Most folks would classify an upward trend in the number of people embracing vegetarianism as a negative development. But here’s a different, more upbeat, way to view those data.

One in ten people in Sweden is a now vegetarian or vegan, a new survey revealed.

And that’s great news.

I’ll explain, but first the particulars of the survey. According the study commissioned by Animal Rights Sweden (Djurens Rätt), there has been a 4 percent increase in the number of Swedes adopting a meat-free lifestyle over the past five years. The largest percentage of vegies and vegans live in the Stockholm metro area and the County of Skåne (or Scania in English), the country’s southernmost district due east of Denmark and directly across the Baltic Sea from Germany.

In other words, Sweden’s equivalent of Los Angeles and San Diego County.

In the telephone poll of 1,000 respondents, 6 percent of respondents described themselves as vegetarians, while 4 percent claimed to be vegans. The highest prevalence was seen among the 15 to 34 year-old demographic in which 17 percent of respondents described themselves as vegetarian or vegan. So far, I would suggest that the data are no different from what you’d get if you were to conduct a similar survey in Southern California, especially one commissioned by an animal rights group.

And the overall percentages mirror closely similar surveys done in the United States.

Gabriela Turneborg, consumer director at Animal Rights Sweden, said in a statement that, “It’s pleasing that the figures have increased over the last five years, but I would have been surprised if they hadn’t.”

Turneborg noted a widespread increase in people adopting so-called “meat-free diets,” with 37 percent of non-vegetarian respondents saying their interest in purchasing vegetarian foods had increased over the past year (versus 26 percent five years ago).

Now here’s an interesting piece of data: Of those who identified themselves as vegetarian or vegan, 21 percent said their decision was strongly influenced by their concern for animal welfare, while 28 percent said this was partly a reason for adopting a meat-free diet; 15 percent said it did not affect their choice at all. So only a minority adopted a veggie diet because of concern for animal welfare — and only one in five self-described vegetarians said they were “strongly influenced” by concern for livestock.

That’s the exact opposite of what vegan advocates always try to claim, but there’s no disputing what the survey says. If you can’t get a majority of vegetarians — in Sweden, no less — to acknowledge that animal welfare is the reason they gave up meat, I believe the conclusion is self-evident: People go veggie for health reasons, not necessarily because they’re motivated by (alleged) animal abuse.

But back to why the increase in non-meat-eaters is good news.

The study suggested that more people are eating meatless foods because there is a better range of vegetarian and vegan products in supermarkets and restaurants. That’s true, and it’s a positive trend. By definition, vegetarian meals include more fruits and vegetables, and every dietary authority in the Western world emphasizes that people should be eating more produce.

A lot more.

Truth is, adding vegetables and fruit tends to displace processed foods, high-calorie snack foods and “junk” (candy, cookies, chips), not center-of-the-plate entrees based on meat and poultry. So that’s a good thing, nutrition- and health-wise, and a trend that doesn’t significantly impact animal agriculture’s share of stomach.

(And keep in mind that many “vegetarians” only give up fresh red meat, the packages of steaks, roasts and hamburger lined up in the supermarket case. They still eat pepperoni pizza, jerky and even lunchmeat — because those foods aren’t “meat.”)


But speaking of agriculture, the trend toward a wider variety of food choices — many of them marketed as vegetarian, to be sure — is a critical factor in sustaining diversity in food production. Given the barriers to entry (land, capital, access to processing plants), it isn’t likely that thousands of new producers are going to enter the profession — not without massive government subsidies that don’t appear to be forthcoming.

Yet we know that the average age of American farmers is 55+, and that without keeping farmland — and farmers — in business, development will eventually remove some of the country’s most productive acreage from production. That’s not a positive scenario not matter how it’s analyzed.

We need more new farmers, and they need to be able to succeed on smaller farms that require less capital and less complex infrastructure. Until someone invents the livestock equivalent of the fits-into-your-garage microbrewery system, that need won’t be met by a stampeded of new ranchers, feeders and meatpackers. The only development on the horizon for animal agriculture and all related activities downstream is further consolidation.

Yet for agriculture to remain viable politically and economically, numbers are important, not to mention that the viability of many rural communities could be in jeopardy with another generation of farm-country exodus to urban areas and high-tech job opportunities.

That’s why I say if more people want to claim they’re veggies, and they back that up by buying more produce and more specialty foods that command a premium at point of sale, God bless ’em.

In the long run, that’s good for our collective well-being and essential to the health of American farming.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.