals and their feed crops currently use 75-80% of all agricultural land while driving deforestation and fouling rivers and oceans worldwide with waste and chemical runoff. Including the methane that cows and other ruminants generate during their digestion, livestock production also emits as many climate-changing GHGs as road transport.
Producing and consuming animal-based foods made in this way also harms human health. Rising demand for animal-source foods is a primary driver of emerging human diseases. The cruel and unsanitary conditions of intensive livestock farming are also ideal breeding grounds for the pathogens that cause pandemics. In addition, studies have linked high consumption of meat, milk, and eggs to chronic health concerns such as heart disease, high cholesterol, and certain cancers. For those who have access to them, adequately planned plant-based and plant-forward diets can contribute to better health.
Interventions in Support of Animal Welfare
This industrial animal farming model is enabled by a combination of economic structures and institutions that have become deeply embedded in modern food production. A favorable regulatory framework, strong financial incentives for producer businesses, and steady demand by consumers are factors that contribute to both animal cruelty and environmental damage.
Politically focused NGO pressure has contributed to strengthening legal protections for farmed animals and removing incentives for cruelty that rely on public money. NGOs working on supply-side interventions have also engaged individual producers and corporate food brands to gain traction for alternative models, obtain commitments in favor of higher animal welfare, and emphasize the brand risks of exploiting animals and environments.
On the demand side, NGO campaigns have worked for many years to raise public awareness of problems in the industrial livestock system and encourage consumers with purchasing freedom to put their support behind higher-welfare and animal-free foods at grocery stores and restaurants.
With so many benefits for animals, health, and the planet, large-scale dietary shifts toward more plant-forward food patterns seem like one clear step for enabling a better world. Still, for some consumers, scaling back or cutting out animal-based foods feels unapproachable. Many people remain unaware of how their dietary choices impact animals or the environment. Others face significant barriers to dietary change, including difficulty accessing alternative foods. And for food businesses, shifting their offerings with uncertain consumer support can seem like a leap of faith.
Taking an “Ecosystem” Approach
Some dietary change campaigns focus entirely on messaging that targets consumer decisions. Consumer attitudes are critical to dietary change and must be part of any successful intervention. Other strategies share this starting point but choose to focus additional time and effort on growing a supportive ecosystem to reinforce dietary changes so that they are more likely to stick.
This ecosystem approach proactively addresses multiple pressure points in parallel, understanding how they interact as a system. Possibilities for this work in conjunction with consumer choice campaigns include—but are not limited to—solving legal and political loopholes that maintain the dominance of industrial animal agriculture, strengthening animal welfare knowledge at educational and cultural institutions responsible for setting social values and working with industry actors throughout the food supply chain to make alternatives more available.
One NGO taking such an approach to dietary change is Veganuary, based in the United Kingdom. Each year since 2014, Veganuary has encouraged people in the UK and worldwide to take a simple online pledge: to try cutting out animal products for the month of January. Their mission is to help consumers take that first step toward alternative eating patterns– hoping that they will enjoy their new lifestyle enough to maintain it after the month is over.
What makes this an “ecosystem” approach? Recognizing that plant-based consumer habits can be supported and enhanced by increasing the availability of plant-based foods, Veganuary pursues dietary change alongside direct corporate engagement with food producers.
To the consumer, Veganuary promises a month of tempting new foods to try and an inviting community to join. To food businesses, it promises something just as powerful: an enthusiastic and motivated consumer base. For any food business contemplating a vegan product launch—and for some who might not otherwise have taken the risk—this is a golden opportunity to give it a go.
Momentum in the Veganuary movement appears to be growing. Veganuary’s statistics paint an impressive picture, indicative of a nascent paradigm shift. More than 1 million participants have become involved thus far across 192 countries, along with 600 food businesses comprising manufacturers, restaurants, and grocery retailers. In 2020 alone, Veganuary has incentivized the launch of 1200 new vegan menus and products. In the UK, some partner businesses have even indicated that Veganuary is becoming more important on their retail calendars than Christmas, due to the growing number of people getting involved each year.
