It was supposed to be a low-key ruling and one that was not legally binding, but a judge’s decision in an employment tribunal in the city of Norwich, UK, in early January grabbed headlines around the world.
In short, the judge in the case ruled that veganism should be treated as a philosophical belief, and, as such, vegans should be afforded protections in a similar manner to those practicing a religion.
Veganism, all the headlines read, can now be treated as a religion.
Of course, we shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves here. While this is a compelling development, it’s not as if it’s going to be adopted around the world tomorrow — and veganism is most definitely not a religion. But, as with all legal rulings, setting a precedent can be very impactful, and it would be foolish to ignore this. Veganism is on the rise socially, commercially, and politically, and it could become much more pronounced in the 2020s.
Taking a step back from politics for a moment, we know that there are positive aspects to a plant-based diet. Time and time again, plant-based diets (not necessarily vegan or even vegetarian — just those diets that include a lot of plants and not too much meat) have been shown to help protect a number of dangerous conditions, as well as help fight obesity.
A report in the LA Times recently claimed that the year 2030 would see almost 50% of all Americans classed as obese. Around 25% of those will be classified as severely obese. That’s an incredible statistic, but one likely to become more and more common as the years pass.
Calls for change to meat-heavy diets
People are always searching for ways to maintain a healthy diet, and veganism should not be viewed as the only answer. Indeed, while veganism has plenty of discernible benefits, the risks of extreme dieting shouldn’t be discounted.
Veganism is also not a new idea — or, if you like, not a new philosophical belief. But it does have a more multi-faceted set of beliefs fuelling its popularity; most notably, the charge that the eating of meat plays a pivotal role in climate change. There are calls from non-vegans to cut down our consumption of meat to avoid environmental catastrophe, something that has supercharged the activists for a plant-based diet.
Not only does producing meat generate a lot of emissions, but it also uses up vast water resources and takes up a lot of land area. This has added a new incentive for people to eliminate or at least reduce meat consumption.
Youth activism also plays a role in all of this. We can’t yet reflect on the part of generations of millennials and post-millennials as an awakening, but there is undoubtedly a linkage between the youth-driven climate protests symbolized by Greta Thunberg and veganism as a political movement.
When it comes to eating plant-based diets, at least some of the time, the generational gap between baby boomers and millennials is startling. And, it’s no coincidence that vegan activism is characterized, although sometimes erroneously, as a youth movement. It’s all about perception, and young people, climate change, and ethical eating are all on-trend.
Economics have sent veganism ‘viral’
Ironically, but unsurprisingly, some of the corporations that benefit from the popularity of veganism are those that have helped cause the underlying issues in the first place. ‘Beyond Meat’ burgers and similar alternatives are being pushed by the same fast-food chains that sell endless supplies of meat around the globe.
Beef in McDonald’s, for example, constitutes around 30% of its carbon footprint – equivalent to approximately 150 million metric tonnes. Although, we should say for fairness that the company has some ambitious plans to cut down emissions. Without going down the rabbit hole of laying blame at the feet of different industries, we can still point out that it is possible to tout the solution while being part of the problem.
But a more important lesson can be taken from all this; namely, that veganism, and the activism around it, has been monetized in the latter half of the 2010s. That works to both fuel and refuel the number of people interested in going vegan, and the activism around it, like the equivalent of sending something viral online.
As we move into the 2020s, there is no doubt that the activism around plant-based diets will grow. It’s no longer about a single issue, such as animal welfare; instead, it’s a sophisticated ideology, one that goes beyond diet. Perhaps the judge was right to call veganism a philosophical belief, but it’s perhaps more apt to call it a political one.