Veganism racket may be bad for our planet - and for you

03 March 2019 - 00:01 By MERRYN SOMERSET WEBB


The UK bakery chain Greggs was offering free samples of its vegan sausage roll to early morning punters last week. A friend picking up a coffee declined the offer: "Didn't seem right."
He is not with the zeitgeist on this one. The number of people identifying as vegan or vegetarian is rising; the rolls are a bestseller; and the moral high ground increasingly seems to be held by those with plant-based diets. Join them, we're told, and we'll save our health and Earth at the same time.
Will we? The jury is still out on this one.
Take the environment. It isn't a certainty that a vast increase in plant-based diets would solve our environmental problems. The carbon cost of industrial cropping is huge: by some estimates, up to 20% of the world's CO2 output is a result of ploughing.
And not all methods of animal rearing are equal. Grain-fed animals, raised in desertified feed lots, are environmentally harmful. But any farmer will tell you that pasture-raised ruminants can help to store carbon in, and preserve the quality of, our vital top soil.
It isn't clear that a vegan diet is the most healthy for most people. A growing body of research points out that mixed diets could well be better than plant-based diets, particularly if the plant-based diets are high in carbohydrates and heavily processed food.
Finally, the idea that veganism is de facto "kind to animals" needs to be challenged.
Factory farming is horrible but how kind it is to eat only plants depends on which animals you care most about. If it is just cows, sheep and chickens, fine. If it is all living creatures, things get complicated.
The huge volumes of pesticides used in most arable farming are not good news for the small animals and insects that would thrive on, and nurture, farms should they have the luck to survive the plough.
There is no getting away from the fact that when it comes to eating - vegan, vegetarian or omnivore - we are all involved in killing.
There is one group for whom the trend towards veganism is definitely a good thing: processed-food manufacturers and retailers.
The past few years have produced something of a backlash against processed food. We are worried about our sugar intake; we understand more about how food with a high glycemic load might create insulin resistance; and are increasingly suspicious of the low-fat product industry, given that the more low-fat food we eat, the fatter we get.
What better time, then, for the industry to find itself with a whole new market into which to sell factory-made, processed food? One that, gloriously, is more ideologically and identity-driven than any other.
This is a marketing greenwash opportunity. Create a good vegan product, and not only can you virtue signal about it relentlessly but you can charge a feel-good premium, too.
Kellogg's is selling a vegan granola; Nestlé's Shreddies cereal comes with a green "forever vegan" banner across the packet.
There is also vegan chocolate, vegan cheese, vegan fish, vegan chicken and vegan ice-cream. The average price premium for these products is about 50%.
This is just the beginning. Supermarkets including Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury's all mentioned their vegan product ranges in their latest trading results. Unilever acquired fake-meat-maker Vegetarian Butcher and is moving "towards a portfolio with more plant-based products".
There is no reason food companies shouldn't respond to demand.
But those turning vegan in an effort to save the world might bear in mind most processed, packaged and shipped products are likely to do more for food company profits than for the planet or your health.
The proof is in the pudding for Greggs. Thanks to its vegan sausage rolls, the company reported a 14% rise in sales in the first six weeks of the year. That might benefit shareholders, but is it doing any real good for the rest of us?
© The Financial Times

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