The launch of Burger King’s Impossible Whopper in 2019 was a ‘pinch me’ moment for longtime vegan advocate Toni Vernelli.
Thirty years before she had campaigned against the company. To see them proudly launch a vegan burger and then commit to a 50% plant-based menu by 2030, showed just how much had changed. It was a sign that things were never going to go back, Vernelli explains. “Like there’s only one way this movement is going.”
Veganism, once seen as a fringe lifestyle choice, appears to be occupying an increasingly bigger place in Western mainstream culture.
Veganuary, a UK nonprofit where Vernelli now works, has seen engagement in their challenge to go vegan in January rapidly rise – last year over 700,000 signed up from every country besides North Korea. Germany, where the number of vegans has almost doubledsince 2016, leads global Google searches for veganism, followed by the UK and Austria.
This growing appetite has made veganism a booming multi-billion-dollar industry: There are more and more plant-based products on offer and with them, vegan influencers ready to promote the accompanying recipes and lifestyle.
Climate awareness has fuelled this appetite
More media coverage of the environmental impact of eating meat and dairy has been key to the appeal, explains Maisie Stedman, media officer at the UK-based The Vegan Society. “I think that’s caused a real shift in people’s mindset … Because we are actually seeing a lot more the real-life impacts of the climate crisis.”
Vegan diets produce 75% less of the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for warming the planet and significantly less water pollution and destruction of wildlife, according to a scientific report in the journal Nature Food this year.
Foods such as fruit and vegetables, pulses and grains require less energy, land and water to produce than animal-based foods. Meat production involves large areas of grasslands, often cleared by cutting down trees. Animals, such as cows and sheep, also produce methane during digestion and nitrous oxide is emitted from fertilizers used to grow their feed – both are potent greenhouse gasses.
Breaking down old and new stereotypes
But the growing spotlight on veganism has also brought stereotypes – both old and new – to the surface, say campaigners.
Veganuary has tried to face the classic archetype of the preachy, judgemental vegan, head on explains Vernelli, by giving permission to try and fail rather than “this daunting prospect of just going vegan forever”. A quarter of participants last year said they could continue a vegan lifestyle and almost half of the rest said they would significantly reduce animal products in their diets.
It has also helped to break down the misconception that veganism is expensive and get people’s heads around “the basic fact of – what do I eat?”, says Stedman.
Meat and masculinity
But tackling the “meat is manly” trope has been a bigger challenge.
“You are much more likely to be vegan if you’re a woman,” says Stedman. “And we think that’s to do with existing stereotypes around what it means to be a man and what it means to eat meat.”
Of the 1.3% of the UK population that describe themselves as vegan, only around 37% are men, according to The Vegan Society.
The idea of meat as manly has deep, stubborn cultural roots and is reflected in everything from pop culture to food marketing, to potentially even language itself. One study found that in languages with gendered nouns, meat-related words were more often male.
“I think that wherever you live in the global north…we relate meat to masculinity,” says Isaias Hernandez, US based environmental educator more commonly known by his online moniker the Queer Brown Vegan. “And it reinforces the patriarchal mindset of the domination of earth.”
The Vegan Society has recently conducted research into attitudes towards vegan diets as part of their efforts to engage more men. They found that although 41% of non-vegan men in the UK said they had an interest in going vegan a key barrier was the expectation of social stigma or ridicule from friends and family – with vegan diets often seen as “feminine”.
The “soy boy” is the most recent incarnation of this stereotype. The pejorative term for men perceived as weak – often used online against those seen to be on the left – references the unproven link between eating soy products and increased estrogen levels.
Vernelli says documentaries like The Game Changers, which followed athletes on plant-based diets, has helped challenge the idea you couldn’t put on muscle or be strong on a vegan diet.
Hyper-masculine vegan influencers, promoting how a plant-based lifestyle can contribute to health and fitness, have also boomed in recent years – #Veganmen on Instagram uncovers a mosaic of biceps and plants.
But their rise is not helpful for advancing a more inclusive understanding of veganism, says Hernandez. “The vegan male influencers – mainly white and straight – also reinforce patriarchal mindsets. They fight toxic masculinity with toxic masculinity.”
The future of veganism
To change mindsets the movement needs not only to shift ideas around gender but more diverse educators, says Hernandez, adding that global north white perspectives have tended to dominate vegan discussion. “And that has to change because many black and Indigenous vegans have always existed.”
As veganism has moved into the mainstream our understanding of it has become very materialistic, Hernandez argues. “It is more vegan products on the shelf.”
The antidote to this is more education, Hernandez explains. He suggests running a weekly book group with friends during Veganuary to dig deeper into the impact of our food systems on people and the planet, or simply to look beyond what is in the supermarket and start foraging in your local community.
Vernelli acknowledges there is still some way to go in shifting public mindsets to be more accepting of veganism – and some estimates predict global meat consumption will rise 50% by 2050.
However, in 10 years from now, she believes vegans may not be in the majority, but they will be totally mainstream: “It won’t even be an issue, it will be like you say to someone, I don’t like coriander, or I don’t like pickles.”
Edited by: Tamsin Walker