Special Edition: Plant-based diets
Plant-based diets: The rise and rise of flexitarian eating
In large parts of the developing world, meat consumption is increasing, but in some developed nations – including in parts of Europe – it is declining. According to FAOSTAT figures, Western Europeans ate about 87 kg of meat per capita in 2009 compared to 95.5 kg in 1990 – a drop of 9% in less than 20 years.
This reflects a trend of meat reduction, rather than of rising vegetarianism, although the proportion of Europeans who identify as vegetarian has increased too, with rates varying from about 1-2% in some countries, to about 9-10% in Italy and Germany.
Meanwhile, a new dietary pattern has cropped up. Dubbed flexitarianism, it refers to meat reduction rather than fully fledged vegetarianism.
Growing trend – but it’s not cool
Germany and the Netherlands lead the way in this ‘flexitarian’ way of eating. Research from Wageningen UR last year revealed that more than three-quarters of Dutch consumers say they have at least one meat-free day per week – and 40% eat no meat at least three days a week.
“Reducing meat consumption is a growing trend, but the majority of people keep to their current pattern of meat consumption,” say the researchers, led by Hans Dagevos from the university’s Agricultural Economics Research Institute, adding that only 13% of consumers described themselves as flexitarians.
“Reducing meat consumption is not seen as 'cool'. There is a low identification factor.”
But even if there is little acceptance of the term ‘flexitarian’, what is behind this shift in eating patterns?
There are several key reasons: In the past few years, rising meat prices have coincided with a struggling economy, meaning that many western consumers have cut consumption on the back of shrinking incomes; shoppers are becoming more aware of the environmental impacts of eating meat; animal welfare issues have also gained attention; and consumers have started to question how healthy it is to eat large quantities of meat.
Meat reduction has also been boosted by regional meat-free movements, generally coordinated by NGOs, including vegetarian, animal protection and environmental organisations.
In another recent paper on sustainability issues and meat reduction, Dagevos wrote: “Given the enormous environmental impact of animal-protein consumption and the apparent sympathy of consumers for meat reduction, it is surprising that politicians and policy makers demonstrate little, if any, interest in strategies to reduce meat consumption and to encourage more sustainable eating practices.”
According to his analysis, flexitarians tend to value non-meat protein sources more highly than their heavy-meat eating counterparts. These include cheese, eggs, nuts, mushrooms and pulses, alongside meat sources such as chicken and fish.
Rising meat consumption elsewhere
Meanwhile, meat consumption continues to rise in developing countries – but could those in developing countries be convinced to adopt a similar way of ‘flexitarian’ eating, even as rising incomes allow them to choose more meat products for the first time?
A recent paper from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) pointed out that meat consumption does not rise endlessly in tandem with income, and this pattern is expected even in emerging markets – although it depends on the nation’s food culture.
“It is expected that increases in meat consumption will taper as incomes rise, a pattern that is already evident for China, as shown by the almost straight line of rising meat consumption against logarithmic increases in income. For Brazil, however, it seems that the tapering is less pronounced,” it said.