Are plant-based diets becoming less popular? Here’s what you need to know…

A picture of some vegan sausages, vegan patties, vegan mince and hashbrowns all in individual cardboard containers. There is basil leaves and small beans scattered over the food.
A picture of some vegan sausages, vegan patties, vegan mince and hashbrowns all in individual cardboard containers. There is basil leaves and small beans scattered over the food.

Recent news from the Vegan Society Aotearoa New Zealand revealed that New Zealand ranks number four in the world when it comes to the number of searches for veganism online. This is a positive finding as switching to a diet that harms fewer animals and has less of a damaging impact on our planet is inherently a good thing. However, this article will begin by discussing how other research from the last couple of years has not been so positive.

What does the research say about veganism in New Zealand?

In 2009, a 20-year national study of the lives of more than 60,000 New Zealanders began. The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) was set up with the intention of learning “how New Zealanders’ life circumstances, attitudes, values, and beliefs change over time.”

In 2019, halfway through the study, a paper on the dietary choices of New Zealanders was written based on the data obtained so far. ‘To meat or not to meat: a longitudinal investigation of transitioning to plant-based diets’ discussed both the prevalence of plant-based diets in New Zealand over time as well as the views and lifestyles that individuals following such diets are more likely to have.

With tens of thousands of participants (some of whom may be reading this article now!), there is a lot we can learn from this study. Its findings concern the changes in popularity of different diets over the last decade and the direction of New Zealand’s meat consumption in the future.

We are very used to hearing promising news from many different Western countries about how plant-based diets are becoming increasingly mainstream for ethical, environmental, and health reasons. At Animals Aotearoa, we proudly applaud these personal changes because they contribute to a shift away from the exploitative treatment of non-human animals that has become normalised in our society. Check out our website to find plant-based chicken alternatives and plant-based fish alternatives.

Reducing meat consumption helps tackle climate change and mitigate public health crises. This is especially important in a country like New Zealand where there is a strong culture of meat-based diets; the average meat consumption globally in 2009 was just under 42kg per person but, in New Zealand, it was closer to 106kg per person. This cultural shift away from excessive meat consumption is no molehill but the general message we receive about people’s diets is that we’re heading, albeit rather slowly, in the right direction.

Surely, we can expect the findings of the NZAVS to mirror the optimistic messages about plant-based diets that we hear in the media? In fact, the researchers were surprised by the results – as were we.

The dietary choices of people who eat meat turned out to be very stable with a 98.8% chance of there being no change to a plant-based diet over a one-year period. Vegetarians and vegans, on the other hand, were less stable in their dietary choices: they had a 78.8% chance of remaining plant-based in a one-year period. This doesn’t mean that the number of people following plant-based diets is decreasing, but it does mean that people are much less likely to stick with a plant-based diet long term.

The demographic breakdown (including gender, political orientation, religious beliefs, and disgust sensitivity) is fascinating, and I thoroughly recommend reading through the study if you’re curious.

Two graphs. The first shows 94.1% of people studied were omnivore. 4.6% were vegetarian and 1.2% were vegan.
The second shows how likely people were to move between diets. Omnivore were 0.2% and 1% likely to go vegan and vegetarian respectively. Vegans and Vegetarians were 16.1% and 22.6% likely to become omnivores respectively.
Source: New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study 2022 Newsletter

Why are people not sticking to plant-based diets?

The results of this article, as well as being surprising, are somewhat disheartening; they imply that plant-based diets are not currently sustainable for lots of New Zealanders. Many people are trying a plant-based diet but a relatively large proportion of them (compared to people who eat meat) are not continuing with it long-term. 

Unfortunately, the study did not investigate why people are more likely to transition away from plant-based diets than towards them. There will be many reasons for this, likely including a lack of plant-based alternatives (although this is changing), poor dietary education, and a strong culture of meat consumption. These are serious barriers that New Zealanders must face when trying to align their actions with the principles of veganism.

The study didn’t cover the reasons for the shift away from plant-based diets and there isn’t much other research on this topic but, from my experience, people who decide a plant-based diet isn’t right for them don’t change their minds about how poor the animals in factory farms are treated. It’s not that people stop agreeing with what veganism sets out to achieve, it’s that they stop believing that their own personal dietary changes are effective in achieving this goal. 

A close up image of a women with her hands around the head and neck of a cow
Image credit: Jinki Cambronero

The animal agriculture industry is vast so it’s understandable why many people believe their individual actions won’t have a significant impact. This belief naturally translates to behaviour changes because the fundamental aim of veganism is to end the unnecessary suffering that humans cause to non-human animals so what is the point in making a dietary sacrifice if it won’t help achieve this goal?

While this position is a common and reasonable one, I believe it is simply not the case. It’s important to realise that people’s decision to eat plant-based food doesn’t just impact their own lives. Their actions inspire those around them: they may become role models for a way of living in accordance with the values of compassion and respect for animals that so many people share. Shared meals, giving food as gifts, and conversations about the reasons to follow a plant-based diet are all ways individual action can change the ways others consume. 

We will never know all the ways in which we change the lives of those around us but often one conversation or one delicious plant-based meal can plant a seed that leads to long-lasting behaviour changes. In turn, these people then inspire others around them, creating a ripple effect – who knows how much impact your choices can have!

How else can we help animals?

People protesting outside Hilton Warsaw hotel.

People’s dietary choices are personal and, while we at Animals Aotearoa encourage people to take steps towards aligning their actions with their values, we recognise that there are lots of people who are concerned about the animal agriculture industries but do not follow plant-based diets for a variety of reasons. 

The key is that we can still make valuable steps toward creating a world where unnecessary animal exploitation is eliminated – we can do more than just make dietary changes.

Animals Aotearoa works to improve the welfare standards of factory-farmed animals by encouraging food companies to adopt the Better Chicken Commitment. This advocacy work benefits massively from public support and anyone, irrespective of their dietary choices, can help.

The Better Chicken Commitment is a set of standards, backed by more than 30 animal advocacy organisations around the world, that give chickens raised for meat lives worth living. If food companies adopt these standards through their supply chain, they commit to a number of improvements to their farms’ set-up including using slower-growing breeds of chickens, allowing them more space to move around, and providing them with enrichment such as objects to play with or different terrain to explore.

More than 500 company commitments have been made globally to these standards. Sadly, New Zealand is lagging behind as only one food business, Domino’s Pizza, has signed the Better Chicken Commitment. Our campaigns encourage others to follow Domino’s Pizza’s bold step towards higher animal welfare. 

Update: As of August 2023, Swolefoods, My Food Bag, HelloFresh, The Coffee Club, Bird On A Wire, Columbus Coffee and Mexico have committed to the BCC in New Zealand, in addition to Domino’s, My Food Bag, HelloFresh and SwoleFoods.

Actions like these are examples of other ways we can align our actions with our values. Advocating for plant-based diets is still very important but a massive change in the demand for animal products is not going to happen suddenly. We should explore other ways to eliminate the unnecessary suffering we cause to non-human animals and one of the most powerful ways to do this is to deal with the supply chain. 

The Better Chicken Commitment and other standards that improve the lives of farmed animals are a good start primarily because they are highly effective in creating change. While there is definitely a lot more work to be done, these initial improvements make a big difference because they impact such vast numbers of animals. As our friends at the Humane League have said, “a world free from animal suffering starts with a world with less animal suffering.”

The fight against the exploitation of non-human animals is made up of small steps and it is something that we can all contribute to. The article from the NZAVS is disheartening because we don’t want to see people move away from plant-based diets. Don’t forget that there are so many other steps we can each take to help farmed animals.

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