by Enza Ferreri
History and progress of UK vegetarianism
"I launched out in search of a vegetarian restaurant [in London 1887], I would trot ten or twelve miles each day, go into a cheap restaurant and eat my fill of bread, but would never be satisfied. During these wanderings I once hit a vegetarian restaurant in Farringdon Street. The sight of it filled me with the same joy that a child feels on getting a thing after its own heart." [Emphasis added]
This is an extract from a speech delivered by Gandhi at a Social Meeting organised by the London Vegetarian Society on 20 November 1931.
We've come a long way since then. Being a vegetarian especially in London, but also in Britain in general, has now become very common, and life for vegetarians is easy, with restaurants, hotels, products catering exclusively for them or also for them.
In the United Kingdom, the Food Standards Agency issues guidance for food labelling by manufacturers and caterers that makes it easier for vegetarians to identify foods suitable for them.
The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom is the oldest vegetarian organisation in the world. Many celebrities are vegetarian, including Stella McCartney who is one of the patrons of the Vegetarian Society, as well as her father Sir Paul McCartney. She says:
"Every week in the UK, many thousands of people are rejecting traditional meat-based meals in favour of something that's fresh, delicious, satisfying, healthy, kinder and good for the environment. Vegetarian food offers this and so much more …
"Welcome to the most delicious, most talked about, fastest growing food trend of the new millennium - vegetarianism."
Interestingly, Gandhi himself became a vegetarian by choice, as opposed to cultural tradition and upbringing, after having read Plea for Vegetarianism, a book by the British author Henry Salt, a true pioneer who also wrote Animals' Rights, one of the first books ever appeared on the subject. Here is the continuation of Gandhi's speech at the London Vegetarian Society meeting, quoted above:
"I saw among them Salt's Plea for Vegetarianism. This I purchased for a shilling and went straight to the dining room. This was my first hearty meal since my arrival in England ...
"From the date of reading this book, I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice. I blessed the day on which I had taken the vow before my mother. I had all along abstained from meat in the interests of truth and of the vow I had taken, but had wished at the same time that every Indian should be a meat-eater, and had looked forward to being one myself freely and openly some day, and to enlisting others in the cause. The choice was now made in favour of vegetarianism, the spread of which henceforward became my mission."
How many vegetarians are in the UK?
Here are some statistics. In the 10 years between 1993 and 2003, the number of vegetarians in the UK had practically doubled.
A recent survey of the market for vegetarian foods found that in the last few years vegetarianism has still continued to increase at a slower rate in the UK, and there are now 3.8 million people (6% of the population) saying that they are mainly vegetarian, i.e. eating fish but not meat, and another 1.9 million (3% of people) describe themselves as completely vegetarian, i.e. eating neither meat nor fish.
Still according to the same market research - generally the most reliable kind of research, because people who invest and risk money want to know the truth,
"in recent years, vegetarian foods have made a move into the mainstream food retail market, with a number of the large multiple retailers, such as Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury's and Morrisons, launching their own vegetarian ranges. Furthermore, the number of vegetarian restaurants in the UK has continued to increase over the past few years, with 30 premium restaurants now in operation, up 50% since 2007."
According to the European Vegetarian Union, Britain has the third highest rate of vegetarianism in the European Union. The country with the the highest rate is Italy with over 6 million vegetarians, or 10% of the population, followed by Germany, with 9% of the population.
The reasons why the growth in the number of UK vegetarians has slowed down after the 1990s peak rate could be various. There have been many food scares associated with meat consumption in the 1990s which have contributed to the unsual growth rate of vegetarianism in those years. Also, the mass immigration of recent years to Britain from Third World countries with no awareness of animal rights or welfare may have changed the composition of the UK population in a way unfavourable to a vegetarian diet.
On the other hand, immigration has brought to this island the pervasive presence of halal meat from animals killed without previous stunning according to the Islamic ritual method of slaughter. Many non-Muslims abhor this cruel practice that makes animals suffer unnecessarily by letting them be slaughtered fully conscious.
There is 5 times as much halal meat as number of Muslims in the country, the labelling is unclear and many non-Muslims involuntarily end up eating halal. This has led many British people to increasingly avoid meat altogether.
A recent trend is also that of people who are partially - in the sense of part-time - vegetarian, meaning that they reduce the quantity of meat they used to eat: marketeers have created labels like "meat-reducers" and "meat-avoiders" for people who reduce or avoid meat not necessarily for ethical reasons concerning farm animals but for health or climate change, and a survey identifyed the former as 23% of the population and the latter as 10%.
Some social groups are more vegetarian than others. In a poll of 1,051 university and college students in 2002, 8% of students claimed to be vegetarian: 11% of females, 4% of males. And 20% of the vegetarians in the study did not eat eggs.
To avoid semantic confusion, maybe it's useful to remind ourselves the definition of the words "vegetarian" and "vegan":
A vegetarian is a person who does not eat any kind of meat or fish.
There are two fundamental types of vegetarian:
- ovo-lacto vegetarian, who eats egg and dairy products in addition to foods of purely vegetable origin
- vegan, who only eats products of entirely vegetable source."
Enza Ferreri is an Italian web author, Philosophy graduate and former journalist living in London.
Email: ehg89 at britaingallery dot com
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