Science and society

What would it take to create a vegetarian Britain?

So one thing I’ve wondered on an off for the past several years – what are the chances that Britain will become predominantly vegetarian. This may seem far-fetched, but it is precisely the kind of long term foresighting exercise of interest to policy makers and society planners. The idea of a vegetarian society is one I discussed with some friends on a train recently, my thoughts in this instance prompted in part by the recent media coverage of Labour’s shadow environment secretary on establishing public campaigns on eating meat, similar to the campaigns against smoking. Now keeping in mind that I myself am an unapologetic meat eater (I do believe there are ethical and sustainable approaches to being one), in my view there are several considerations that might lead to a more vegetarian society, and indeed possibly one that is predominantly so:

  1. The numbers of vegetarians and vegans is on the rise, at least according to some news stories, suggesting that the total proportion of people who might consider these as viable options, has no obvious upper limit;
  2. With this growing number, vegetarian food options become more plentiful, and more appetising;
  3. The “urban-rural divide”, in particular as related to an understanding of where food comes from would suggest that moral arguments about the ethicality of killing of animals for food may become more persuasive;
  4. There are increased concerns over the contributions of livestock to global warming;
  5. There are increased concerns over the health risks associated with excessive red meat and processed meat consumption in particular.

Each one of these factors alone may not be sufficient to cause a mass move to vegetarianism, but together, could they create a non-linear  “perfect storm“? So what are the counter-arguments? I haven’t look in any detail at this, but as far as I can tell, arguments in its favour primarily amount to (i) we like it and (ii) we have ‘always’ done so.  The fact that the majority of people do makes it hard for most of us to imagine that meat eating could ever be in a minority (and I’ve had this discussion with a few people). And yet consider how rapidly smoking when from being a slightly frowned upon by many practice, but one that was widely accepted, to one where smokers are in many ways considered pariahs. Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 22.42.40Going a bit farther back, I remember in Canada when drinking and driving was considered acceptable and indeed quite funny; in some places it still is. But now, and this all happened quite rapidly, drinking and driving is completely unacceptable – at least in the segments of society I am familar with. Sea changes in behavour like this are surprisingly common, though often unanticipated – they are examples of percolation phenomenon. Of course percolation is only a description of the phenomenon, what causes them are possibly ‘game-theoretic‘ like responses to circumstances, where individual behaviour is influenced by the actions and behaviour of those around them (and something a colleague, Jess Enright and I, looked at in the context of farmers, trading behaviour and biosecurity recently). When sufficient conditions are reached, percolative changes can occur.


Mouldy bread. When the individual patches of mould grow to the point where they become a large patch that extends across the slice of bread, they become a spanning population, and the patch of mould passes through a ‘percolation threshold’.

A vegetarian Britain might not be likely; on the other hand, if you are a meat eater (like me), don’t be surprised if some day your children view you as a carnivorous dinosaur, and you are relegated to eating in a corner of the restaurant away from normal, civilised people.