Mark Fergusson, Chief Organic Officer (CEO/CFO) Down to Earth Organic & Natural

Plant-based diets are experiencing a resurgence throughout Asian countries as millions of consumers make the switch for religious, health, and environmental reasons. It counters the trend of increasing economic prosperity that is leading many people to adopt a western meat-based diet. Although they see it as a status symbol of affluence, the adoption of this unsustainable diet leads to ill health and disease.

According to a recent report in AsiaOne News, Malaysia has one million vegetarians and the numbers are steadily growing. Malaysian Vegetarian Society president Dr P. Vythilingam says "By going green, Malaysians are realising that they can stay healthy. Vegetarians are also not worried whether they are getting a balanced diet or enough proteins because studies have shown that we can get plant proteins from soy and legumes."

Countries that are seeing a surge in vegetarianism include Taiwan, Singapore, and Indonesia and the United State. Asia's economic powerhouses India and China, of course, have had hundreds of millions of vegetarians for centuries for religious reasons.

Today, however, Asia consumers are becoming aware that a meat-based diet is not sustainable. Raising animals for food requires more land and water than what is available, particularly in water-stressed Asia. A United Nations report says East Asia will need 47 percent more farmland and use 70 percent more water to grow enough food to feed increasing herds of cattle rather than feed people directly. And, South Asia will have to expand its irrigated crop areas by 30 percent and increase water use by 57 percent. Given existing pressures on land use, both scenarios are impossible. In South Asia, for example, 94 percent of suitable land is already being farmed.

The UN report estimated that if meat eating continues to rise, it would require a huge overhaul of farmland irrigation to feed the exploding Asian population by 2050.

"I feel a lot lighter and healthier," says Dr P. Vythilingam. "Of course in the early years it was hard because there were not many places that served vegetarian food, but today it is a different story because even in a restaurant that serves meat and seafood, they will make vegetarian dishes upon request."

Traditionally, Asia has had a comparatively large vegetarian population. Since ancient times, especially among the poor in rural communities, people mainly ate vegetables and grains. Meat was a rarity, a so-called “luxury” enjoyed by the rich. However, with greater health and environmental awareness, plant-based diets are becoming the preferred choice of an increasing number of Asian consumers.