45% reduce red meat consumption: are the days of eating animals numbered in Catalonia?

Number of flexitarians grows but Spain is still the EU member state that consumes the most meat per capita

A meat section of a supermarket at Espai Gironès mall, Girona, on March 14, 2020 (by Carola López)
A meat section of a supermarket at Espai Gironès mall, Girona, on March 14, 2020 (by Carola López) / Cristina Tomàs White

Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

April 10, 2022 10:21 AM

Over forty years ago, when Catalan chef Teresa Carles first opened a restaurant in the city of Lleida, it was one of the few vegetarian establishments in town. 

Her son Jordi Barri, now the CEO of health food business Flax & Kale, which has eateries in Lleida, Barcelona, and Madrid, products in supermarkets, and an eye on international markets, says his parents were forward-thinking with their approach to the industry. 

“They were pioneers in the vegetarian movement in restaurants,” Barri told Catalan News at the Alimentaria food and beverage industry fair at Fira Gran Via. “They started in Lleida, my hometown, back in 1979 with a really tiny, humble restaurant. Now there are already 270 people who work for the family business.” 

13% of population vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian

The plant-based food industry in Catalonia, home to the vegetable-strong Mediterranean diet, is thriving, having found consumers not only among vegans and vegetarians, but also among so-called flexitarians who have chosen to reduce their intake of animal products for health reasons as well as for animal welfare and sustainability concerns. 

“We tend only to think about vegetarians, vegans, and flexitarians as those who are health-conscious,” Barri said, “but there are a lot of people with intolerances like diabetes or who are lactose intolerant or celiacs.”

According to market research firm Lantern, around 13% of Spain’s population identified as either vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian in 2021 - a figure that grew by over a third in just two years. Another survey, published by the European Consumer Organization (BEUC) in June 2020, stated that 2.9% of Spaniards were vegetarian or vegan.

The country is still the EU member state that consumes the most meat per capita. Yet, 45% of those surveyed for BEUC in Spain said that they have reduced their red meat (lamb, beef and pork) consumption due to environmental reasons, and two thirds said that they pay some or a lot of attention to the impact of their food choices on the environment. Around 30% say they are willing to cut down on red meat, and 20% would do so with dairy.

The fact that it is "too expensive" is by far the main reason preventing customers from eating sustainably, says the same survey, and only 20% say they are ready to spend more money for sustainable food. 

While the number of people who are vegan or vegetarian has remained relatively stable, flexitarianism, in particular, has seen a notable surge, and companies that traditionally worked only with meat, like Noel charcuterie from Olot in northern Catalonia, have started selling plant-based products too. 

Maria Sánchez, the head of communications for Noel, said they have “identified a growing trend towards diversifying protein sources as there are people who are concerned about consuming an excessive amount of animal protein.”

The future of protein: plant-based and in-vitro

Food industry professionals estimate that by 2040, 60% of the meat we consume will not be of animal origin. Mycoprotein meat substitutes, made out of fermented fungus spores, are already on the market, while researchers also hope to make in-vitro meat, which is cruelty-free and more environmentally friendly, more readily available. 

One of these people is Ana Torrejón, a chemical engineer who works for Ainia, a research and development center based in Valencia with offices near Barcelona’s Autonomous University that helps companies innovate processes related to the food industry. 

“You can go to the animal and pick a small cell that you can take to the lab and then multiply that cell in order to have a lot of meat and then you can work with the process and the cells in order to have different kinds of meat,” she explained. “The taste is the same because it comes from the same source, it comes from the animal, but the animal doesn’t suffer.”

Plant-based or cultured meat may sound blasphemous to the carnivores out there, including Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez who started a beef with his minister for consumer affairs last summer over his avowed “inability to resist medium-rare steak.”

Yet, many meat-eaters are happy to reduce their intake to reduce their risk of heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, among others, as well as for environmental reasons: 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, not to mention the water, fertilizer, and fuel needed for meat production.  

This means that meat-focused ways of thinking are gradually on course to becoming a thing of the past as attitudes and needs continue to evolve.