January 27, 2019
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that meatless food options are gaining popularity…
Burger King’s plant-based Impossible Burger produced strong sales and revenue growth for the fast-food restaurant. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and KFC are among the many other chains to jump on the bandwagon.
And it’s not just vegans who are gobbling up the meatless menu items… According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2019 report, 95% of the people who bought a plant-based burger last year were meat eaters.
So consuming all this plant-based food is healthier for us and better for the planet, right? Not so fast…
The Dark Side of Plant-Based Food…
It’s More About Money Than You May Think
By Martin Cohen and Frédéric Leroy
If you were to believe newspapers and dietary advice leaflets, you’d probably think that doctors and nutritionists are the people guiding us through the thicket of what to believe when it comes to food. But food trends are far more political – and economically motivated – than they seem.
From ancient Rome, where Cura Annonae – the provision of bread to the citizens – was the central measure of good government, to 18th-century Britain, where the economist Adam Smith identified a link between wages and the price of corn, food has been at the center of the economy. Politicians have long had their eye on food policy as a way to shape society.
That’s why tariffs and other trade restrictions on imported food and grain were enforced in Britain between 1815 and 1846. These “corn laws” enhanced the profits and political power of the landowners, at the cost of raising food prices and hampering growth in other economic sectors.
Over in Ireland, the ease of growing the recently imported potato plant led to most people living off a narrow and repetitive diet of homegrown potatoes with a dash of milk. When potato blight arrived, a million people starved to death, even as the country continued to produce large amounts of food – for export to England.
Such episodes well illustrate that food policy has often been a fight between the interests of the rich and the poor. No wonder Marx declared that food lay at the heart of all political structures and warned of an alliance of industry and capital intent on both controlling and distorting food production.
Many of today’s food debates can also be usefully reinterpreted when seen as part of a wider economic picture. For example, recent years have seen the co-option of the vegetarian movement in a political program that can have the effect of perversely disadvantaging small-scale, traditional farming in favor of large-scale industrial farming.
This is part of a wider trend away from small- and mid-size producers toward industrial-scale farming and a global food market in which food is manufactured from cheap ingredients bought in a global bulk commodities market that is subject to fierce competition. Consider the launch of a whole new range of laboratory created “fake meats” (fake dairy, fake eggs) in the U.S. and Europe, oft celebrated for aiding the rise of the vegan movement. Such trends entrench the shift of political power away from traditional farms and local markets toward biotech companies and multinationals.
Estimates for the global vegan food market now expect it to grow each year by nearly 10% and to reach around $24.3 billion by 2026. Figures like this have encouraged the megaliths of the agricultural industry to step in, having realized that the “plant-based” lifestyle generates large profit margins, adding value to cheap raw materials (such as protein extracts, starches, and oils) through ultra-processing. Unilever is particularly active, offering nearly 700 vegan products in Europe.
Researchers at the U.S. think tank RethinkX predict that “we are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most consequential disruption” of agriculture in history. They say that by 2030, the entire U.S. dairy and cattle industry will have collapsed, as “precision fermentation” – producing animal proteins more efficiently via microbes – “disrupts food production as we know it.”
Westerners might think that this is a price worth paying. But elsewhere, it’s a different story. While there is much to be said for rebalancing western diets away from meat and toward fresh fruits and vegetables, in India and much of Africa, animal-sourced foods are an indispensable part of maintaining health and obtaining food security, particularly for women and children and the 800 million poor that subsist on starchy foods.
To meet the 2050 challenges for quality protein and some of the most problematic micronutrients worldwide, animal-source foods remain fundamental. But livestock also plays a critical role in reducing poverty, increasing gender equality, and improving livelihoods. Animal husbandry cannot be taken out of the equation in many parts of the world where plant agriculture involves manure, traction, and waste recycling – that is, if the land allows sustainable crop growth in the first place. Traditional livestock gets people through difficult seasons, prevents malnutrition in impoverished communities, and provides economic security.
Follow the Money
Often, those championing vegan diets in the West are unaware of such nuances. In April 2019, for example, Canadian conservation scientist, Brent Loken, addressed India’s Food Standards Authority on behalf of EAT-Lancet’s “Great Food Transformation” campaign, describing India as “a great example” because “a lot of the protein sources come from plants.” Yet such talk in India is far from uncontroversial.
The country ranks 102 out of 117 qualifying countries on the Global Hunger Index, and only 10% of infants between six and 23 months old are adequately fed. While the World Health Organization recommends animal-source foods as sources of high-quality nutrients for infants, food policy there spearheads an aggressive new Hindu nationalism that has led to many of India’s minority communities being treated as outsiders. Even eggs in school meals have become politicized. Here, calls to consume less animal products are part of a deeply vexed political context.
Likewise, in Africa, food wars are seen in sharp relief as industrial-scale farming by transnationals for crops and vegetables takes fertile land away from mixed family farms (including cattle and dairy) and exacerbates social inequality.
The result is that today, private interest and political prejudices often hide behind the grandest talk of “ethical” diets and planetary sustainability even as the consequences may be nutritional deficiencies, biodiversity-destroying monocultures, and the erosion of food sovereignty.
For all the warm talk, global food policy is really an alliance of industry and capital intent on both controlling and distorting food production.
Martin Cohen is a visiting research fellow in philosophy at University of Hertfordshire.
Frédéric Leroy is a professor of food science and biotechnology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
We seem to have forgotten that, just like meat, vegan food can damage the planet…
Consumers are gobbling down plant-based burgers, prompting meat producers to question the health benefits of “ultra-processed imitations.”
“That’s what I get for betting against the vegan movement.”
Christmas Day 2004 marked the first time snow fell in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in 109 years. Residents raced to make their first snow angels, build their first snowmen and have their first snowball fights… and some packed snowballs in Ziploc bags or Tupperware and stuffed them in the back of their freezers.
From Amsterdam to Venice, in 2019 authorities came up with new rules to fight the crowds and make life better for locals. Have any of them worked? And what’s on the cards for 2020?
And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
January 27, 2020