How often do you eat meat? Every day? Two or three times a week?
Not long ago this was not the kind of question that needed to be asked of any but the most impoverished or religiously observant. Even if the protein in question came from unfashionable parts of the animal and in very small pieces, meat was part of a carnivore’s daily diet. And, at least in Western Europe and countries that spoke English, there weren’t many other kinds of vores to be found.
Today, of course, any dinner party with four or five couples probably includes at least one vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian or someone who doesn’t want to be difficult but they simply don’t eat red meat. Vegans used to be rare. Today, their numbers are growing sufficiently quickly for supermarkets to have launched private-label ranges of meat-free foods. Ellen DeGeneres, Woody Harrelson and Ariana Grande are all vegans; Beyoncé and Jay-Z joined their number for 22 days.
But those two superstars were lightweights compared with the people who gave up meat for more than four weeks as part of something called Veganuary. This year, no fewer than 168,000 individuals went online and took this pledge, 50 times more than the 3,300 who signed up when the concept was launched five years ago.
Before you become too impressed by those statistics, however, you should pause to consider the fact that, in the UK, alone, according to a YouGov poll, some 3m people gave up alcohol during Dry January.
The idea of eschewing food or drink for a limited length of time is, of course, hard-wired into many religions, with concepts such as Ramadan, Passover, Lent and Ekadashi. But in today’s increasingly fluid world, there’s the far less structured notion of flexitarianism. Without the help of any rules or calendars, flexitarians switch back and forth between full-on mid-week veganism and more occasional consumption of beef. Between the two extremes, they happily tuck into substitutes such as the strips of ‘chicken’ made from plant-based proteins by Beyond Meat, the California business backed by Leonardo DiCaprio and Bill Gates.
I don’t know what the liquid equivalent of flexitarianism is called, but it’s a trend of which the wine industry needs to be a lot more aware. People who might once have routinely gone to a pub or bar on their way home every night for a beer or a cocktail are now just as likely to head for the gym. When they do drink, the liquid in their glass – in the UK at least – might be the ironically named Nanny State ale, whose alcoholic strength weighs in at a near-negligible 0.5 percent.
In Britain, sales of Nanny State almost doubled over the course of a year to hit £2m ($2.6m). Another even more innovative product, Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirit in which Diageo has a 20% stake, sells for the price of a premium gin. Sales projections for 2019 are of a million bottles.
To avoid calamitous climate change, we must all eat less meat. If we are to believe the doctors, we also have to reduce our alcohol intake, and one way of doing that will be to have more booze-free days.
In France, this trend has been apparent for some time. Forty years ago, about half of the French adult population had a glass or two of wine with almost every meal. Since then, the number of French men and women who drink wine daily has dropped steadily to the point at which this is true of only 16%. A third describes themselves as non-drinkers, with the remainder – a bit more than half – saying that their wine consumption is now occasional.
Thirty-seven out of every 100 French men and women now drink wine once or twice a week.
One of the characteristics of flexitarians is that, when they do eat meat, they apparently tend to pay greater attention to its provenance and quality. And they pay more for it. This may have worrying implications for factory farmers focused on churning out cheap animal-based protein.
But the same lessons surely apply to the wine industry, far too much of which relies on a cheap, grape-based beverage. We have all been talking about people drinking less but better, but bulk wine prices do not really reflect that trend. Perhaps that’s going to have to change.