Have we passed “peak vegetarianism”?

The vegetarian movement has ground to a halt.

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It is 173 years since the first recorded use of the word “vegetarian” in Britain. Early proponents had high hopes for their movement. A resolution passed at an 1846 conference declared that: “In inducing the adoption of their principle of abstinence from flesh food, they are labouring to prevent drunkenness, war, capital punishment, slavery, sporting, and the many other cruelties originating in this leading error of diet; whilst at the same time, they directly secure the increased comfort, well-being, and happiness of society in general.”

Vegetarians have tended to see themselves as on the side of history, in the vanguard of moral progress. In their imagined future, meat-eating would be seen as being as barbarous as slavery, racism, homophobia and the subjugation of women. It seems much more likely, however, that we have already passed “peak vegetarianism” and that the movement has grown as large as it ever will.

It is hard to say precisely how many people are vegetarian. Government data suggests that no more than 2 to 3 per cent of the population eschews meat, while groups with a vested interest bump this up to roughly 5 per cent. Yet, whatever measure you use, it is clear the number of vegetarians has not been rising over recent decades on either side of the Atlantic. What’s more, studies suggest that anything between half and 84 per cent of those who give up meat eventually go back to being carnivores.

I don’t think this should surprise us. Vegetarianism rests on the three pillars of animal welfare, health and environment, and, on all three issues, complete abstinence is losing the argument.

Take welfare first. When I became a “sort of” vegetarian 25 years ago, vegetarianism was the only practical alternative to cruelly, intensively reared animal products. But as interest in animal welfare has increased, it has become much easier to buy products certified free-range or organic, or with the RSPCA Assured mark. The only reason not to do so is if you object to killing animals at all. Yet the natural world is based on death and killing, as David Attenborough’s oeuvre shows; to object seems like squeamish sentimentalism. In rearing animals humanely we treat them much better than Mother Nature ever would.

The environmental argument for vegetarianism has been demolished even more comprehensively. While it is true that growing animal feed on viable arable land is wasteful, it makes good sense to graze animals on pastures not suited to crops edible by humans and to use by-products of the human food chain to fatten livestock. And to leave all the fish in the sea would be to deprive ourselves of an invaluable resource. Nor do we need to go veggie to feed the world. Even with today’s levels of meat and dairy production, we produce enough food to feed up to 11 billion people. The problem is with distribution and waste, not production.

The health evidence also supports some, but much less, meat eating: the consensus among dieticians is that the optimal human diet contains relatively small amounts of animal protein and fat.

The vegetarian movement has done society a great service by putting these issues on the agenda. But the most sensible conclusion to draw is that we ought to eat fewer, better-reared animals and animal products. The future belongs not to vegetarians and vegans but to discerning “flexitarians” and conscientious omnivores.

Julian Baggini is the author of “The Virtues of the Table” (Granta Books)

This article appears in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta