In the past twenty years, animal advocacy groups have put an enormous amount of effort into convincing people to be vegetarian. However, polls suggest that the percentage of the population that’s vegetarian has stayed basically flat since 1999. In short, we’re basically treading water: for every new vegetarian we convince, someone else quits. As you’d expect given this fact, more than four-fifths of vegans and vegetarians eventually abandon their diets.

Of course, an ex-vegetarian isn’t the same as a lifelong omnivore. They might eat less meat because they’ve discovered new favorite recipes, and they might have more knowledge of and sympathy for animal issues. (Conversely, of course, they might have been so alienated from the vegetarian and animal advocacy community that they’re more bitter and angry about it than the average omnivore.) But if we’re trying to reduce animal consumption, this is a bad sign!

Fortunately, we’re only addressing half the problem. There are lots of people trying to make people be vegetarian, but there’s far less effort put into getting them to stay vegetarian. While there are some programs along these lines, they tend (in my experience) to not be very elaborate or well-funded, particularly compared to vegan outreach. As far as I’m aware, no one has run a study of the effectiveness of various methods of keeping people vegetarian.

This is sad, because there are a priori reasons to believe that keeping people vegetarian would be easier than making them vegetarian in the first place. Vegetarians generally want to stay vegetarian, so they’re eager to listen to your information—unlike omnivores, who have to be convinced. It seems like there’s low-hanging fruit in vegetarian retention: for example, even today, many vegans don’t know about the importance of taking a B12 supplement, which means that they risk health problems that they’ll treat by going back to eating animal products.

According to a qualitative Faunalytics study, the most common reasons that people quit being vegetarian are:

  1. Disliked/bored with food, wanted variety, wanted meat
  2. Nutrient concerns or deficiencies (perceived or actual)
  3. Did not enjoy it, tired of it, unsatisfied, or bored
  4. Family, relationship, household, or children
  5. Felt fatigued, lightheaded, weak, or unhealthy

Many of these seem potentially addressable. We could recommed people more delicious food, show them how to substitute meat in their diets (for example, with alternate sources of the umami taste), teach them more about vegetarian nutrition, and help them to find social support. It may help to develop standard advice for common situations, such as being vegetarian while cooking for a family that is not vegetarian, and then promoting them widely. Many animal advocacy organizations are doing something along these lines to begin with, but few are doing it in a systematic way.

Vegetarian retention also seems to me to be easier to study than convincing people to become vegetarian. The hardest part of conducting a study of a method to convince people to become vegetarian is followup: how do you track down the same person you showed a video to six months later to discover whether they reduced their meat consumption? However, vegetarian retention studies can be done using the mailing lists that animal advocacy organizations already have. You’d still get attrition, of course, but the attrition is potentially much lower.

Of course, it might turn out that vegetarian retention is legitimately extremely difficult. For example, maybe only some people can be healthfully fully vegetarian for reasons we don’t understand yet, and so most prospective vegetarians will quit. But that’s also valuable to know: it suggests that we should focus on better plant-based meat alternatives, more research into nutrition science, and encouraging people who can’t handle vegetarianism to be “reducetarian.”

In short, I think more animal advocacy organizations should do randomized controlled trials of promising techniques to improve retention rates for vegetarians, so that we have a strong evidence base for this potentially effective intervention.

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However, polls suggest that the percentage of the population that’s vegetarian has stayed basically flat since 1999

I think there's three nitpicks I'd make here:

1.) The sample size of this poll you cite (margin of error of +/- 4%) is typically not large enough to detect subtle shifts in the percentage of vegetarians, especially since the initial population is so small, such that the veg rate could approximately double and still have a ~50% chance of not being detected by the poll.

2.) As you may know, asking people whether they are vegetarian/vegan in a poll is a fairly fraught concept, since we know that people frequently say "Yes" to this question while also saying "Yes" to eating meat.

3.) I think looking at a better collection of polls actually does find a positive upward trend, going from ~2.5% in 1999 to ~6% in 2022. These polls also solve (2) by better question wording.

None of this should be taken to undermine your point though - I do think veg retention is a large issue and more marginal work on it would be helpful.

