The UK is reportedly cutting down on its meat consumption. But you wouldn’t know it if you visited a street food market in London, where pulled pork and gourmet burgers reign supreme.
Google Trends reported that interest in vegan diets is up by 40%, with celebrity endorsements helping to give a more glamorous appeal to living off lentils. Food scares, like foot and mouth disease and the horse meat scandal, have made meat look less appealing to many Brits. Yet, when looking for an animal-free snack on the go in London, the pickings are slim and uninspiring. If the trend is truly towards a more vegan-influenced diet, then why is this not reflected in the street food scene?
Street food is on the rise in London. If traders are not setting trends, they very quickly embrace the latest craze with creativity and flair. Thanks to KERB, an organisation that has four regular markets across London, runs special events, consultancy and training for aspiring entrepreneurs, the quality of street food is improving, with sustainable practices such as ethical sourcing and eco-packaging big on the agenda. So why are traders so slow to pick up on the vegan street food trend? Petra Barran, founder of KERB says “right now the meat-in-a-bun formula is king – these traders have bigger queues and make more money.”
The bigger picture looks bleak. ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, a 2007 UN report, gave unequivocal evidence that the meat and dairy industry is the key driver of climate change. Subsequently our government has advised us to cut our consumption by 50% to avoid catastrophe. Add to that the exponential growth of the human population and you can see that feeding the world fairly and sustainably is one of the most challenging issues of our time. We’re already struggling. According to the World Health Organisation, there are around 1 billion people in the world hungry or malnourished and approximately the same number overweight or obese.
Meat and dairy is our most inefficient source of energy. 1kg of beef requires nearly 70 times more land to produce more than 1kg of vegetables, and a thousand times more water. Already a third of the earth’s surface is used for livestock production. The UN’s latest report suggests that with improved efficiency, the livestock industry could cut it’s emissions by 30%. But this only goes a certain way to solving the problem. It’s clear we need to change our eating habits.
But when put in these terms, it’s no wonder we see vegan food as moral and worthy instead of fun and tasty. When the necessary shift is seen as a sacrifice it creates the ‘biscuit effect’, lifting the offending foodstuff to the status of a naughty treat and depicting lowly vegan food as tasteless stuff that’s supposed to be good for us. This polarisation is evident in street food markets, where the lonely veggie stall is often eclipsed by long queues for pulled pork buns or Moroccan lamb wraps.
Rupert’s Street is one such vegan street food venture that stands out against the backdrop of grilled meat stalls in Camden Lock. Like the outsider at school, this bright yellow van sits on the outskirts of the food market. Emily Runc, the one-woman-crew behind the intrepid enterprise cheerily remarks, “I get a lot of passers by pointing and laughing.” She is unfazed, and is proving that a vegan business is viable, but every day she experiences ignorance and misconceptions about a vegan diet, and loses custom as a result. “Lots of people think vegan food is a bit worthy and boring”.
Despite this, Petra of KERB, is optimistic, “I feel like things are changing – we’re in a time of transformation.” She receives complaints if there are no vegetarian traders at a KERB market, and she’s always on the lookout for exciting vegetarian and vegan street food traders. “There aren’t that many of them around, and they’re not that amazing – they feel a bit old school.” So clearly there’s work to do.
Street food offers us an opportunity to take the good food message out to the masses – it’s where Londoners flock to expand their culinary horizons. At the cutting edge of the food scene, traders are able to adapt to change quickly. Surely this is where vegan food can make more of an impact? If restaurants such as The Gate and catering companies like Vegan Peasant are proving vegan dining can be sophisticated, indulgent and diverse, why can’t we see this level of innovation translated to street food?
Based on current trends, VegFest UK predict that by 2020 55% of Brits could be “mostly vegan.” Whether or not you think this is realistic or a good thing, greater choice is better for everyone. There’s a lack of expertise in vegan cooking, and perhaps a lack of faith in traders that a meat & dairy free dish will bring in the crowds. But we can’t rely solely on demand to drive supply. For the chefs out there – take a risk, take some classes, get creative and give it a try! For the vegans chefs in hiding – you have a gift, bring it forth! For all those vegans, ‘mostly vegans’, vegetarians and flexitarians – demand better vegan food from your markets. And carnivores – stop pointing and laughing and instead, sample the food before making your judgement. You might be surprised!
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