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Animal Rights Advocates Are Targeting Your Taste Buds

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Anyone navigating the teeming crowds at the recent Veg Expo at Vancouver's Canada Place Convention Centre, couldn't help but notice that something has changed about the image of vegetarianism. Vendors did a roaring trade with every conceivable social demographic, from soccer moms to urban hipsters to jocks wearing "plant-powered athlete" T-shirts.

The stereotype of vegans and vegetarians as self-righteous, hectoring, spoilsports pushing their puritan agenda was never fair. Now that negative perception is disappearing altogether. The promotion of plant-based pleasure has arrived.

Animal rights campaigners have worked for years to expose cruelty in animal agriculture and to urge consumers to cut their consumption of animal products. It's had an impact -- more people are aware of what happens on factory farms, many are eating less meat, and consumer pressure has resulted in some improvements in farm animal welfare.

Yet, animal-based products remain central to the world's diet. Changing human behaviour is notoriously difficult and urging consumers to make ethical food choices will only get you so far, especially if those choices aren't tasty, convenient and affordable.

That's why the animal rights movement is making a profound shift to new ways of achieving behavioural change. Now, ethical arguments are being bolstered by a mix of scientific innovation, market economics, and practical psychology.

The psychology has emerged from research showing that people don't do the right thing just because it's the right thing to do. Often, they look to social norms - they'll do it because everyone else seems to be doing it. They also avoid uncomfortable thoughts, inconvenient change and uncertainty.

Pointing out to meat eaters that their ham sandwich causes animal suffering and environmental degradation doesn't automatically make them stop eating meat. They fear the loss of the familiar cultural norms of their diet -- the ham sandwich mom packed in their lunch, the burgers and beer with friends, the turkey for Christmas dinner. Change equals discomfort and stress, both of which the human mind seeks to protect us from. Easier not to think about it.

But what if the change hurdle is set low and the new food choices are not outside the social norm: You try a veggie burger, discover it tastes good and notice that other people at the barbeque are eating them too. It's no big deal.

Your school cafeteria does Meatless Monday, something everyone has heard of. You try the chickpea curry rice bowl and it's delicious. The world does not end.

Following up the hard ethical arguments against meat-eating with positive promotion of attractive meatless alternatives seems like a logical step for animal advocates -- and one that many are taking -- but someone has to create those alternatives.

Fortunately, that's happening - thanks to innovative entrepreneurs and investors. The latest development on that front is the launch of New Crop Capital, a venture fund started by U.S.-based animal activists. The fund, which has raised $25 million, is being used to invest in companies focusing on plant-based alternatives to meat. Though small, New Crop Capital is not alone in backing plant-based entrepreneurs - so are conventional investors like billionaires Bill Gates and Li Ka-Shing.

Behind all of this is the science that has allowed large-scale production of meat alternatives by turning ingredients like pea protein into chicken-less chicken and beef-less beef. Bioengineers are working around the world to improve the taste, texture, nutrition and convenience of these products.

The meat-free industry has now grown big enough to field its own lobby group, the Plant Based Food Association (with 36 member companies), to compete with the meat industry for the ears of politicians in Washington D.C.

Here in Vancouver, the popularity of events like Veg Expo is not the only sign of changing attitudes toward meatless eating. The city has emerged as a hub for the plant-based food industry, with successful companies like Daiya (non-dairy cheese) and Gardein (meat alternatives) being joined newcomers like Veggemo (non-dairy milk).

So, have the grassroots animal rights campaigners been replaced by scientists, marketers and business executives? Not by a long shot. Factory farm cruelty still needs to be exposed and the ethical case against meat consumption still needs to be made. But now, consumers can be encouraged to make ethical choices that are not just painless - they're downright pleasurable.