We can hardly turn on a TV, read a newspaper or magazine, or check out social media without hearing or reading about plant-based diets and seeing recipes for meatless meals. The word “vegan” is everywhere these days. It’s as much in the white-hot spotlight as the climate crisis. Coincidence? Not really. There’s an increasingly important connection between the two.

Worldwide, the number of people following a plant-based diet is on the rise, and for many Americans the commitment goes way beyond Meatless Mondays. Vegetarians and vegans are no longer a counter-culture movement in the U.S. They’re part of mainstream American culture. When fast-food outlets such as Burger King and McDonald’s start serving vegan options, you know something’s up.

By one estimate (GlobalData), the number of U.S. consumers who call themselves vegan (strict vegetarians who shun animal products, such as meat, dairy or eggs) grew from 1% to 6% between 2014 and 2017. Also notable is a rise in the number of “flexitarians,” who follow a part-time vegetarian or vegan diet but eat meat, dairy or eggs on occasion.

Why switch to a plant-based diet? Until recently, it was often for ethical reasons related to animal welfare or for personal health. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a plant-based diet has been proven to lower bad cholesterol (plants are cholesterol-free) and to prevent and reverse heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. It also reduces the risk for obesity and chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, according to the committee.

Today, add heightened global concerns related to climate change and sustainability, especially among younger adults, as a compelling reason to ditch the meat and dairy. In fact, in late 2018, The Economist, in its “The World in 2019” report, noted that interest in a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle is soaring, especially among millennials. “Fully a quarter of 25- to 34-year-old Americans say they are vegans or vegetarians," the report said.

A special report issued in 2019 by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described plant-based diets as a major way to counteract the dire effects of the global climate crisis. It calls for a reduction in meat consumption to prevent further deforestation of tropical rain forests. The Amazon rain forest — often called the “lungs of the planet” — absorbs large amounts of carbon, which helps to cool global temperature. The rising rate of deforestation in the Amazon to provide land for cattle grazing remains a serious concern. Cows also emit large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that further adds to global warming.

The good news for consumers interested in plant-based foods is that it is easier than ever to find alternatives to animal-based protein, both in restaurants and in the grocery aisles. Sales of alternative meat products are growing at an exponential rate, according to Nielsen Total Food View. Plant-based foods are a growth engine in the food industry, outpacing overall grocery sales. Even many fast-food burger joints now offer meat alternatives, such as the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Meat burger. Both of these may be considered by vegans and vegetarians. The meat-like taste and texture of the Impossible Burger is attained by the genetic manipulation of soy (Impossible Foods.com). The Beyond Meat burger is done entirely through plant sources, without genetic manipulation (beyondmeat.com). Everyone should do their due diligence to look these up themselves and examine the ingredients, methods and possibilities.

All of this interest in alternatives to meat protein is also good news for the planet. Whether plant-based foods and vegan diets continue on an upward trend remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. Millennials and gen Z’ers, the generation that followed, are a growing segment of today’s buying public, and they will be the ones left to face the long-term effects of climate change. If they continue to align their personal lifestyles with their social and environmental consciousness, they may accomplish what the baby boomers could not: They may save the planet.

Elizabeth Egan is a member of the Task Force for a Sustainable Galloway, aka Go Green Galloway. 

Go Green Galloway is a volunteer organization dedicated to reducing the carbon footprint of Galloway through the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation, environmental education and the implementation of sustainable practices. We always welcome new volunteer members. Contact us at gogreengalloway12@gmail.com or call Mary at 609-742-7076. Also be sure to like our Facebook page.

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