Movement momentum and marketplace changes can act to reinforce each other, leading to a snowball effect, or as Veganuary calls it, “the Veganuary effect.” While some new products are only made available during January, others—such as Pizza Hut’s 2020 “Pepperphoni” pizza—are so successful that they remain permanent menu offerings throughout the year.
Ecosystem-altering shifts like the increased availability of vegan options on store shelves and restaurant menus can enable kinder and more environmentally friendly dietary choices for all consumers, including those who may not be motivated by a personal commitment to vegan values.
Indeed, according to Veganuary, the number of people getting involved is larger than the total number of signups might suggest. An economic analysis by Kantar has revealed that vegan products in the UK saw a boost in January 2019 commensurate with 1.3 million UK diet-shifters—ten times the 100,000 that officially signed up through Veganuary’s UK website.
Successful Strategies for Change
Part of the growing appeal of Veganuary comes from its use of strategies grounded in solid behavioral science.
Veganuary’s approach encourages consumers to see the dietary shift as an ideological one, reflecting a changed consciousness of the impacts their dietary choices have on animals, on their own health, and ultimately on the planet. Veganuary also encourages participants to avail themselves of social connection through the vegan movement. Psychological research shows that both ideological commitment and group membership are associated with more effective and lasting dietary changes toward animal product reduction.
Additionally, experimental research from real-world restaurant settings suggests our food choices are influenced unconsciously by the choices made by those around us, even if they are strangers. During a focused movement like the target month of Veganuary, where participants are making vegetarian and vegan food choices on purpose, others who are not participating in Veganuary may still be unconsciously influenced to make the same choices.
Another part of the success of Veganuary so far comes from the “ecosystem” approach of matching supply-side interventions with demand-side interventions.
Key to Veganuary’s intervention is support, support, support—of both consumers and food providers. Consumer outreach provides Veganuary participants with free recipes to ease the transition, plus nutrition tips and a ready social network of fellow new entrants into the world of plant-based eating. The counterpart to this consumer welcome mat is an equally strong focus on supportive engagement with food companies, grocery retailers, restaurants, and fast-food companies.
This combination of interventions on both sides has been key to the movement’s success. According to Veganuary’s US Director Wendy Matthews, “for companies to be engaged and truly embrace Veganuary, there needs to be a powerful movement of people joining the challenge.” The opposite is also true. From surveys of participants, Matthews reports that “the biggest challenge during Veganuary is always eating out,” implying that pairing supply and demand interventions can increase success for those trying vegan diets.
Corporate engagement through the Veganuary model also picks up elements of recommended industry best practices for promoting plant-forward consumer choices. Veganuary works with producers to ensure the availability of more plant-based options where consumers customarily shop. Veganuary also encourages producers to make their vegan launches sound fantastic, look great, and be attractively priced and packaged. Research from the Netherlands suggests that consumer preferences and changing attitudes toward meat are key driving forces of the rise of plant-based meat substitutes, making the shift potentially self-reinforcing.
Broadening the Message
Veganuary’s approach combines environmental messages, animal welfare values, and public health data, for an all-inclusive invitation designed to resonate with a wide variety of consumers. To reach UK shoppers on an economic level as well, Veganuary has released Kantar analysis showing that vegan eating can also be less expensive than diets including animal products.
Another aspect of Veganuary’s messaging appeal comes from its constructive and non-judgmental attitude. Although—as the name suggests—trying vegan during January is their signature call to action, Veganuary also welcomes other degrees of commitment toward reducing use of animal products. Flexible commitments like meatless days or avoiding specific animal-source foods such as dairy or red meat are still viewed by Veganuary as positive steps.
On Veganuary’s website, banner graphics convey a message focused on giving new patterns a try. This open invitation may reap dividends even for those who fall short of a full vegan commitment during or after January. Although many experimenters will not remain vegan, Kantar research indicates only 10% of Veganuary participants entirely return to their previous way of eating.
This reduction effect matches well with public dietary health messages promoted by governments across the high-income nations, which often couch their health recommendations in relative terms of more and less. Guidelines encourage eaters to emphasize healthful foods and de-emphasize foods associated with poor public health outcomes. More and more, the combined health and environment win-win of plant-forward eating is gaining traction in these nutrition policy circles.
