Food is undeniably a converging point in which every member of society can relate due to its position as one of life’s fundamental necessities. Yet, while this is true, it is vital to examine the varying relationships which people have with food associated with individual tastes and experiences, which, in turn, can be largely attributed to one’s culture, heritage and identity. Food can, simultaneously, work to shape a person’s identity whilst operating as an underlying factor in dictating their actions and behaviours, and as a result of this, one’s taste in food is innately geographical.
Veganism is a phenomenon which has spiralled in popularity over the past decade and is defined by the Vegan Society as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. Its unprecedented rise in popularity has been quantified by The Independent who estimated that the numbers in this minority group reached 3.5 million across the U.K in March 2018, which is three and a half times its population in 2006. Veganism is now one of the most rapidly growing movements in modern society with many seeing this ostensibly ‘fringe movement’ as a mainstream epidemic driven by so called Millennials.
Veganism can play a vital role in shaping a person’s identity, a factor which has become increasingly prevalent in contemporary geographical study. Elizabeth King spoke of her relationship with veganism at the Blackpool Vegan and Green Festival 2017, in which she stated, “If you’re trying to go vegan, you’re a pioneer”, and it is here that that idea of a ‘social identity’, as outlined by Henri Tajfel, is exemplified. The term ‘social identity’ stems from the part of a person’s self-concept which can be accredited to their membership in a relevant social group. In this case, the festival itself highlights a unique sense of pride and togetherness ascribed solely to the membership of this minority group. Accordingly, it is easy to class veganism as a central part of many vegan’s sense of identity, yet while this is a compelling argument, it is also necessary to identify the outliers.
It is vital to consider this movement as an act of social deviance since vegans resist the widely accepted social norm of consuming meat produce, and, therefore enter into a semi-punk sub-culture. Subsequently, vegans can become the focus of targeted stigma (“a perspective that is created in a social situation where an individual is perceived as deviant”) which is related to a sense of separateness relating to their ipseity. This can contribute to the implementation of ‘identity management strategies’, and accordingly 61% of vegans and vegetarians admit to hiding their identity at some point in fear of social stigma. This, consequently, highlights the complex interconnectivity between an extreme sense of belonging as well as a sense of alienation and isolationism within the vegan population, whereby some may revert to “defensive cowering” or downplaying their identity. Despite this, in the modern age, this idea seems intrinsically contradictory as the sheer number of vegans across the globe undermine the movement’s title of a sub-culture. In this case, immense popularity has replaced a sense of separateness, and it is this complex interconnectivity of factors which ensures that veganism is a geographical concept.
Widely homogenous in it demography – 42% of all vegans are aged between fifteen and thirty and the majority are female – the veganism movement has been widely considered a symptom of gentrification and has become associated with the ‘Millennial generation’, or ‘generation Y’. This, in itself, generates a significant amount of stigma as this typically ‘fad orientated’ generation has in some areas alienated existing populations. This can therefore generate significant amounts of disdain as established populations feel disaffected and isolated (particularly through regeneration); and since the rise of veganism is often associated with this generation, this can fuel targeted social stigma.
Outside of high-middle income countries, the impact of veganism is overall negative, since the widespread popularity of the movement has a direct impact on those living and working on marginal rangelands. A notable amount of produce which would remain unproductive in a vegan context would be produced on this land, for example, 60% of sub-Saharan Africa is covered by vast drylands, where in such regions raising livestock is the main viable land use option. Furthermore, in low- and middle-income countries livestock account for 40-60% of agricultural GDP meaning that 1 billion people are inherently dependent on the production of meat-produce. As a result, the decline in demand for such produce would significantly disadvantage these populations, and in some cases, may catalyse a vicious cycle of poverty.
Environmentally, however, veganism sees extensive benefits. In 1996, the European Council of environment ministers stated that “global average temperatures should not exceed two degrees above pre-industrial level”, and it has been concluded that food-related emissions could account for half of the projected increase by 2050, for which a UN study claims that animal agriculture accounts for 51%. This highlights the pivotal role which unsustainable agriculture plays in catalysing human induced climate change, which remains one of the most predominant issues in contemporary geo-politics. Moreover, the impact of agricultural pollution was further outlined by Dr Richard Oppenlander, who declared that if the globe ceased to use gas, oil and fuel immediately, the impact of animal agriculture alone would still result in us exceeding the greenhouse gas emissions threshold by 2030. As a result, studies have shown that vegetarianism could reduce agricultural emissions by 63% while veganism would decrease them by 70%.
In conclusion, veganism is innately geographical. It provides a complex interconnectivity between the idea of identity and belonging as well as having profound impacts on the economy and the environment. Despite the fact that trends and fads are, by definition, ever-changing, it is not unjustified to try and predict the future of the veganism. Across the globe, billionaires are investing in the movement. A key example of this is that of Bill Gates, who has invested in Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek Foods and has publicly suggested that veganism is vital for sustainable living. Additionally, Hampton Creek Foods has seen further interest from other wealthy stakeholders, including Jerry Yang (the co-founder of Yahoo) and Li ka-sing, Asia’s richest man. With interest from multi-national billionaires, as well as exponentially rising popularity and acknowledged environmental benefits, these novel vegan businesses have the potential, and the influence, to alter the future of food consumption and production indefinitely.
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Petter, O. (2018). ‘Number of vegans in the UK soars to 3.5 million, survey finds.’ The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/vegans-uk-rise-popularity-plant-based-diets-veganism-figures-survey-compare-the-market-a8286471.html (Accessed: 13/07/18)
 Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Social Science Information, 13(2), pp.65-93.
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