I think point 3 deserves its own post and to be shared more widely, since it would be a big update for a lot of people.

This is cool. What makes these polls "a better collection" in your view?

  • More time periods
  • Better question wording
  • 2.8x bigger sample size

I agree that veg*n retention is important, thanks for writing this up!

Another reason for concern here is that ex-veg*ns might be a significant source of opposition to animal advocacy, because they are motivated to express a sense of disillusionment/betrayal (e.g. see https://www.reddit.com/r/exvegans/) and because their stories can provide powerful support to other opponents of animal advocacy.

Note that the Faunalytics study finds that a decent number (37%) of ex-vegetarians are interested in trying again in the future, which bodes well for future outreach to them and mitigates my concern above a little bit.

Sorry to hijack this comment, but I've noticed a lot of people saying veg*n and I'm confused, what's the reason to censor it?

the "*" is meant to be a glob/wildcard rather than a censor

I believe it's to mean "vegetarian or vegan", rather than to censor "vegan."

"Veg*n" encompasses both vegetarians and vegans.

Of course, regex is everywhere :) thanks for clarifying!

Vegetarians/vegans should consider promoting eating only beef/dairy as the only animal products they consume as a potential strategy to have people cause less suffering to livestock with a high retention rate. I suspect that the average person would be much more willing to give up most animal products while still consuming beef and dairy, compared to giving up meat entirely. Since cows are big, fewer animals are needed to produce a single unit of meat, compared to meat coming from smaller animals. Vitalik Buterin has argued that eating big animals as an animal welfare strategy could be 99% as good as veganism. Brian Tomasik also compiled this list of different animal products ranked by the amount of suffering they cause per kilogram, and beef and milk are at the bottom.

An objection people might make to this is that eating more beef could contribute to climate change, but I'm skeptical that the amount of additional suffering caused by climate change will exceed the amount of suffering reduced by having less factory farming. It could also be argued that habitat loss may reduce wild animal populations, which may reduce wild animal suffering by preventing wild animals by being born.

As a side note, there needs to be some sort of name for the philosophy of eating big animals to reduce livestock suffering described above. Sizeatarianism? Beefatarianism? Big-animal-atarianism? Sufferingatarianism? 

While I'm sympathetic to the idea that of supporting people becoming not entirely vegan - I think it pays off, impact wise - I find it hard to believe that telling them which specific animals to eat is going to be worth the effort.

  1. How sure are we of any choice of numbers in that calculation? Maybe a cow is morally worth 1 chicken, maybe 10,000.
  2. Different people like different foods. I suspect their choice for "the one product that if I keep eating, will allow me to be otherwise vegan" would be much more broadly distributed.
  3. So this seems both like it takes extra effort and might miss a lot of people, and on the other hand the marginal gain from it is not that big.

How sure are we of any choice of numbers in that calculation? Maybe a cow is morally worth 1 chicken, maybe 10,000.

Question Mark’s ideas (backed up by Buterin and Tomasik, who aren't slouches prone to noise) doesn’t come from some “philosophical” or speculative ranking of animals that only exists "online", but reflect the extreme practices that exist in factory farming. 

In totality, these practices focus suffering on a fraction of the animal food system. Over 90% of suffering is probably concentrated onto a single animal species.

There is a good reason EA animal welfare orgs who work in land animals, focus on chickens and pigs, and even for pigs, the focus is mainly on a single practice (gestation crates).

 

Even EAs, and even some EAs with interest in animal welfare, don’t really understand these practices or how they affect welfare.

This is astonishing because the information fits into a few paragraphs and could be conveyed with a few pictures.

 

The issue has always been that farm animal welfare is self censoring, caught between: 

  1. the yelling of ineffective advocacy — it’s sort of crazy how “vegan” is a slur and how little credibility advocates can have
  2. non-EA political ideological activism (which doesn’t even qualify as infighting) there are people who wholesale and aggressively co-opt animal welfare to focus on human political issues
  3. actual infighting where EA Farm animal welfare is attacked by non-EA animal welfare (e.g.“welfarist” vs “abolitionist”) . As you can see in the reply below, it is hard to justify dismissal of 'welfarist' ideas

Finally, the last gate is the horror of the reality. I haven’t seen any content on the forum that explains why certain animals have it worse (unfortunately it’s not just because being in a cage is confining) and I’m reluctant to start with this comment.

