Here at the tail-end of 2015, two things are clear: vegetarianism is more popular than ever, and meat suffered another rough year.
At climate change marches and rallies across the country in December, signs linking meat eating with global warming were everywhere (including at the King Middle School march in Portland). While the official climate talks in Paris ignored animal agriculture’s leading role in the production of greenhouse gases, prominent voices on the sidelines, including James Cameron, Alicia Silverstone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, urged people everywhere to lower emissions by eating less meat.
The climate change posters and the advice of Hollywood A-listers echoed calls we heard throughout the year from a long list of celebrities — including domestic icon Martha Stewart, pop star Miley Cyrus and professional football player David Carter — who spoke in favor of plant-based food or against factory farming.
Singer Morrissey attracted significant coverage (and pleased many vegetarians) when he criticized the menu planned for Live Earth 2015, saying: “Serving meat and dairy products at an event to combat climate change is like selling pistols at a gun-control rally.”
Vegetarians also cheered in June when Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment that states: “Our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people.”
With prominent, influential people raising these issues so publicly, vegetarianism shifted further into the mainstream during 2015.
This was clear when Hallmark rolled out a series of six humorous holiday ads in November, including one titled “Vegan Christmas.” The ad features a Grandpa who misses Grandma and her traditional ham once he discovers his daughter’s family has gone vegan and the Christmas menu includes seaweed with lavender and tofu brick with scallion wash. The ad pokes fun at veganism but doesn’t ridicule it.
Even in the pro-meat world of food TV, plant-based cuisine made inroads this year showing up in episodes of “Top Chef “(vegan) and “Hell’s Kitchen” (vegetarian).
Of course the web continued to be awash in veg cooking shows, whose ranks grew this year to include Pamela Anderson’s “The Sensual Vegan.”
Over on the big screen, this year’s pro-vegetarian documentaries included “Cowspiracy,” “Plant Pure Nation” and “Unity.”
Throughout the year, commentators and columnists (including yours truly) engaged in an on-going “will they or won’t they?” debate about whether or not the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines will consider a food’s environmental footprint, a move sure to downgrade meat. With the guidelines due any time, most observers predict the government will ignore (at least for the next five years) the environmental impact of animal agriculture.
Nonetheless, leading employers are discovering vegetarian food can improve the health of their workforce.
This spring, the American Journal of Health Promotion reported on a study of 100 GEICO workers who adopted a vegan diet as part of a workplace dietary intervention program. The employees lost an average of 10 pounds, lowered their cholesterol by an average of 13 points and improved their blood sugar. They also reported feeling happier.
Around the same time, reports surfaced that Google is working to lower the amount of meat its employees eat. Google’s food program head Michiel Bakker was quoted in PC World as saying: “A more balanced, plant-centric diet is good for the environment and is good for your health. So if we can move more people to eat less meat and to enjoy more vegetables, the rest will follow.”
Even those who barely pay attention to the news probably noticed that in late summer and early fall seemingly every major media outlet gave ink and airtime to the link between bacon and cancer. This followed the publication of a study by the World Health Organization, which found the risk of colorectal cancer rises with the amount of processed meat eaten.
While the WHO’s report was hardly news to those who follow dietary science, an investigative report published by the New York Times in January shed light on a previously little-known research facility. The taxpayer-funded U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska, the newspaper reported, works to “re-engineer” farm animals (with painful and deadly results) to help “producers of beef, pork and lamb turn a higher profit as diets shift toward poultry, fish and produce.”
Throughout 2015, The New York Times continued to point out undesirable aspects of our meat-centric culture. This culminated in early December with a seven-point list of what individuals can do about climate change. Landing in the list’s top spot was this advice: “You’re better off eating vegetables from Argentina than red meat from a local farm.”
This year also witnessed many meat-eating writers and editors acknowledging animal agriculture’s environmental footprint, detrimental health impact and inherent immorality, with most concluding they still eat meat but are striving to eat a lot less. Even conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote about meat eating in the Washington Post, saying: “Its extinction, will, I believe, ultimately come.”
In July, a nonvegetarian writer penned a piece for Grist saying hip, farm-to-table restaurants that emphasize local but offer little to nothing in the way of vegetarian dishes are wrong when they claim to be sustainable operations. The column went on to call for a tax on meat.
Speaking of which, Swedish politicians are once again considering such a tax as a way to curb meat consumption. The move was prompted by a citizen petition, and may reflect the growing number of vegetarian Swedes (pegged at 10 percent of the population, a much higher percentage than in the U.S.).
In Britain, where the media regularly reports on meat’s environmental footprint (and vegetarians are estimated to make up 12 percent of the population), the Labour Party tapped a vegan to be agricultural minister.
Even in famously vegetarian-friendly India, multiple news reports this year observed that vegetarianism is growing, particularly among young people. India’s vegetarian influence may soon show up on other shores, as The Economic Times of India reported in June that Burger King is considering bringing its successful vegetarian menu to locations outside of India.
Such a move could be a lifeline for traditional meat-centric fast food restaurants, such as Burger King and McDonald’s (which ousted its CEO early in the year in the face of declining sales). Meanwhile, more nimble chains, such as Panera Bread and Subway, responded to the country’s changing tastes by adding more vegetarian options to their menus.
Traditional hamburgers took another hit in the fall, when GQ magazine named the veggie burger at Superiority Burger in New York City as the Best Burger of 2015.
Further illustrating the rapidly changing food service landscape, lines have been reported since its opening this summer at the all-vegetarian, all-organic Amy’s Kitchen fast food restaurant (complete with drive thru) which opened in Rohnert Park, Calif.
Also this summer, all 7-Eleven convenience stores quietly switched to using egg-free, vegan mayo in all its housemade sandwiches. The company was largely silent on the reason for the move, but eggs had been in the news in April when we learned that notorious factory farmer Jack Decoster (the former operator of scandal-plagued egg farms in Maine) was sentenced to three months in jail for his role in selling tainted eggs that sickened at least 1,939 people and caused the recall of a half billion eggs.
His family-run business pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including bribing a USDA egg inspector, and it was fined a total of $7 million. Decoster is appealing his jail sentence.
Meat recalls were again in the news throughout the year, including one in July when Barber Foods in Portland recalled 1.7 million pounds of chicken products because of possible salmonella contamination.
Vegetarians and free speech advocates celebrated in August when a district court judge stuck down Idaho’s so-called ag-gag law, citing violations of the first and 14th amendments. It, and similar laws in other states, seek to prevent activists from conducting undercover surveillance inside animal farms. Idaho is appealing the judge’s decision.
Finally, for those doing some end of the year adjustments to their portfolio, don’t forget that in January of 2015 NASDQ.com reported on the “Death of Meat” and warned against “holding long positions in meat industry stocks or exchange-traded securities.”
Based on this year’s news, such advice seems prophetic.
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at: