When both Forbes and The Economist boldly dubbed 2019 the Year of the Vegan, the bar was set high: could we make enough measurable progress in a year to earn that title—or was the prediction fueled by little more than hope and the desperation and urgency so many of us feel? While it’s impossible to put the year’s most noteworthy developments into fifteen hundred words, below are some trends and developments from 2019 that got my attention, along with some thoughts about navigating our way through this unprecedented time. Happy New Year to each of you, and may you discover just how powerful you truly are in 2020 because the world needs your very best.
- The vegan burger business is insane.
On the business front, veganism is having its moment, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the fiercely competitive vegan burger space. Beyond Meat sells its burgers in America’s largest grocery chains: Whole Foods, Kroger, Safeway, Publix, Wegmans, Target, and Sprouts, and launched other products in KFC, Carl’s Jr., and Dunkin’ Donuts. Not to be outdone, the freakishly-like-beef Impossible Burger is on menus in 17,000 restaurants around the country AND is a menu staple at Burger Kings around the globe. Impossible was named the 4th fastest growing brand in the entire US by the brand-tracking company Morningconsult. Confirming that startling statistic, Grubhub’s “State of the Plate” reports that the Impossible Burger is their most popular late-night snack. (In fact, Grubhub’s biannual report speaks volumes about food trends in general. The report compiles data from an average of 500,000 orders per day, and in the first half of 2019, vegan food orders rose by 25% compared to the same period in 2018. But that ain’t nothin’ compared to Impossible Burger orders, which rose by 82% year over year. Extra pickles, hold the mayo, please!
Other huge brands naturally want a bite of this burger—for example both Nestle, the world’s largest food company, and Trader Joe’s, with over 500 stores nationwide, are introducing vegan burgers. Nestle’s is the Awesome burger; Trader Joe’s hopefully tastes better than it sounds (Protein Patties: really?) In short, I’m hardly a food analyst, but it seems to me that plant-based burgers are poised to imitate, if not exceed, the dairy aisle transition that’s happening before our eyes.
- In the restaurant and grocery industries, there’s progress everywhere you look.
The burger wars have captured our attention, but there’s tremendous forward movement in the restaurant and grocery sectors. A few highlights: Taco Bell is launching a dedicated vegetarian menu board to help customers order meatless. A Hungarian brand called Plantcraft will soon distribute its vegan deli meats – pepperoni, salami, and ham—throughout the U.S, and Disney has added over 400 vegan dishes to its restaurant menus. The numbers tell the story rather neatly: while the retail food sector grew by 2 percent in the last year, the vegan food sector grew by 11 percent. The sale of plant-based milks alone grew 6 percent in a single year, while cow milk sales continued to drop in 2019.
- Other industries got on the vegan train.
In 2019, exciting developments weren’t limited to food: many occurred in other industries. The newest automotive trend, for instance, is vegan interiors, with luxury brands like Porsche, Tesla, Jaguar, and the SUV Range Rover offering 100% vegan interiors. Desserto, a Mexican company, recently showcased their line of organic leather made from the prickly pear cactus, while pop icon/designer Kanye West’s Yeezy brand, considered one of the most influential sneaker brands in the world, is introducing a shoe made from algae. Macy’s has pledged to stop selling any items containing fur by the end of 2020, and the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, is discontinuing the sale of live fish in its 1,700 stores. (This is a big deal, folks: according to fish supplier Pet Business, Walmart accounted for nearly one-third of tropical fish sales in the U.S.). Finally, it will be much easier to find vegan makeup in 2020, as 40 new makeup companies—including popular brands Cover Girl, Bare Minerals, Dermablend, and Physicians Formula—joined over 100 others in going fully cruelty-free: they neither test on animals nor use animal products in their makeup. For the glass half-full folks, these pockets of progress matter. Our work is working.
- 2019 saw political progress.
New York City, which became the first city in the country to have a dedicated Office of Animal Welfare; in Denmark, which just adopted a climate law to cut emissions by 70% in the next decade, and in an agreement between 14 big-city mayors (including Paris, Los Angeles, London, Seoul, Tokyo, and Toronto) to be “good food cities” by dramatically reducing their cities’ meat consumption.
Ushering in a compassionate world is tough work: we need the silver linings. So again for you optimists (guilty…usually), we did make extraordinary progress in 2019, especially in the food space. But 2019 was also a clarion call to humanity as the wholesale exploitation of animals and destruction of our environment continued, largely unabated and definitely under-reported. The consequences to all of us—humans, animals, and the planet we share? Read on.
- The Trump administration’s assault on animals continued under the radar in 2019.
It included the removal of maximum line speed at pig slaughterhouses. This rule was passed despite 87% public opposition, and will mean even greater error, even greater barbarism as workers try desperately to stun and kill over twenty pigs per minute. A second rule has opened seven National Wildlife Refuges to hunting and fishing previously closed to those activities, and expanded hunting and sport fishing at seventy other NWRs. Finally, rule revisions have gutted the Endangered Species Act, and thus threaten the lives of countless endangered animals.
- Climate change ravaged our planet with accelerating speed and consequence.
A year ago, the United Nation’s climate report—a document that synthesized the findings of hundreds of scientists from around the world, predicted that we had a dozen years before cataclysmic changes that threatened broad swaths of humanity became the new normal. The most recent report, however, points out that nations aren’t on track to meet the greenhouse gas reduction goals set in Paris in 2015, and that emissions must fall by 7.6% a year across the world to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The scenario isn’t pretty. Some of the year’s headlines include:
- The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, contributing not only to sea level rise but to “cascading impacts on the regional food web.”
- Weather changes are so chaotic that meteorologists in many nations—Peru, Mozambique, Bangladesh, and others–are unable to accurately predict life-threatening weather conditions.
- The Amazon is still burning uncontrollably. For the first nine months of 2019, 85% more rainforest had been chopped down and burned (to make room for cows) than in the same period last year: 70,000 wildfires are the consequence of that practice. Many of the fires escape into virgin forest, threatening millions of animals as well as humans.
- Birds are getting smaller and growing longer wings: A study reported in the journal Science concludes that “ecological changes” are the primary culprits. The jury is out as to how many bird species will adapt quickly enough to survive in an increasingly hostile environment.
- As Australia roasts under record-breaking heat, the BBC reports that many of the fires are “too big to put out.”
- In Brazil, the first few months of 2019 saw half a billion bees drop dead in just four southern states, thanks to the dramatically increased use of pesticides under President Bolsonaro. A bill currently before Congress will relax standards further, allowing the use of substances manufactured by industry giants, including Monsanto.
Is 2019 the year veganism “went mainstream” as predicted by Forbes? My personal view is no: we didn’t get there. Whether we can turn this ship around is looking less likely with every passing day. In fact, the odds are insanely against us. But that harsh truth doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. In fact, in my view, it makes each of us more responsible for doing all in our power to help straighten this mess out, because god knows the animals can’t help themselves. Neither can the planet. Only you and I can—with every decision we make, with every action we take. Among the most powerful, of course, is to be a peaceful warrior, a passionate advocate for plant-based living.
History, mythology, literature, and cinema all offer examples of good conquering evil…of the little guy emerging, victorious, despite overwhelming odds. So does my own life. So yes: I know for sure that sometimes the little guys do win. I feel the tailwinds behind us, and I do believe in tipping points. But I’ve come to understand that whether my glass is half full or half empty is irrelevant: I’m human. I’m American. I’m middle-class. I have friends and family who love me. No matter my perspective, I’m among the luckiest beings alive. It’s time to recenter and get back to work.
Happy New Year from the two and four-legged at Catskill Animal Sanctuary.
P.S. Please join me on my weekly podcast, All Beings Considered.