The speculations which concluded the previous chapter concerning the long-term consequences of a possible decline in meat eating generally, or in the consumption of particular types of meat, lead inevitably to our next major topic: vegetarianism. For, if meat eating is replete with symbolism, then the deliberate rejection of meat as a foodstuff must also carry a compelling symbolism of its own. However, as we also noted in the previous chapter (Table 9.1), in many developing countries meat consumption appears to be very low indeed, particularly in the Far East and Africa. Indeed, even when we take into account the whole range of animal products consumed by humans (including offal, fats, milk products, eggs and fish) the number of calories consumed per capita per day from all livestock products in Africa is 111 and in the Far East 151. This compares with 1,255 in Western Europe and 1206 in North America (Grigg 1993:69). Given that within these averages there is a wide range of individual variation, it becomes clear that large numbers of people in the developing world are effectively vegetarian. This vegetarianism, however, is generally not a matter of choice, and the individuals concerned would usually consume more animal products had they the means to do so.
The real challenge for the social scientist, in fact, is the explanation not of involuntary but of voluntary vegetarianism. In other words, the pertinant question is: ‘What are the conditions in which vegetarianism can emerge as a viable and attractive option and what cultural forces and individual motivations encourage its adoption?’ Any attempt to answer such questions, however, is complicated by the fact that vegetarianism itself is by no means a clear-cut concept and, indeed, the term itself is of relatively recent origin. Individuals who define themselves as ‘vegetarian’ may have widely differing dietary patterns. Perhaps the most straightforward way of coming to terms with this variation is to conceptualize it in terms of a simple linear scale relating to the strictness of the exclusions involved. At the left-hand, or least strict, end of the scale will be those self-defined vegetarians who may consume eggs, dairy products, fish (or shellfish) and even meat (especially white meat) on rare occasions. Moving to the right, we find those who exclude all meat and fish, but still consume eggs and dairy products. Further to the right are those who exclude one or other of these latter