There Are Fewer Vegetarians in the U.S. Now Than 20 Years Ago

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CC BY 2.0. Marco Verch

But more people are eating less meat, rather than swearing it off completely.

The number of people who identify as vegetarian in the United States has barely changed in the past 20 years. In 1999, six percent of the population ate no meat; that number stayed the same in 2001, but dropped slightly to five percent in 2012, where it has remained steady ever since. When it comes to vegans, the number has gone up from 2 to 3 percent since 2012.

What's interesting, as Maura Judkis points out in the Washington Post, is that, despite the massive changes in food culture and the increased visibility of meatless eating in an online world, it has not resulted in more people embracing vegetarianism.

"In 1999, there were no 'Meatless Mondays,' no Pinterest, no 'Food, Inc.,' no fast-casual salad places, no Goop. Information about a vegetarian diet — at least for middle- and upper-class people who have more dietary choices — has seemingly never been more abundant. But it’s not resulting in any noticeable increase in the rate at which people adopt the diet."

If the number of vegetarians has hardly changed in two decades, this would suggest that the plethora of plant-based eating information now available isn't really working. People who don't want to eat meat won't eat it, regardless of how limited their access to information and support may be; and those who like meat aren't inclined to change.

There is hope in one area, however, and that is in 'flexitarianism' or 'reducetarianism' (different names for the same concept) -- when people consciously choose to incorporate meatless meals or dishes containing less meat into their diets for various reasons (it could be health, ethics, environmental, or financial concerns). A British survey at the beginning of this year found that nearly one-third of evening meals in the UK contains no meat or fish, thus qualifying as vegetarian or vegan. This number has been increasing slowly but steadily, from 26.9 percent in 2014 to 29 percent most recently. These stats come from the UK, which is obviously different place from the US, but both countries are known for their traditionally meat-centric diets, so it's not a stretch to assume similar transformations are occurring on American soil.

This suggests that perhaps we will see the greatest planetary benefit from the cumulative effect of more people reducing meat in their diets on a regular basis than eliminating it entirely. Brian Kateman, founder of the Reducetarian movement, has made this case before. I wrote after hearing him speak at a summit in New York City last year,

"With the average American eating 275 pounds of meat per year, getting an individual to reduce meat consumption by only 10 percent would see a reduction in nearly 30 pounds annually. Now imagine if a quarter of the U.S. population did this. It could make a huge difference. Realistically, this is a far more attainable goal than converting people to veganism."

Who knows? Reducetarianism could be the gateway drug to further meat reduction, as people experience its benefits. Or maybe we don't need to get too worked up about the end goal and simply focus on reduction itself, understanding that it's the most feasible and effective strategy at this point.