In the past few years, vegan restaurants have popped up all over the city, while mainstream chains include plant-based menu items.

Xeniya Danilov, left, and husband Ivan Danilov, franchise owners at Copper Branch at Suncor Energy Centre in downtown Calgary.

Three years ago, Michele Buchanan made the abrupt decision to give up meat for good.

Pregnant with her first child at the time, the 36-year-old Calgarian — who had until that moment been an enthusiastic carnivore — watched a documentary about animal agriculture’s impact on the environment and decided then and there that she needed to change her personal habits so her unborn baby could inherit a healthier planet. Overnight, she became a vegan — eliminating all meat, fish, dairy and eggs and adopting a plant-based diet instead.

Buchanan isn’t alone. While total veganism is still relatively rare, with fewer than a million adherents Canada-wide, more and more Canadians are reducing the amount of meat in their diets. According to a study by the University of Dalhousie, 6.4 million Canadians are already following a diet that restricts meat at least partially. The new Canada Food Guide, released earlier this week, urges Canadians to adopt more plant-based sources of protein while a recent report in the medical journal The Lancet said a global reduction in meat consumption will be necessary by 2050 for environmental and food security reasons.

While cutting out meat used to mean subsisting on a lot of rubbery tofu and strange-tasting soy burgers, that is no longer the case. Entrepreneurs of all stripes — even in a city with a nickname like Cowtown — are recognizing the opportunities that exist within the plant-based movement.

“Calgary has come a long way,” Buchanan said. “There is a fully vegan food stand in the Saddledome — they do hot dogs and burgers and nachos. You can find vegan eggnog in your local grocery store. It’s exploding right now.”

In the past few years, vegan restaurants — like Hearts Choices, saVeg, Vegan Street, Talk Vegan to Me, Raw Eatery and Market, and the Dandelion — have popped up all over the city, while mainstream chains, such as Earls, have implemented plant-based menu items. A&W’s Beyond Meat burger — made of peas, rice, mung beans, coconut oil, pomegranates, potatoes, apples and beets — was such a runaway success when it was introduced last summer that the chain sold out within a matter of weeks and had to restock.

“Plant-based foods are becoming more and more mainstream,” said Andrew Infantino, marketing director for Copper Branch, a Montreal-based chain of 100 per cent vegan fast-casual restaurants. Since opening its first location in 2014, Copper Branch has expanded to 40 locations in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, including two kiosks that recently opened in downtown Calgary.

“You’re seeing products that are being launched that taste like meat that are becoming more and more popular. We’re also seeing more and more chain restaurants that are open to the concept,” Infantino said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily just a trend. It’s becoming more and more part of the mainstream culture.”

A meatless offering at Copper Branch, a new vegan restaurant in Suncor Energy Centre.

Paula Bellavance, who launched her Calgary-based vegan cheese company Basic Roots in July and already has distribution through more than 50 retailers countrywide, said many of her clients can’t tell the difference between her cashew-based cheese and cheese made from dairy. While younger consumers are the most likely to go meat-free (the Dalhousie study found 63 per cent of respondents adhering to a vegan diet were under the age of 38), Bellavance said her customer base is made up of all age demographics.

“We actually talk to a lot of seniors when we are out there demo-ing. They tell us meat or dairy was just too hard for them to digest, and when they switched over to a plant-based diet, they felt so much better,” she said.

While vegetarian and vegan options have been declining in price in recent years, their still-high costs make them inaccessible to many, said Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. In addition, those who push the adoption of plant-based diets are often ignoring the fact that there are communities where meat is an integral part of life, he said.

“Whether the impression is true or not, plant-based dieting is almost seen as an elitist way of life right now,” Charlebois said.

Still, Charlebois said he believes “the horse has left the barn” and the plant-based juggernaut is here to stay. And that will mean opportunities — not just for restaurants and retailers, but for the agriculture industry as a whole.

“I do think we have an opportunity to adjust our agricultural strategy as a country,” he said. “Things are going to change. Maybe not now, but over time.”

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In November, the federal government awarded $153 million through its Innovation Superclusters Initiative to Protein Industries Canada, a group of businesses, post-secondary institutions and non-profits working together to make Canada a world leader in the growing market for plant-based proteins, such as peas, chickpeas and lentils. PIC is focusing on growing the entire value chain, from the plant breeders developing new pulse crop varieties to the prairie farmers growing them to the processors and marketers who are finding new uses and customers for plant-based products.

“We are really thinking about, ‘What are the biggest constraints that are keeping us from really blowing the doors off and growing this sector?’ ” said PIC CEO Bill Greuel. “Western Canada has 70 million acres of farmland, we produce 60 million metric tonnes of production on an annual basis. Let’s stop shipping raw commodities out of Western Canada — let’s do the processing here and ship out higher-value crops.”

While Greuel said he believes animal agriculture will also play an important role in the Canadian economy, a growing global population on a shrinking land base is going to require a new way of thinking about food.

“Can we really sustain the protein requirements of another 940 million middle-class consumers with animal agriculture? I think we really have to focus on plant protein,” Greuel said. “The food we’re consuming and the way we’re consuming it, I think, is really going to change over the next decade or quarter century. This is a long-term opportunity for Western Canada to be part of what’s changing in the global food system.”

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As more Canadians cut out meat, a plant-based movement takes root in Cowtown