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The history, sex and science of a meatless existence

A behavioural scientist explains why people go vegan, why some meat eaters find them so irksome and how scientists may be nudging us all towards a more plant-centric existence

Friday 23 November 2018 17:43 GMT
Meat production accounts for as much as 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and razing land for pasture destroys 6.7 million acres of tropical forest per year
Meat production accounts for as much as 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and razing land for pasture destroys 6.7 million acres of tropical forest per year (Getty/iStock)

At the age of 14, Donald Watson watched as a terrified, screaming pig was slaughtered on his family farm. In this British boy’s eyes, this was murder. Watson stopped eating meat and eventually gave up dairy as well.

Later, as an adult in 1944, Watson realised that others shared his interest in a plant-only diet. And thus veganism – a term he coined – was born.

Watson’s legacy ripples through our culture. Even though only 3 per cent of Americans identify as vegan, most people seem to have an unusually strong opinion about these fringe foodies – one way or the other.

It’s an ideology not a choice

Like other alternative food movements such as locavorism, veganism arises from a belief structure that guides eating decisions.

They aren’t simply moral high-grounders. Vegans do believe it’s ethical to avoid animal products, but they also believe it’s healthier and better for the environment.

Also, just like Donald Watson’s story, veganism is often rooted in early life experiences.

Psychologists recently discovered that having a larger variety of pets as a child increases tendencies to avoid eating meat as an adult. Growing up with different sorts of pets increases concern for how animals are treated more generally.

Thus, when a friend opts for Tofurky this holiday season, rather than one of the 45 million turkeys consumed for Thanksgiving, his decision isn’t just a high-minded choice. It arises from beliefs that are deeply held and hard to change.

Veganism as a symbolic threat

That doesn’t mean your faux-turkey loving friend won’t seem annoying if you’re a meat eater.

The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain famously quipped that meat avoiders “are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit”.

Why do some people find vegans so irritating? In fact, it might be more about “us” than them.

Most Americans think meat is an important part of a healthy diet. The US government recommends eating two to three portions (five to six ounces) per day of everything from bison to sea bass. As tribal humans, we naturally form biases against individuals who challenge our way of life, and because veganism runs counter to how we typically approach food, vegans feel threatening.

Humans respond to feelings of threat by derogating these “outgroups”. Two out of three vegans experience discrimination daily, one in four report losing friends after “coming out” as vegan, and one in 10 believe being vegan cost them a job.

Veganism can be hard for those looking for romance, too. Recent research finds that the more someone enjoys eating meat, the less likely they are to swipe right on a vegan. Also, women find men who are vegan less attractive than those who eat meat, as meat eating seems masculine.

Crossing the vegan divide

It may be no surprise that being a vegan is tough, but meat eaters and meat abstainers probably have more in common than they think.

Many vegans are focused on healthy eating. Six out of 10 Americans want their meals to be healthier, and research shows that plant-based diets are associated with reduced risk for heart disease, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes.

It may not be surprising, then, that one in 10 Americans are pursuing a mostly veggie diet. That number is higher among younger generations, suggesting that the long-term trend might be moving away from meat consumption.

In addition, several factors will make meat more costly in the near future.

Meat production accounts for as much as 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and razing land for pasture destroys 6.7 million acres of tropical forest per year. While these figures are debated, it is clear that meat has higher emissions than plants, and population growth is increasing demand for quality protein.

Seizing the opportunity, scientists have innovated forms of plant-based meats that have proven to be appealing even to meat eaters. The distributor of Beyond Meat’s pea-protein patties says 86 per cent of its customers are meat eaters. It is rumoured that this California-based vegan company will soon be publicly traded on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, the science behind lab-grown “cultured tissue” meat is improving. It used to cost more than £195,000 to produce a single lab-grown hamburger patty. Technological improvements by Dutch company Mosa Meat have reduced the cost to £8 per burger.

Watson’s legacy

Even during the holiday season, when turkey and ham take centre stage, there’s a growing push to promote meatless eating.

London, for example, will host its first-ever “zero waste” Christmas market this year featuring vegan food vendors. Donald Watson would be proud.

Watson, who died in 2006 at the ripe old age of 95, outlived most of his critics. This may give quiet resolve to vegans as they brave our meat-loving world.

Joshua T Beck is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Oregon. This article first appeared on

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