New research finds up to one in five New Zealanders now prefers a plant-based diet – eliciting a bloody-minded response from the meat industry
Danny Osborne and his family will be throwing a few vegetarian burgers on the barbie this weekend, for their Christmas dinner. “All of the food will be vegetarian because I’m cooking!” says the University of Auckland psychology professor. “We decided on burgers because it’s simple and a people-pleaser—who doesn’t like BBQed burgers?”
He’s an expat American, so he’ll serve warm pumpkin pie as well. And his 7-year-old daughter Aurora will probably make vegetarian s’mores – melted Whittaker’s chocolate with toasted vegan marshmallows between two Vanilla Wine biscuits.
Their family is among the 19 percent of New Zealanders who choose a plant-based vegetarian or vegan diet, according to a Kantar survey of 1,517 New Zealanders, commissioned in partnership with the Sustainable Business Council.
Indeed, Fortune Business Insights reports the growth of plant-based alternative proteins is taking a bite out of the meat market in the developed world – but you wouldn’t know it from the PR spin in this country.
This week RNZ, the NZ Herald and Newshub all reported that lamb was the Christmas dinner of choice for 38.3 percent of respondents to the Great Kiwi Christmas Survey, followed closely behind by ham at 35.0 percent, and beef at 13.1 percent. Turkey, chicken, fish and venison rounded up the numbers to an impressive 100.2 percent of respondents eating meat on Christmas Day.
The survey was commissioned by Beef + Lamb NZ. “It’s no surprise that New Zealand lamb will be the centrepiece for many Kiwis as they celebrate the festive season,” said chief executive Kit Arkwright in the media statement.
Now, a roast leg of lamb may well be popular – but not to that extent. Extraordinarily, not a single one of the 1,040 respondents ticked the “vegetarian” box.
But the Beef + Lamb survey was somewhat different from the Kantar research, which randomly selected 1,517 New Zealanders to provide a nationally representative sample by age, gender and region.
In stark contrast, the Beef + Lamb survey wasn’t conducted by an independent research company but rather, was run on the meat industry group’s website. So contrary to the press release, it didn’t represent Kiwi Christmas dinners at all.
And who was invited to complete it?
“We promoted the survey through social media channels and sent the survey to those people who had signed up to receive information from us,” concedes Lisa Moloney, the promotions manager for Retail Meat NZ and Beef + Lamb NZ.
Ina Babic from the Vegetarian Society is scathing, saying that’s skewed the data. “I guarantee that if we did the same with our followers the majority would say that they are having a vegetarian Christmas!”
Beyond illustrating the crude spin used to reassert the place of farmed meat in New Zealand’s collective memory, this week’s Great Kiwi Christmas Survey highlights a certain insecurity. Plant-based eating is on the rise, even in this, the erstwhile Farm of the British Empire, and it’s a small but niggling threat to our economic security.
Dairy and milk soar as tourism revenues plummet in pandemic
Very small, at this time. Meat earned New Zealand $9.1 billion in export revenues in the year to March 2022. Plant-based protein? Pfft.
But there are reasons to think it might provide an increased challenge. Farmers will have to get on board, or risk handing a sunset industry to their children.
Fortune Business Insights reports that the global vegan food market is projected to grow from US$26.16b (NZ$41.6b) last year to US$61.35b (NZ$97.6b) in 2028 – a growth rate of 12.95 percent a year. We've seen globally renowned investors and philanthropists like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Al Gore plough their cash into meat substitutes and alternative dairy products.
In New Zealand, one of the country's most loved food brands Wattie's is investing hard and fast in its Plant Proteinz "vegetarian friendly" brand, which it launched in 2020. Startups like Sunfed and Plan*t are expanding their exports and domestic sales. Supermarkets are devoting more shelf space to alternative proteins.
The Fortune Business Insights report on the vegan food market says the Covid-19 pandemic "significantly impacted" the dietary behaviour of consumers. In the early stages, consumers stockpiled both meat-based and meat-free products, straining the production and supply of all kinds of food.
Gradually, companies ramped up production scale to meet consumers' growing demand for vegan food. "Health and wellness became the two crucial factors contributing to their shift in purchase patterns, causing a rise in the sales of these vegan products in the global market.
"E-commerce platforms for selling food products also grew during that period. Delivery services also saw a surge in vegan food delivery during the Covid-19 pandemic, owing to a high numbers of consumers adopting a healthy lifestyle while working from home."
"Food chains, fine dining restaurants, and food manufacturers such as Amy's Kitchen Inc are launching new products and vegan food recipes, keeping in mind the growing demand in the market."
– Fortune Business Insights
Beef + Lamb NZ has highlighted findings from a 30-person human clinical trial undertaken for the Pasture Raised Advantage research programme (involving AgResearch, the University of Auckland, Massey University and the Riddet Institute) finding that red meat delivers more of the essential protein building blocks compared to plant-based alternative.
