It seems that the world is slowly but surely becoming vegetarian. According to some surveys, the percentage of vegetarian population (including ovo-lacto vegetarians) in various countries is rising. At the top of the list, at least according to some references listed on Wikipedia, is India, with 38% of Indians being vegetarians. Other countries in the top ten are Israel (13%), Taiwan (12%), Italy (10%), Austria (9%), Germany (9%), Britain (9%), Brazil (8%), Ireland (6%) and Australia (5%). China is currently listed at 4-5%, but the sizable population means that the actual number is by no means small, and probably larger than many of the other countries.
The top three are all Asian countries (of course, it is arguable whether Israel is an Asian country). Let us take a closer look at them. There are cultural and religious reasons for vegetarianism becoming popular in these countries. Culturally, both India and Israel share a dietary culture based on vegetarian food, so it is easy for people in these countries to go vegetarian. Moreover, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the prevailing religions in India, all have traditions of vegetarian cuisine.
However, a new research by US-based anthropologist Balmurli Natrajan and India-based economist Suraj Jacob suggests that the Indian figure mentioned above is an inflated estimation because of “cultural and political pressures.” Indians might under-report eating meat, particularly beef, and over-report eating vegetarian food. Taking all this into account, say the researchers, only about 20% of Indians are actually vegetarian, which is much lower than the above figure. They point out that India is a highly diverse society with food habits and cuisines changing every few kilometers and within social groups.
It is worth noting that, although India’s majority Hindu population considers cows holy, Dr. Natrajan and Dr. Jacob find the extent of beef eating is much higher than claims and stereotypes suggest. They estimate that closer to 15% of Indians, or about 180 million people, eat beef. That is a whopping 96% more than government estimates.
It is further estimated that there are about 2.8 million vegetarians and 6,000 vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Taiwan, the third-placed country on the list. An article suggests that there are three main types of vegetarians in Taiwan. Besides those for religious and health reasons, there are about 1.6 million people who are allergic to milk, eggs or seafood and choose vegetables instead.
Even in the West, where vegetarians are not influenced so much by religious and traditional cultural reasons, we see a growing trend of giving up meat. As the Western country with the highest vegetarian population, Italy has traditional dishes, like spaghetti and pizza, that are quite vegetarian-friendly (and often meat-free). Moreover, Italians also use olive oil more often than butter during cooking. However, vegetarianism can still be considered as a recent trend in the country. According to a survey in Italy, 35.29% of the vegetarian respondents had this habit for 1-3 years, while another 35.29% have been vegetarians for 4-10 years. About one-third of them (31%) do so for ethical reasons like animal rights or ecological protection. Personal health (24%) was the second most important reason for the respondents to go vegetarian.
Finally, we can take a look at the US, the largest consumer market in the world. Based on a survey conducted by a vegetarian association, about 2% or 1.62 million Americans were vegetarians in 2017. Compared to the countries on the top ten list, the level was quite low. The same survey revealed that 10% of the respondents had tried vegetarianism, so it means that about 8% Americans had given up after trying. We may conclude that it is not easy for people to sustain such a habit in the US, or many just treat vegetarianism as a trend or fashion to try out of curiosity.
It is also interesting to note that religion is not an important factor for vegetarianism in the US. Nearly half (47%) of the vegetarian respondents in the above survey did not follow any religion, while 34% were Christians. Only 9% were Buddhists or Hindus that might have gone vegetarian for religious reasons.
Sun Ma is an editor, translator and a professional collector of music albums.