In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 17. Vegetarianism

How meat-free living entered the global mainstream

Vegetables, market

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the spotlight is on vegetarianism.

Vegetarianism in 60 seconds

In its simplest definition, vegetarianism is the practice of abstaining from eating meat, fish and any animal matter.

In the West, vegetarian is generally interpreted to mean ovo-lacto-vegetarianism, a diet that permits the consumption of eggs and dairy, but not meat or fish.

However, other forms exist. Followers of lacto-vegetarianism - the most common form of vegetarianism in India - avoid eating eggs as well as meat. 

Meanwhile, ovo-vegetarians avoid dairy products but continue to consume eggs. This form of vegetarianism is usually adopted in response to concerns over the industrial practices behind the production of milk.

Vegetarians also avoid food containing any part of an animal. This includes products containing gelatine, which is obtained from animal tissue, and rennet - an enzyme from the stomach lining of calves used in the production of some cheeses.

According to the Vegetarian Society, the most recent reliable data - gathered in 2012 - indicates that between 2% and 3% of people in the UK follow a strict vegetarian diet. 

A 2014 report by Friends of the Earth Europe and the Heinrich Boll Foundation put the total number of vegetarians worldwide at an estimated 375 million.

How did it develop?

Vegetarianism has a particularly long and rich history on the Indian subcontinent, where the first written references to the practice date back to 700BC. Today, around a third of Indians identify as vegetarian, mostly for religious reasons. 

In the West, religious restrictions on meat consumption were once common - the tradition of eating fish on Fridays has its roots in the Christian practice of abstaining from animal flesh on that day - but elective vegetarianism as a lifestyle has historically been a niche practice. 

However, there are recorded accounts of vegetarians in Ancient Greece, including the mathematician Pythagoras. In fact, until the term “vegetarian” was coined in the mid-19th century, “a meatless diet was referred to as a ‘Pythagorean diet’”, says History.com.

In the first half of the 19th century, “the backdrop of health reform, the temperance movement, and the rise of philanthropy set the scene for the convergence of groups that eventually formed the vegetarian movement”, says the Vegetarian Society.

Most early advocates of vegetarianism were motivated by religious considerations. Wary of the “brutalising” effect of eating meat, these pioneers believed that a vegetarian diet would create a more temperate, civilised and Christian society.

“The common impetus was a spiritual sense of clarity that was thought to be achieved by eating a diet void of flesh,” writes Heritage Radio Network’s Sari Kamin in an article for HuffPost.

From the late 1800s, secular converts began joining the cause, motivated by the perceived health benefits of a meat-free diet, a moral objection to the suffering of animals or by the popularity of philosophical movements advocating simple living and asceticism. 

Recent years have also seen the growth in popularity, both for health and environmental reasons, of “flexitarianism” - whereby followers eat a mostly vegetarian diet but do not forego meat altogether. 

How did it change the world?

The vegetarian movement has exercised an influence on the diets and eating habits of even people who do not abstain from meat.

“By the early 20th century, vegetarianism in the West was contributing substantially to the drive to vary and lighten the non-vegetarian diet,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica. Aided by the discovery of the first vitamin, in 1913, vegetables gradually gained recognition as a core component of a healthy diet, and as equally worthy of a cook’s attention as meat.

Vegetarianism also has a long association with social activism and moral reform. In the 19th century, the American Vegetarian Society’s journal “connected vegetarianism to a number of other reform movements, including women’s rights and the abolition of slavery”, says the Smithsonian magazine.

Since the mid-20th century, the vegetarian movement has become closely entwined with environmental activism, owing to the destructive ecological impact of industrial meat production and the comparative sustainability of a vegetarian lifestyle.

Frances Moore Lappe’s 1971 cookbook Diet for a Small Planet “is often credited for bringing vegetarianism into the mainstream”, says Food & Wine magazine. Reflecting a growing interest in environmental issues, the book emphasised how a vegetarian diet “limits human impact on the environment”.

Indeed, while vegetarianism “is generally perceived to be a new phenomenon, plant-based diets have deep historical roots, and a long-standing connection with the political left”, writes Sky Duthie, a PhD candidate in history at the University of York, in an article on The Conversation.

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