Mia Kelly, 17, decided to become vegetarian after marching in last fall’s climate strike in Ottawa.
“After that, climate change was really on my mind a lot,” she said. “And then I realized that switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet was the biggest thing I could do as an individual.”
Her friend Nelson Oser-Small, 17, has also adopted vegetarianism.
“Honestly it’s like a trend now to become vegan or vegetarian,” he said. “A lot of my friends are taking a bigger interest in climate change and they know that eating less meat will help.”
Both teens say being vegetarian has been easy so far.
“I don’t really miss meat all that much. But the other day was the Super Bowl and I really missed having chicken wings to watch the game. I guess I also missed the turkey and stuffing at Christmas dinner,” Kelly said. “It’s more like tradition, than the actual meat itself.”
According to a 2018 Dalhousie University study, people under the age of 35 are three times more likely to consider themselves vegetarian or vegan than people 49 or older. This translates to almost two out of every three vegans in Canada being millennials or from Generation Z. Similar results are found in other studies conducted in Canada and the United States.
“In 2018 we estimated that 6.4 million Canadians already follow a diet that restricts meat partially or completely,” notes the principal investigator of the study Sylvain Charlebois from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab. “But now we’ve already revised this number to 10.2 million. Things are changing really fast, faster than ever really.”
And Charlebois says these numbers could continue to grow as young people end up passing their diets down to their own kids. He explains that this would then change expectations for greenhouse gas emissions, health indicators such as heart disease, as well as the food industry itself.
Teen idols, including climate activist Greta Thunberg and singer-songwriter Billie Eilish, have taken to social media to encourage kids to go vegan.
Eilish recently asked her millions of Instagram followers to take responsibility for climate change, including by giving up meat, dairy, and plastic.
Thunberg says her key efforts to combat climate change include a vegan diet, not flying, and no longer buying unnecessary new things.
“In the last few years there’s been a dramatic increase in the kids who go vegan, with climate change rapidly gaining speed as the reason they give,” says Susan Hargreaves, 60, the Toronto native who runs Animal Hero Kids, a Florida animal rights organization.
“Kids are now way more aware of the link between the climate crisis and animal farming.”
“It’s not only for the animals but for our health and for climate change,” said 15-year-old vegan Kingston Walters, one of the Animal Hero Kids from Vancouver. “Being vegan is the best way to save our planet. It’s not going to be here anymore if we all just stand back and watch.”
About 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to livestock, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. And last year’s special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cited reduced meat consumption and shifts to plant-based diets as opportunities for mitigating climate change.
The Canadian red meat industry was worth $21.1 billion in 2018. But Canadians have decreased their beef and pork consumption over the last two decades, looking to other protein sources including chickpeas and other legumes, algae, or fungal protein to mimic meat and poultry products.
“Buying food is like voting,” said Charlebois. “You’re basically telling the food industry that this is what matters to me … with health and environment as two of the top concerns.”
Companies such as Maple Leaf and Cargill are embracing meatless alternatives, with more vegan protein options available in grocery stores.
“The important thing is to make sure kids get the nutrients and energy they need for growth and development,” said Brooke Bulloch, a spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada.
“Of course, mom and dad are saying ‘oh my gosh, how do we meet their protein needs?’” Bulloch said, noting that she has seen more families and youth looking for advice about plant-based diets over the last year.
“But the evidence really points to protein not at all being an issue with well-planned plant-based diets.”
The Canadian Paediatric Society says a well-balanced vegetarian diet can provide for the needs of children and adolescents. But it cautions that strict vegan diets may need vitamin and mineral supplements, such as calcium fortified food.
“I think a lot of children and families are just sort of removing things out of their diet, but often not thinking about what should be added back in to prevent micronutrient deficiency,” said Nita Sharda a Winnipeg dietitian, who points to the importance of proper planning.
But Nelson Oser-Small’s mother, Michelle Oser, is not worried about her son’s vegetarian conversion.
“I’ve done my research,” she said. “As we all know, you get protein and iron from lot of places … and if you’re really worried there’s always iron and vitamin supplements.”
“He’s doing it for good reasons, and so hopefully he can stick to it.”
Katherine Monahan , The Canadian Press