For example, the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee observed in its 2016 scientific report that “a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health-promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact (GHG emissions and energy, land, and water use) than is the current average US diet.”
The committee upheld these observations in its 2020 scientific report, which recommends “obtaining the majority of energy from plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and obtaining protein and fats from nutrient-rich food sources, while limiting intakes of added sugars, solid fats, and sodium.”
Research among the high-income nations supports these conclusions, underlining the positive impact of many types and degrees of dietary change. One study found that increasing “flexitarian” eating patterns and boosting the availability of meat substitute products in the US and EU markets could reduce annual food-related GHG emissions by as much as 61% while preventing 52,700 premature deaths per year from diet-related disease.
Work from the UK suggests that going vegetarian can cut food carbon footprints in half, but significant benefits could also come from other more nuanced changes. A comparison of current and projected dietary GHG emissions worldwide concluded that a flexible “Mediterranean” approach limiting animal products and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables could save 30% of food production GHGs compared to business-as-usual 2050 projections. Fully vegetarian diets worldwide would save 55% of production GHGs.
Research modeling the GHG emissions of diets across 140 countries indicates that fully plant-based eating could save 70% of food-related GHGs. However, for most people, becoming two-thirds vegan (eating a vegan diet for just two meals per day) could save more GHGs than being entirely vegetarian.
Dr. Helen Harwatt of Harvard University’s Animal Law and Policy Program estimated for Veganuary that the one million participants who have taken the one-month vegan pledge since Veganuary’s start have saved GHG emissions equivalent to the CO2 from 15,000 car trips around the diameter of the Earth. These vegan pledges have also saved 6.2 million liters of water and avoided water pollution equivalent to preventing 1,645 metric tons of sewage from being dumped into waterways.
Challenges for Dietary Interventions in 2021 and Beyond
The year 2020 was one of unprecedented change in consumer habits. In the wake of COVID-19, widespread economic and social upheaval, unstable employment, and difficult forecasts for many food businesses have put dietary interventions into a gray zone of feasibility. From some angles, this may not seem like the right time to pursue such interventions. From another angle, however, now may be a critical time to amplify diet change messaging.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to claim lives and reveal weaknesses in food supply chains, it has underscored many severe structural problems and inequities. The links between animal agriculture and pandemic risk have become topics of popular conversation, along with the ongoing injustices suffered by many essential workers in the industrial food system.
Could this shift of awareness bring about large-scale food system change in support of animals, human health, and environmental protection?
According to Veganuary, problems made visible by the pandemic are popping up more and more frequently in the motivations that participants list for wanting to take the one-month vegan challenge. A 2020 survey conducted by Veganuary of their former participants revealed that one third are now eating more plant-based foods as a result of the pandemic.
Participants cite motivations ranging from concern over the meat-pandemic link, to wanting to improve their health in the face of disease risks, to having more time to experiment in the kitchen. By December 2020, Veganuary had amassed more signups heading into January 2021 than in the previous year.
Ecosystem Awareness for Food Systems Interventions
The success of Veganuary’s message thus far shows the potential of well-crafted and well-executed combinations of interventions that can maximize the synergies between strategic leverage points. To do this, NGOs targeting systemic shifts in the food system will need to identify potential points of synergy within their focus areas and how to combine them for the desired outcome.
For supporting dietary patterns less reliant on industrial meat and animal products, combining supply and demand interventions to build a supportive ecosystem that can sustain popular interest in reducetarian eating habits appears to have strong potential.
For all NGOs, building familiarity with systems thinking and strengthening awareness of strategic leverage points can help to maximize the effectiveness of campaigns. For groups preferring to focus on one part of a system or one silver bullet type of intervention, becoming aware of where their chosen activities fit within a larger system and how their activities are related to those of other NGOs can help maximize collective momentum for food systems change.
Disclosure: Stray Dog Institute contributed funding to support Veganuary’s 2020 and 2021 campaigns in the United States.
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