Data from Google AdWords show that vegan-related searches shot up by 47 per cent in 2020. Clearly, people, forced to examine their lifestyle in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, were curious and willing to ditch meat, and adopt a plant-based dietary habit.
This pattern is evident in India, whose mock meat industry is set to reach $1 billion in the coming five years. So, due to the heightened health consciousness together with the diverse plant species, soil varieties and weather conditions, veganism is set to defang India’s meat and dairy industries.
It was astounding how I was suddenly spoilt for choice as a vegan. A cursory scroll through my Instagram feed highlighted the spike in vegan options. Epigamia launched four new flavours of vegan yoghurt. Baskin Robbins’ new vegan ice-cream flavours were particularly pleasing. I also stumbled upon a new vegan cheese brand, called Angelo’s Vegan Cheese, whose owner Aditya Angelo Fernandes launched his business during the pandemic. “I got a hundred orders (via Instagram) in the first week. The next week, I had two-hundred orders,” he said.
Some existing vegan businesses also noticed their widening reach. Nitya, co-owner of Dittoo Ice Creams, was prepared to shut shop once the lockdown was imposed. However, she and her business partner Deeksha were pleasantly surprised. “Within the first 15 days of lockdown, we got so many orders, we were shocked. We definitely have more new customers,” Nitya said.
However, vegan businesses in India do not always have the luxury of a smooth upward trajectory. I was disappointed to find that some of my go-to vegan hubs such as Carrots (India’s first vegan restaurant) and House of Seitan (a favourite among Bengaluru vegans for its juicy mock meat burgers) shut down due to the pandemic. But Roma Roy, the owner of House of Seitan, managed to keep her vegan entrepreneurial drive alive. She is entering retail with her new brand Evolved Foods, which makes substitutes for paneer and meat.
The business potential for veganism appears so promising that many mainstream non-vegan restaurants have veganisable options now. For instance, Bengaluru’s Nuage Patisserie and Delhi’s Rose Cafe have vegan menus. Many non-vegan entrepreneurs have established their own vegan-friendly businesses. Aloha Drinking Chocolate, which is gaining popularity for its array of vegan chocolate indulgences, is owned by Mansi Shah, who isn’t a vegan. She said, “I really want to support the ideology and care for animals even if I don’t have the willpower to do so myself.”
The dairy livelihoods
The meat and dairy industry are intricately linked, and act as a support system for the marginalised communities of India. These industries pay the daily wages of many poor Indians. The dairy industry alone employs 8.47 million people.
This raises a potent concern — what about their livelihoods?
Given that a sudden en-masse shift to veganism is unlikely, this needn’t be a pressing concern. Roma explained, “You can always create jobs. Now, we are using only 8 per cent of plant protein. There are 841 varieties of seaweed in our coastlines. Agriculture can be saved if money is funnelled in the right places.”
However, such a transition is bound to come with collateral damage in the form of job loss. Moreover, I cannot imagine circumventing the communal discourse surrounding beef, or the cultural and religious significance of dairy in India. Nitya and I chuckled at the far-fetched possibility of Indians performing palabhishekam with plant-based milk. Shirin Shariyari, an activist who is known on Instagram as ‘Aware Avocado’, says that “people’s inseparable love for milk” is the biggest impediment to the growth of veganism in India.
Elitism is a regrettable tattoo that veganism seemingly cannot remove. Veganism by default is associated with one litre of almond milk worth Rs 300, or pricier meat substitutes. I personally never had to break the bank to stay vegan. Home-cooked vegetarian meals without dairy was accessible to me. However, some find it financially draining. Parsa Dorbiegi, a 29-year-old teacher from Bengaluru, explained that this was the sole reason he couldn’t remain vegan. “Plant-based protein is too expensive, especially in India, and I can’t afford it,” he said.
Deficiencies with plant-based diet
Another hurdle is the supposed nutritional deficiency of a plant-based diet. My mother constantly fretted about my health when I first went vegan. She was upset and argued that a B12 supplement had to be incorporated into my diet, which, to me, was a reasonable trade-off for choosing an ethical lifestyle.
There is a lot of back and forth in the medical community regarding plant-based diets and health. According to the British Dietetic Association, well-planned vegan diets “support healthy living in people of all ages”. However, many studies have found that an ill-planned plant-based diet can have its deficits. A recent study found that vegans are at a higher risk of vitamin deficiencies such as B12, D, zinc, iron and calcium.
Jayashree Satvalli, a vegan Ayurvedic physician, says that a balanced plant-based diet can be nutritionally beneficial. However, one is more prone to deficiencies and it is better to be watchful.”
She added that a meat-centric diet does not assure nutritional sufficiency but being watchful of some vitamins is a small price to pay for the animals that can be saved and the many health benefits that can be gained. She said, “Viruses will come and go, but we can prevent pandemics like this, which are zoonotic.”
But one pressing question remains — months into the pandemic, multivitamin tablets were abandoned in cabinets, and social gatherings resumed. Will veganism maintain its momentum?
The pandemic has flipped a switch in the minds of many in favour of veganism. Newspapers carry articles about the best vegan sweet recipes for the Diwali season and the chicness of vegan leather. There are countless vegan launches that make this lifestyle more palatable. Evidently, veganism is gaining popularity in a niche crowd. But, this has created a burgeoning vegan market, and as demand increases, so will the accessibility of such a lifestyle. It doesn’t seem naïve to picture a future where the common people are gorging on tofu curry with unbuttered naan.
The author is a student at the Azim Premji University. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)