Looking Back and Looking Forward

By Christine Kasum Sexton, MPH

Seth Tibbott

Founder, Turtle Island Foods

When I first started making tempeh for Turtle Island Foods 31 years ago, there wasn't much of a natural foods industry. You would find just a few co-ops and stores in Portland, OR. Most were small and not very modern in décor. Getting placement for my three tempeh items (Soy, 5-Grain, and Tempehroni) was very easy. I remember one store owner saying, “Wow, do you have any more products? Now, we can fill up our shelves!” The word ‘vegan’ was not in common usage then. ‘Pure vegetarian’ was more common to describe someone who did not eat dairy, eggs, or animal products of any kind. The only meat alternatives were tofu, tempeh, and Worthington Foods. There were no ready-made veggie burgers on the market; you pretty much had to make your own. I ate a lot of stir-fries and beans and rice and lived off pressure-cooked soybeans and tempeh.

As for the next 30 years, I expect vegetarian and vegan foods will grow exponentially and get significantly better in texture and flavor. I think a large force driving this trend will be that the environmental efficiencies of the plant-based diet will be too obvious to ignore. The unsustainability of meat production will become more and more apparent. This, of course, will not be an easy nor graceful transition for many, but shortages of grain, water, and other natural resources will make a plant-based diet the cost effective way to go. Couple this with the obvious benefits to human and animal health and welfare and the improved taste and texture of vegan products, and it is hard to argue for any other future.

Saurabh Dalal

President, Vegetarian Society of DC

The awareness and practice of veganism have grown enormously over the past 30 years. I feel that ‘veganism’ is familiar to large segments of the population in the U.S. (and other western countries) today. It is where vegetarianism was in terms of familiarity a couple of decades ago. With the availability of delicious options in stores and restaurants, publications, online resources, and so much more, veganism is slowly moving from the edges into the mainstream. The movement is also on much better footing, and the creativity, energy, and resources employed are all wonderfully encouraging.

Like many others activists and educators, I firmly believe the next 30 years will see, and require, a major shift in the world's population towards vegan diets and lifestyles. Although I would love the number to be 100 percent, I believe that we can achieve somewhere around 40-50 percent of the population being (effectively) vegan in the next 30 years, and perhaps 70 percent (of an estimated 8-9.5 billion people) being largely vegan. Such numbers would also ‘normalize’ veganism and make it more widely understood, accepted, supported, and possible for others to choose it.

Wayne Pacelle

President and CEO, The Humane Society of the United States

When I became a vegan in 1984, most people had no idea what ‘vegan’ meant, or even how to pronounce it. While only a small percentage of Americans practice vegetarianism and veganism today, they are now part of the lexicon, are growing in popularity, and have moved from the margins to the mainstream. The most common form of meat avoidance is actually that of so-called ‘flexitarians’, who eat vegetarian more often than not but do not abstain entirely.

There was a time when vegetarianism was cast as somehow unhealthful or dangerous, but the last three decades have rendered that view archaic. Eating lower on the food chain has been propelled by a raft of science that shows it provides superior health benefits compared to a standard American diet; by the availability of meat-free alternatives in the marketplace; by concerns about climate change and other environmental factors; and by the rise of the animal protection movement, which has focused public attention on the plight of all animals.

Popular culture has made a tremendous difference, and so has the written word. Colin Campbell's book, The China Study, had a particularly big impact, and even Bill Clinton now swears by its medical principles. Skinny Bitch reached young women throughout America, as did both Ellen and Oprah with their broadcasts about veganism. Matthew Scully even brought a powerful ethical case for vegetarianism from a traditional and conservative perspective in his book Dominion. High-profile cases of salmonella poisoning and even a case of mad cow disease reminded consumers of the food safety threats that incubate on factory farms.

During the same period, obviously, a series of undercover investigations by the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, and other groups threw back the curtain on intensive confinement practices and revealed to consumers the misery that the animals endure for our societal preference for meat. If we care about animals, we must take into account our food choices.

Barbara Lovitts

Life Member, The Vegetarian Resource Group

In the last 30 years, vegetarianism has entered mainstream culture. There's less ‘taunting’ of vegetarians about their dietary choices, and non-vegetarians often feel uncomfortable around and apologize to vegetarians for their dietary choices. ‘Vegan’ has become a commonly used and understood word. Menus indicating which items are vegetarian or vegan, or could be made vegetarian or vegan, now exist in many food establishments. Waiters and waitresses understand what you mean when you ask that an entrée be made vegan. It’s easy to find products such as soymilk and tofu in supermarkets. There’s been an explosion in production of meat analogs and different types of non-dairy milks. Soymilk is being offered as an alternative in some public schools. Fewer doctors are blinking an eye when you tell them that you are raising your children vegetarian or vegan, and whole families are following their child’s lead and becoming vegetarian or vegan. I no longer have to call ahead to conferences and conventions to request a vegetarian meal. ‘Vegetarian’ is listed as a meal option on pre-set menus at conferences and conventions.