But unhelpfully to our beef and lamb farmers, the Fortune report also highlights evidence of plant-based diets being healthier. "Adoption of a vegan diet helps to reduce weight, improves blood flow, and reduces the chance of cardiovascular disease," it says. "A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine Journal states that people who adopt a vegan lifestyle have a higher life expectancy than those who adopt a meat-based diet.
Investors like Gates and alternative protein producers such as Plan*t are both attempting to lead consumer preferences, and respond to already increasing demand. "Food chains, fine dining restaurants, and food manufacturers such as Amy's Kitchen Inc are launching new products and vegan food recipes, keeping in mind the growing demand in the market."
"While ham, chicken and turkey continue to be popular choices for the Christmas table, plant-based protein options are up nearly 30 percent on the same time last year."
– Spencer Sonn, Countdown
The Kantar Better Futures report 2022 shows the proportion of the New Zealand population choosing entirely or mostly plant-based diets rising to 19 percent by the end of last year.
And it says Covid has allowed consumers time to experiment with dietary options. It finds that 16 percent of consumers have become more willing to try vegetarian or vegan options.
Countdown, which operates 185 supermarkets the length of the country, issued a statement last week highlighting a move towards "plant-based feasting" this holiday season. "While ham, chicken and turkey continue to be popular choices for the Christmas table, plant-based protein options are up nearly 30 percent on the same time last year."
The Kantar survey is new and big, but it's not the only data on the rates at which New Zealanders are turning to plant-based diets. Danny Osborne, an associate psychology professor at the University of Auckland, points to the latest wave of data from the long-running NZ Attitudes and Values Study national probability study of social attitudes, personality and health outcomes of more than 60,000 New Zealanders.
From that, he concludes approximately 6.5% of New Zealanders are either vegan or vegetarian. An additional 3.5 percent of consumers don't eat red meat, this study finds. By this study, Beef + Lamb NZ has lost one in 10 New Zealand consumers; by the Kantar survey, it's lost nearly one in 20.
He likens Beef + Lamb NZ's Great Kiwi Christmas Survey to one of the most notorious survey fails of all time – leading to the infamous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline on the front page of the Chicago daily paper on the US presidential election day in 1948.
"The Chicago Daily Tribune oversampled Republicans (as it was a Republican-leaning newspaper) by conducting the survey solely over the telephone (at the time, phones were a bit of a luxury owned by those who were wealthy, who also tend to be more likely to vote Republican) and projected the wrong winner," Osborne says.
"It seems the meat industry may have done a similar thing here—by surveying meat eaters, it’s only obvious they’d find no vegetarians."
"A recent decline in meat consumption will reflect some attitudinal shifts like environmental concern. But I bet it also reflects really pragmatic things like how much meat costs! It's really expensive to eat meat as much as New Zealanders traditionally have."
– Prof Marc S Wilson, Victoria University of Wellington
Truman handily defeated Dewey in the election once the ballots were counted and two months later at his inauguration, he announced his "Fair Deal" to provide all Americans with health insurance, increase the minimum wage and guarantee equal rights for all.
And vegetarians may yet have the last laugh over Beef + Lamb NZ, as climate change puts pressure on livestock agriculture.
Osborne is one of the academic authors of To meat, or not to meat: A longitudinal investigation of transitioning to and from plant-based diets. It examines the prevalence, predictors, and annual change in the self-reported dietary behaviour of a large national probability sample of New Zealand adults – categorised as omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan.
According to one of his lead co-authors, Professor Marc S Wilson at Victoria University of Wellington, there's been an international increase in people either shifting to a plant-based diet, or reducing their meat consumption. He says the 6.5 percent of New Zealanders describing themselves as vegetarian or vegan shows an increase in meatless diets over the past 10 years.
"I think it's likely that there has been an even bigger decline in meat consumption than this suggests because people who eat meat have been anecdotally cutting down on how much meat they consume," Wilson says.
"While reasons like the ethics of eating animals, or wanting to be healthy, have long been given by meat-abstainers (and meat-eaters as it happens) for their dietary behaviour, there's been an increase over the past 20 years in concern about the environmental impact of meat production," he adds.
That appears to be driving the increase in vegetarianism, veganism and flexitarianism, even more so among women.
Men, especially politically conservative men, are more likely to eat red meat. "Yup, National and Act supporters are those people who're going to be eating venison come Christmas dinner," Wilson says. "Greens and Labour voters are more likely to be hitting the Tofurkey."
The New Zealand economy has long relied on animal production, he says, so it's no surprise that like the rest of the developed world, New Zealanders consume a lot of meat. "It's even the case that eating meat in New Zealand is seen as patriotic, and meat-abstention means you're a traitor to your nation! At least, that's what Gerry Brownlee said on radio some years back..."
The recent decline in meat consumption will reflect some attitudinal shifts like environmental concern, he concludes.
"But I bet it also reflects really pragmatic things like how much meat costs! It's really expensive to eat meat as much as New Zealanders traditionally have. And this is important to remember – what people eat is heavily driven by their psychology, but also by prosaic things like cost, availability, habit, and even whether we know how to cook something vegetarian!"