The New Statesman, April 2, 2001.
Vegetarians, this is your moment!
by Salil Tripathi
With foot-and-mouth rampant, should we eat yoghurt and granola bars? By Salil
At the time of the last great cull in Britain, I was living in Singapore.
As it became clear that Britain was about to slaughter thousands of cows
to prevent the spread of mad cow disease, and as consumer confidence dropped
significantly, the supermarkets in Singapore put up large banners declaring
that the beef on their shelves was not from Britain.
One restaurant, in the basement of a shopping centre on Tanglin Road, had
a smarter idea. It put up a different banner: "We are vegetarians. Our food
is 100 per cent free of mad cow disease." The restaurant was Woodland's,
part of a chain of south Indian vegetarian restaurants that serves delicious
idlis and dosas in several cities in India and abroad, including London.
The regular patrons grinned as they watched neophyte vegetarians gingerly
trying to pick between the soft rice cakes and crisp crepes with fried vegetables.
Today, appalled by the current cull in response to the foot-and-mouth crisis,
many Britons are exploring vegetarianism. The market for vegetarian food
products has risen from £361m in 1999 to £399m last year. The
Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom claims that, in March, it received
twice the usual number of calls - mainly from people who want advice on turning
veggie, after seeing the harrowing images of animal pyres on the television.
Britain is remarkable among western societies for its hospitality to vegetarians.
Try asking for a spicy beanburger at an American Burger King, or a Veggie
burger at a McDonald's restaurant in Europe, and you will encounter a perplexed
look. Not only does Britain have hundreds of vegetarian-only restaurants,
but the country boasts a thriving vegetarian subculture, including the world's
oldest vegetarian organisation. Around 96 per cent of British pubs cater
to vegetarian needs.
Britain is ripe for a green revolution. British vegetarians have doubled
in number, from 2.1 per cent of the population in 1984 to 5 per cent in 1999,
according to a Realeat/Gallup poll. In the same poll, conducted in 1999,
45 per cent of respondents said they were eating less meat. These numbers
will grow. According to the Food Standards Agency's National Diet and Nutrition
Survey of young people, published in June 2000, roughly 10 per cent of girls
(between the ages of four and 18) said they were vegetarian or vegan; 1 per
cent of boys classed themselves as vegetarian.
Although 5 per cent may seem a small proportion, vegetarianism could rapidly
become more popular if the culling continues without a clearly stated justification
that has to do with something other than economics and market prices. An
RSPCA survey last year revealed that while 5 per cent of the population did
not eat meat, 25 per cent of the people polled said that farm animal welfare
was their number-one priority when choosing fresh meat. And a whopping 80
per cent said they would like to see better conditions for Britain's farm
There are three types of British vegetarians: those who have made a lifestyle
choice, those for whom it is a political stand, and those for whom it is
an ethical issue. Among those who have turned vegetarian because it is a
lifestyle they desire are the bourgeois bohemians, be they in Bayswater or
Belgravia. They might chew Brussels sprouts for breakfast and gulp down carrot
juice at lunch. Lighter eating to maintain their leaner physiques, accompanied
by chilled wines (which are vegetarian) and leafy salads, occasionally sprinkled
with Parmesan cheese, forms their diet. Preliminary scientific evidence linking
the legume-rich Mediterranean diet of pasta, red wine, salads, olives and
cheese with longevity has also convinced the Bobos to switch from meat to
vegetables. According to a 1998 report by the market research firm Taylor
Nelson Sofres for the Meat and Livestock Commission, about 18 per cent of
all "English" ready-cooked meals sold in the UK are vegetarian.
British vegetarians also include the granola bar-chewing, yogurt-consuming
counterculture crowd, which hopes the current crisis will convince more people
that large-scale, industrialised agriculture causes more harm than good.
(Vegetarian food is not free of industrialised agricultural methods, though;
the fear of consuming genetically modified vegetables has swayed some towards
And then there are the lifelong vegetarians among British Asians, many of
whom do not consume meat for reasons of tradition or religion. For Britain's
many Hindus, certain Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, there has never been any
option other than to eat vegetarian food. And Britain has an old link in
this regard: India's ascetic leader Mahatma Gandhi turned vegetarian while
living in Britain, after experimenting with meat-eating when he came here
to read law in the late 1880s.
One of the biggest fears meat-eaters have is that vegetarian food does not
contain all the necessary nutrients for healthy living. But in India, for
example,which is a predominantly Hindu country, the daily per capita food
intake in 1995 was 2,388 calories, of which vegetable products accounted
for 93 per cent. And yet, this caloric intake forms 108 per cent of the recommended
minimum requirement, judging by the standards of the Food and Agriculture
The meat industry is big and powerful - recall the vehemence with which Welsh
farmers lobbied against the appointment of an agriculture minister because
she was a vegetarian. But livestock farmers must know that even if vegetarianism
grows by a factor of two or three in Britain, it will still remain a minority
culture. And the meat industry need not fear vegetables: not only does roast
beef resonate with almost religious significance for many British, the favourite
Asian dish in this country is chicken tikka masala.
(c) The Author.