November marks world vegan month but is the plant-based diet a flash in the pan? We ask members of the LSE community what they think.
Visit LSE’s vegan and vegetarian eatery, The Shaw Café, at lunchtime and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a seat; it’s so popular.
Social Anthropology master’s student, Amina Alaoui Soulimani, often visits the café to relax and catch up on her reading. “I had the best oat milk cappuccino here the other day and often draw inspiration for my own cooking from the café’s menu,” she says.
Increasing LSE’s vegan offer has been an important priority for the School’s catering team. “We have always provided plant-based options in our outlets but, in the last two years, demand for vegan and vegetarian food has increased substantially,” explains Head of Catering at LSE, Jacqui Beazley.
It was this increase in demand that led Jacqui and her team to pitch the idea of a plant-based café at LSE. “The proposal was drawn up in January 2018 and - I must admit - there were a lot of people who, whilst supporting the idea, did say we needed to future-proof the café as they weren’t sure how long the plant-based trend would last. Eighteen months later and that view has definitely declined,” she enthuses.
Recent figures reported by the Vegan Society show the number of vegans in the UK quadrupled to 600,000 between 2014 and 2018, with almost half of UK vegans (42%) making the change in 2018.
So, unlike the food trends we’ve seen come and go through the years – cronuts, freak shakes, juice cleanses (even the beloved avocado on toast is apparently on its way out), is veganism here to stay?
Behavioural Scientist Professor Ben Voyer, from LSE’s Department for Psychological and Behavioural Science believes it is. “There is more to veganism than it being yet another consumer fad,” he explains.
“What makes veganism interesting, compared with other trends in the food industry, is that it carries an identity or value dimension that goes beyond eating healthily. In other words, for some consumers, there is more to being vegan than eating vegan. For example, the choice of being vegan for some consumers is primarily led by the animal rights cause. This makes their motivation for consumption of vegan products even stronger. This rather unique aspect of veganism, compared with other trends, means that it is probably here to stay.”
This is certainly the case for Ludwig Campbell. The Department Manager at LSE’s European Institute has been vegan for just over a year. “For me, animal welfare was my primary consideration in going vegan,” he explains, adding that being motivated by a cause he feels passionate about has helped him stick with it.
Greer Gosnell, a Research Fellow in the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, agrees, although it was attending a public lecture on climate change that inspired her to change her diet, alongside the health benefits of eating vegan. “Many people want to do what they can to prevent climate change and this is one of the most win-win-win ways to play a part,” she notes.
As a behavioural researcher in climate change mitigation, Greer believes veganism is here to stay. “I really don’t believe we – as a species that largely controls the fate of our planet – can afford the alternative. If we continue to see growing support for, and implementation of, carbon prices [a cost applied to carbon pollution], eventually these will encourage the transition toward more plant-based dietary norms, habits and preferences,” she explains.
However, while vegan options are increasingly accessible in the UK, especially in big cities, vegan food isn’t always easy - or cheap - to find.
Indeed, research commissioned by the Vegan Society and Vegan Life magazine shows the majority of vegans in the UK live in urban or suburban areas (88%) with 22% of all vegans living in London.
LSE PhD student Heidi Zamzow researched veganism during her master’s and found that, historically, many people who adopted a plant-based diet were likely to slip back into eating animal products within the first few years of going vegan.
“This is primarily because it was too difficult, not only in terms of availability (access, cost etc…) of an adequate variety of healthy, affordable and appealing vegan options, but also because of the lack of social support,” she explains, noting how veganism was traditionally seen as a niche - and often mocked - sub-culture.
This is now changing – with social media accounts promoting veganism, campaigns such as Veganuary and media coverage on climate change all playing their part. Heidi suggests the reframing of a vegan diet as ‘plant-based’ could also be an important factor, with this new phrase separating veganism from previous stigma.
However, despite veganism becoming more normalised and easily accessible, Heidi believes policy supporting a more plant-based diet needs to be introduced if the move towards veganism is to last. “If regulations incorporated the societal costs of eating certain food into food prices, through a carbon tax for instance, plant-based options might become not only cheaper but more plentiful.”
To highlight how policy could make a difference, Heidi recounts a recent experience at a restaurant in the US where the vegan options on the menu were more expensive than the animal product alternatives. “Even though the restaurant should be saving money because it is eliminating meat, eggs and cheese from a dish – the patron is charged more. In other words, the system is set up so even those who are willing to eat more sustainably are, in effect, penalised for doing so.”
It seems the strong links between veganism and causes such as animal welfare and climate change help distinguish it from other, more transient, food trends but more policy support may be needed if veganism is to stay on the menu.