By Sylvain Charlebois (AIMS Senior Fellow)

Vegan groups are using billboards these days in the Atlantic region to denounce dairy farming practices, and telling consumers that dairy is scary. Some of these ads show a picture of a young calf, saying that someone “took it’s mom, it’s milk, then it’s life.” All this is to encourage people to switch to a plant-based diet. These billboards have attracted some attention, and based on some reports, they are about to spread across the country. Consumers here have not seen such ads in a few years, but it’s hard to imagine how they won’t fuel the divide between anti-meat advocates and barbecue enthusiasts, especially at this time of year.

Canada’s is home to about 460,000 vegans, according to the latest estimates by Dalhousie University. In addition, there are almost 2.7 million vegetarians in Canada. That number is increasing, and it’s estimated that the number of Canadians going meatless or eating less meat could exceed 10 million by 2025. The rise of plant-based diets has allowed vegans and others who follow meatless diets to come out of hiding. Most consumers adhering to a strict dietary regimen without meat have had to make most of their meals at home. In recent years, with the help of Beyond Meat and other players, plant-based diets are now more socially normalized. It’s trendy, it’s hip, and most important, it’s threatening the meat establishment across the country.

Beef producers in Quebec are now challenging the nomenclature of the plant-based category, stating that Beyond Meat, the name itself, is unlawful. It will be interesting to see how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency deals with this complaint. Given that Beyond Meat is in fact a brand and would be out of the agency’s scope of action, the Beyond Meat name will probably remain. The menace for the cattle industry is real, and many should expect a slew of plant-based products to enter the market.

But vegans, known to be consumers following a strict lifestyle and on a mission, have not been so vocal these past few years. Most of them were going about their business as the plant-based wave was unfolding. Historically, this group marched on a “meat is murder” campaign, and it worked for a small minority. Even if meat remains a moral issue for vegans, some research warns direct and intense moral appeals can work on some people, but backfire with others. And at this juncture, guilt and morality may backfire most of the time. Vegan groups should remember that many Canadians firmly believe veganism is a sort of cult, driven by ideologies. But science is telling us something different. Some studies have shown that the brain scans of vegans and omnivores differ from one another when the test subject is exposed to images of animal violence or suffering. We are all different, and we look at the ethical and moral issues around meat eating in different ways.

Companies known for their work in the meat sector now look at proteins overall as a new frontier. Maple Leaf, Cargill, Tyson, and Nestle are all embracing this plant-based tsunami as a new normal and are trying to figure out what the protein market will look like in the future. Things are much different now, and there is no going back. Plant-based diets are slowly going mainstream, whether we like it or not. The entire food supply chain, both ends of the food continuum, from farm to fork, are adapting to a consumer looking for alternative sources of protein.

But the ads used by vegan groups of late are destroying what the food industry is trying to accomplish, that is, offering a more diverse, democratic, supply of proteins to a highly fragmented marketplace. It is uncalled-for when vegan activists wilfully interfere with the livelihoods of farmers, and invade the social interactions of consumers celebrating food, whatever food they choose. Things have changed. When consumers are not respected for the food choices they make, it’s a setback. When farmers are not appreciated for the work they do and publicly shamed, everyone loses in the end.

If this group chooses to campaign, so be it. But if it’s done poorly and in bad taste, veganism has a lot to lose, as we all do. The market needs vegans who are rational, and who present their ideas thoughtfully, with the intent to educate, so that we can learn from each other. For the longest time, vegans were so provocative that they were, for the most part, systematically suppressed. Times have changed, and so should vegans’ style of advocating.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois

Senior Director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, Dalhousie University

Professor, Food Distribution and Policy, Faculties of Management and Agriculture, Dalhousie University.