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2 April 2001

Vegetarians, this is your moment!

With foot-and-mouth rampant, should we eat yoghurt and granola bars?

By Salil Tripathi

At the time of the last great cull in Britain, I was living in Singapore. As it became clear that Britain was about to slaughter thousands of cows to prevent the spread of mad cow disease, and as consumer confidence dropped significantly, the supermarkets in Singapore put up large banners declaring that the beef on their shelves was not from Britain.

One restaurant, in the basement of a shopping centre on Tanglin Road, had a smarter idea. It put up a different banner: “We are vegetarians. Our food is 100 per cent free of mad cow disease.” The restaurant was Woodland’s, part of a chain of south Indian vegetarian restaurants that serves delicious idlis and dosas in several cities in India and abroad, including London. The regular patrons grinned as they watched neophyte vegetarians gingerly trying to pick between the soft rice cakes and crisp crepes with fried vegetables.

Today, appalled by the current cull in response to the foot-and-mouth crisis, many Britons are exploring vegetarianism. The market for vegetarian food products has risen from £361m in 1999 to £399m last year. The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom claims that, in March, it received twice the usual number of calls – mainly from people who want advice on turning veggie, after seeing the harrowing images of animal pyres on the television.

Britain is remarkable among western societies for its hospitality to vegetarians. Try asking for a spicy beanburger at an American Burger King, or a Veggie Whopper at a McDonald’s restaurant in Europe, and you will encounter a perplexed look. Not only does Britain have hundreds of vegetarian-only restaurants, but the country boasts a thriving vegetarian subculture, including the world’s oldest vegetarian organisation. Around 96 per cent of British pubs cater to vegetarian needs.

Britain is ripe for a green revolution. British vegetarians have doubled in number, from 2.1 per cent of the population in 1984 to 5 per cent in 1999, according to a Realeat/Gallup poll. In the same poll, conducted in 1999, 45 per cent of respondents said they were eating less meat. These numbers will grow. According to the Food Standards Agency’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey of young people, published in June 2000, roughly 10 per cent of girls (between the ages of four and 18) said they were vegetarian or vegan; 1 per cent of boys classed themselves as vegetarian.

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Although 5 per cent may seem a small proportion, vegetarianism could rapidly become more popular if the culling continues without a clearly stated justification that has to do with something other than economics and market prices. An RSPCA survey last year revealed that while 5 per cent of the population did not eat meat, 25 per cent of the people polled said that farm animal welfare was their number-one priority when choosing fresh meat. And a whopping 80 per cent said they would like to see better conditions for Britain’s farm animals.

There are three types of British vegetarians: those who have made a lifestyle choice, those for whom it is a political stand, and those for whom it is an ethical issue. Among those who have turned vegetarian because it is a lifestyle they desire are the bourgeois bohemians, be they in Bayswater or Belgravia. They might chew Brussels sprouts for breakfast and gulp down carrot juice at lunch. Lighter eating to maintain their leaner physiques, accompanied by chilled wines (which are vegetarian) and leafy salads, occasionally sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, forms their diet. Preliminary scientific evidence linking the legume-rich Mediterranean diet of pasta, red wine, salads, olives and cheese with longevity has also convinced the Bobos to switch from meat to vegetables. According to a 1998 report by the market research firm Taylor Nelson Sofres for the Meat and Livestock Commission, about 18 per cent of all “English” ready-cooked meals sold in the UK are vegetarian.

British vegetarians also include the granola bar-chewing, yogurt-consuming counterculture crowd, which hopes the current crisis will convince more people that large-scale, industrialised agriculture causes more harm than good. (Vegetarian food is not free of industrialised agricultural methods, though; the fear of consuming genetically modified vegetables has swayed some towards organic foods.)

And then there are the lifelong vegetarians among British Asians, many of whom do not consume meat for reasons of tradition or religion. For Britain’s many Hindus, certain Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, there has never been any option other than to eat vegetarian food. And Britain has an old link in this regard: India’s ascetic leader Mahatma Gandhi turned vegetarian while living in Britain, after experimenting with meat-eating when he came here to read law in the late 1880s.

One of the biggest fears meat-eaters have is that vegetarian food does not contain all the necessary nutrients for healthy living. But in India, for example,which is a predominantly Hindu country, the daily per capita food intake in 1995 was 2,388 calories, of which vegetable products accounted for 93 per cent. And yet, this caloric intake forms 108 per cent of the recommended minimum requirement, judging by the standards of the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The meat industry is big and powerful – recall the vehemence with which Welsh farmers lobbied against the appointment of an agriculture minister because she was a vegetarian. But livestock farmers must know that even if vegetarianism grows by a factor of two or three in Britain, it will still remain a minority culture. And the meat industry need not fear vegetables: not only does roast beef resonate with almost religious significance for many British, the favourite Asian dish in this country is chicken tikka masala.

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