The Secret Power of the Flexitarian

CC BY 2.0. Hamza Butt

The rise in not-quite-vegetarian eating has a ripple effect that shouldn't be ignored.

As Katherine reported yesterday, one third of Britons has gone either vegan/vegetarian or now identifies as 'flexitarian'—meaning they are consciously reducing the amount of meat they eat and opting for more plant-centric diets. This statistic is not surprising to me. Whenever I visit the land of my birth, more and more of my friends are ordering plant-based meals and pubs and restaurants alike are increasingly catering to them. (I even spotted deep-fried, beer-battered halloumi in a regular old fish 'n chip shop on my last visit...)

There's obviously an immediate, direct power in the meal choices these folks are making, because cutting back on meat and dairy is a powerful way to reduce emissions that cause climate change. But I've been thinking recently about the ripple effect that such dietary choices have. Not only are vegetarians, vegans, and flexitarians reducing their own food-based emissions, but they are also subtly influencing the diets of those around them.

When a flexitarian goes to a dinner party, for example, it's unlikely that the hosts will cook up an entirely separate menu just for that guest. Instead, we tend to tweak our menus to be more plant-centric in general—even if we serve some meat—meaning the rest of the party gets to eat a little healthier and greener too. Similarly, the growth in more veggie-leaning diets has meant a growing number of restaurants offering (increasingly good) vegan and vegetarian menu options that have never been near an animal. I'd be willing to bet that a fair few people try a vegetable stir fry or deep fried halloumi without ever thinking of themselves as 'flexitarian'. And then there are all those schools and hospitals going just a little more veggie...

I've always argued that environmentalists focus too much on individual lifestyle change, when it's systemic change that counts. But the growth in plant-based eating is doing a good job of undermining my argument—because when enough people adopt a lifestyle change, even partially, you soon see society-wide shifts taking root as a result.