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Sylvain CharleboisVegan groups are using billboards in the Atlantic region to denounce dairy farming practices and tell consumers that dairy is scary.

Some of these ads show a young calf with a caption that says someone “took its mom, its milk, then its life.”

The intention is to encourage people to switch to a plant-based diet.

The billboards may be about to spread across the country. But it’s easy to believe they’ll widen the divide between anti-meat advocates and barbecue enthusiasts, especially at this time of year.

About 460,000 Canadians are vegans, according to the latest estimates by Dalhousie University. In addition, almost 2.7 million Canadians are vegetarians. And it’s estimated that the number of Canadians going meatless or eating less meat could exceed 10 million by 2025.

The rise of plant-based diets has allowed those who follow meatless diets to come out of hiding. Until recently, most consumers adhering to a strict non-meat regimen had to make most of their meals at home. But in recent years, with the help of Beyond Meat and other players, plant-based diets have become more socially normalized.

It’s trendy, it’s hip and – most important – it’s threatening the meat establishment across the country.

Beef producers in Quebec are now challenging the nomenclature of the plant-based category, stating that the name Beyond Meat itself is unlawful. It will be interesting to see how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency deals with this complaint. Given that Beyond Meat is a brand and out of the agency’s scope of action, the name will probably remain.

But the menace for the cattle industry is real and we should expect a slew of plant-based products to enter the market.

Vegans, who often follow a strict lifestyle with missionary zeal, were mostly going about their business as the plant-based wave was unfolding. However, this group has launched meat-is-murder campaigns in the past that worked on a small minority.

Even if meat remains a moral issue for vegans, some research warns direct and intense moral appeals only work on some people and backfire with others. And at this juncture, guilt and morality may backfire most of the time. Vegan groups should remember that many Canadians firmly believe veganism is a sort of cult, driven by ideologies.

But science is telling us something different. Some studies show that the brain scans of vegans and omnivores differ when the test subject is exposed to images of animal violence or suffering. We’re all different – we look at the ethical and moral issues around eating meat in different ways.

Companies known for their work in the meat sector now look at proteins overall as a new frontier. Maple Leaf, Cargill, Tyson and Nestle are all embracing this plant-based tsunami as a new normal and are trying to figure out the future protein market.

There’s no going back. Plant-based diets are slowly going mainstream, whether we like it or not. The entire food supply chain, from farm to fork, is adapting to a consumer looking for alternative sources of protein.

But these recent pro-vegan ads are destroying the food industry’s efforts to offer a more diverse, democratic supply of proteins to a highly fragmented marketplace.

Vegan activists are wilfully interfering with the livelihoods of farmers and invading the social interactions of consumers celebrating food, whatever food they choose.

When consumers aren’t respected for their food choices, it’s a setback. When farmers aren’t appreciated for the work they do and publicly shamed, everyone loses.

This group can certainly campaign. But if the campaign is done poorly and in bad taste, veganism has a lot to lose – as we all do.

The market needs vegans who are rational and who present their ideas thoughtfully, with the intent to educate, so we can learn from each other.

For the longest time, vegans were so provocative that they were mostly systematically suppressed. Times have changed and so should vegans’ style of advocating.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

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vegan, activists, food, meat, farmers, plant-based, diet

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