Plant-based diets in Central Europe and the COP27 food focus6 min read
For the first time, the climate change summit COP hosted several pavilions devoted to food. For example, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Pavilion agenda considered the food shortages that are likely to occur if governments remain on the same path. Another pavilion, Food 4 Climate, was led by animal welfare organisations and openly discussed plant-based diets, among other food-related topics.
One’s diet, if multiplied by millions, represents a significant way to slow down climate change, for instance by limiting the carbon and methane emissions of livestock. The latter is a highly potent greenhouse gas that increases global temperature. There are other benefits to plant-based diets, such as the lower prices of plant products over fish and meat or health.
In Central Europe, plant-based diets are gradually becoming more popular, influencing how younger generations turn to ethical and eco-friendly solutions. The urgent global warming situation creates mobilisation potential to accompany and relay bottom-up democratic changes in countries where politicians sometimes deny the scope or the very existence of climate changes.
There is not much data on plant-based diets among the populations of Central Europe. In general, the number is trending upwards, as is the presence of plant-based products and dishes in restaurants. However, this cannot be mistaken for an accurate count as to how many Central Europeans actually follow a plant-based diet. There are also few surveys. They highlight that the percentage of the population that eats a fully plant-based diet is quite low. In Poland, 6% eat a plant-based diet, while in Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary, it is only 4%, compared to up to 10% in Germany.
These percentages increase when less strict definitions are followed, such as the flexitarian diet where only some meals are plant-based. In Poland, up to 24% of the population can be considered flexitarian. Together with the 6% who are entirely vegetarian or vegan, this means that almost a third of the population consumes some variation of a plant-based diet. The estimates are lower for Czechia and Hungary. While there may be more products available for consumption, it is likely that the traditional meat-based cuisine is holding fast there.
Global and regional reasons for eating green
Up until the 20th century, the majority of the Central European population was plant-based (mostly turnips, beans, peas and potatoes) because meat was expensive and relatively scarce. The rapid increase in living conditions in the last few decades made many people associate meat with high material status. Today, those turning to plant-based diets in the region are generally a part of the X, Y, or Z generations, as youth aged 19-30 are the most likely to follow a strictly vegan diet. The only exception is Hungary where people aged 46-60 dominate in this regard.
With that in mind, it is interesting to look at why people opt for a plant-based diet in the first place, as prices and accessibility of alternatives to meat are no longer driving such choices. According to Euromonitor, the “global key drivers for a plant-based diet are animal rights (37%), health (36%), and environmental concerns (35%).”
In Hungary, health reasons influenced those following a plant-based diet after age 45. In contrast, younger and stricter vegetarians and vegans cited animal welfare as their main rationale, which is consistent with the origins of veganism. In Czechia, where younger generations are overrepresented among those with plant-based diets, “92% of vegans mentioned personal convictions and the role of values such as compassion, solidarity, [and doing] good…” while “approximately 43% of vegans mentioned [a] natural and healthy lifestyle.”
There are additional demographic factors to consider. In Hungary and Czechia, women almost triple the number of men among vegans and vegetarians. This makes veganism more resilient against pressure from family members to eat meat, since global studies have revealed that “teenagers receive support for their dietary decisions mostly from their mothers.”
Education also matters, as vegetarians and vegans tend to be among the highly educated. While this may seem a barrier at first, it is important to note that plant-based diet decisions generally arise outside an official university curriculum. In Czechia, for example, “”to online information including social networks and socialisation” were the most important means influencing one to become vegan or vegetarian. Online platforms are collectively used among youth, and no barriers exist to the information being promoted there. This potential for change represented by the young generation could be leveraged by favouring plant-based diets and integrating them in schools and educational curricula. Such policies might act as a vehicle to make citizens more environmentally conscious and supportive of further similar policies.
Socialisation is important to provide orientation and exposure of plant-based friendly information which can then be converted into actionable messages. If the latter get integrated into the discussion with non-plant-based eaters, they could impact the approach of others towards food.
Toward an integration of plant-based food in climate strategy
While data for Poland and Slovakia are missing for more in-depth comparisons, the number of plant-based diets will likely grow among the younger generations of Central Europe as a whole. In the next 15 years, food choices may become increasingly linked to environmental considerations. In the short term, high inflation can act as a factor to spread plant-based diets, especially among flexitarians. This is hard to predict, however, especially at a time when there are signals that meat alternatives are stagnating, possibly replicating the “margarine effect” in plant products.
What is clear is that Central European governments are missing an opportunity for their long-term climate strategy unless they list facilitating plant-based diets among youth as their priority and responsibility. Should they not do so, resorting to individual ethical decisions for saving the planet may convert youth into radical activists and discourage plant-based choices on a bigger scale.
One way these messages can be spread at a wider level is through government support. Beating the drum of favouring plant-based diets should not be associated with a threat to national cultures and cuisines. A strategy could be a sustained public campaign to prevent plant-based diets being associated with a minority group. Trendy food firms creating plant-based products — for example Burger King — can also be beneficial to create easy alternatives to meat and fish. Governments could also invest in long-term measures to support transition to plant-based farming in an animal-friendly way. Finally, they could indirectly or directly encourage the creation of small and medium enterprises and innovation projects in that sector.
Despite its recent integration into the worldwide summit COP27, long established food systems have a ways to go to become sustainable. Central European countries should therefore consider the plant-based food options as representing a quick gain for the future of climate policies.