In the next 30 years, a larger percentage of the population will become vegetarian or vegan. More vegetarians will be elected to public office. Food products will carry a symbol indicating whether they are vegetarian or vegan. Animal rights groups and the animal agriculture industry will reach more agreements on the humane treatment of animals.

Ingrid Newkirk

Director, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)

What's the most important change? The amusing realization that almost everyone now knows they really should be vegan, or at least vegetarian. If they are not, without your having said a word, they are defensive, guilty, or apologetic; make excuses; and sometimes pretend to be vegetarian or to be ‘mostly’ vegetarian. We have become their external conscience.

What's ahead? In addition to lots more vegan ‘meat and dairy’, laboratory-grown in vitro meat — grown from animal cells but without the breeding, mutilations, transport, and slaughter — will prove Sir Winston Churchill right when he speculated that, one day, people could eat chicken without killing a bird.

Phil Becker

Life Member and Volunteer, The Vegetarian Resource Group

“Becker's ‘Top Ten’ List” the past 30 years includes having gradually but steadily...

  1. Educated health professionals, public policy makers, and the public at large that vegetarian/vegan diets can be health-protective and an effective way to reduce one's risk for chronic diseases, which was contrary to the commonly held belief for many generations, even among health professionals.
  2. Informed public policy makers and the public at large about the plight of farm animals.
  3. Influenced the food industry and the educational system to offer vegetarian and vegan food choices in public eateries and schools.
  4. Improved consumer awareness about their food choices. Ingredients labeling, organic food choices, and nutritional information all have progressed to their current status because the vegetarian/vegan communities demanded that consumers know what goes into the food that they are eating.
  5. Publicized food production as one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. In contrast to 30 years ago, today virtually every legitimate environmental and conservation organization has acknowledged the unsustainable practices associated with livestock agriculture and has supported the need to eat lower on the food chain.
  6. Demonstrated that food-related issues are social justice issues. It was back in the mid-1980s when I first learned from George Eisman about the ‘cash-crop’ economy associated with food commodities like coffee, cocoa, and sugar. Even though these products are vegetarian, the primary point is that what we eat as consumers can have profound (and even devastating) impacts on the quality of life of other people and their cultures around the world.
  7. Exemplified the adage: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Vegetarians/vegans are living proof that not only can you live a full and vibrant life without meat, but also that one can be adequately nourished without consuming an excessive number of calories at every meal.
  8. Legitimized terms like vegetarian and vegan as being genuine, viable, and highly desirable choices for living one's life in a manner that is consistent with ‘leaving no trace’ and ‘treading lightly on the earth’, thereby reinforcing that diet and philosophy for living are inseparable entities.
  9. Solidified the idea that, if one fervently believes in animal rights, one's diet can be consistent with one's political and philosophical beliefs.
  10. Unified vegetarians and vegans with mainstream society by putting a vegetarian/vegan spin on conventional practices, such as dinner outings, parties, weddings, and a plethora of other human activities. This consistently demonstrates that vegetarians/vegans are indeed part of and want to be part of the human experience — and not separate from it as some critics of vegetarianism/veganism contend.

While I am not psychic about the future, I do believe we will see several changes. The ‘bad’ news is that human global population will continue to grow exponentially and reach a record of 15 billion by 2040 or so. Along with that, there will be unprecedented (non-human) species extinction, more global (human) conflicts over natural resources, and new strains of diseases previously unknown because global sanitation resources won't be able to keep pace with global population growth.

The ‘good’ news is the quality of health care in nations like the U.S. will be better than ever (but only for those who will be able to afford it). I also predict that we will see factory farms disappear in the U.S. (but unfortunately escalate in lesser developed regions due to their position in economic development). Protections for ALL animals will improve throughout democratic regimes (as will legal protections for animals). Also, the availability of tasty, economical vegan food will grow exponentially throughout the world and become a leading economic force for import and export of food commodities (ditto for organic food production).

Christine Kasum Sexton, MPH, researched this article while volunteering with The Vegetarian Resource Group.

p>Phil Becker