Instead, another approach is to point out that cows not just have it much better, but it’s possible the life of many cows such as beef cows, could actually be net positive.

These rankings match the opinions even of EAs who focus on dairy cows, opinions of outside EA animal welfare scientists, as well as “common sense” understanding of cattle and dairy farming and the economics and husbandry of the animals.

Different people like different foods. I suspect their choice for "the one product that if I keep eating, will allow me to be otherwise vegan" would be much more broadly distributed.

So this seems both like it takes extra effort and might miss a lot of people, and on the other hand the marginal gain from it is not that big.

 

Extremely unfortunately, the idea that people's choices of animals is static, or that consumption within meat or eggs is fixed, is very much not true. 

Below is a chart showing the stats for US animal consumption between chicken, pork, and beef.

You can see the yellow line here, which represents a single animal (these trends probably matches many western countries).

https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=58312

 

By the way, the average diet, has gotten worse, in terms of meat consumption (this probably includes the number of vegetarians or vegans).

 

Note that this comes from the USDA, which is definitely not EA or animal welfare aligned.

However, polls suggest that the percentage of the population that’s vegetarian has stayed basically flat since 1999. In short, we’re basically treading water: for every new vegetarian we convince, someone else quits.

 

If the percentage of the population who's veg*n has stayed ~the same, surely that means that the number has increased as the population has increased? 

Thank you for this write up.

Martin Balluch's writing on this topic has impacted my way of thinking a lot on this. I think his 'Balluch Curve' succintly illustrates the  problem and an approach to overcome it. 

Article is written in German and quotes are google translated

We know from vegan and vegetarian people that most of them fall back into the sink. The system is stronger. Only a perhaps 5% large group with enough pioneering spirit stays up there on the right. In other words: the vegan outreach and the revelations of eg the VGT are constantly shoveling people right up the curve, but sooner or later they roll back again. A Sisyphean task.

How could you support people so that they can stay on the top right? By making vegetarian/vegan life easier. And that's why I founded the Vegan Society Austria with my brother and my partner at the time in 1999. It awards a vegan seal so that the animal-free products are easily recognizable, it organizes vegan cooking courses for prospective chefs, it disseminates information about health aspects, arranges vegan-friendly doctors, etc. This activity can be illustrated as a small or large dent in the curve. A second dip in vegetarianism or veganism, not nearly as far down as the deepest dip, but at least providing something to hold on to, some protection against falling into the main dip. Then it will be easier for people

So we're not really getting anywhere unless we change the system. Let's imagine we shift the sink to the right! If that succeeds, then all people suddenly behave in a more animal-friendly manner, then the system forces them to do so, even if that is not their belief. But isn't it utopian to change the system? Is not it. At the beginning of the 19th century there were still no animal protection laws and instead there was a baiting theater in Vienna, where animals were set against each other, or animals were hounded by packs of dogs and humans. The "having a rush" in Viennese for having fun comes from that. So the depression was on the far left. And now it's not that anymore, there's no such thing as hate theatre, at least the status of animals has risen to such an extent that torture for fun has been outlawed.

Speaking very recently to someone involved in vegan outreach from their POV from many hours of conversations, the biggest challenge to adoption and retention is people worrying about not fitting in with those around them.

I definitely agree that veg retention is an important piece, although I think many animal organisations are dealing with limited resources and I think as a result are looking to shift society to the right, cage-free, higher welfare etc, which ultimately makes the jump/drop from veg smaller and probably supports enduring change more.  I personally, would be interested in seeing research into veg retention, but would rank it beneath research into shifting to higher welfare.

Most vegetarians and vegans aren't taking the vitamins that would be good for them, and that can be a health problem. What about subsidizing vitamins somehow? Maybe we could get vegetarian meal kits to include vitamins.