The Aquarian’s first 25 years have seen an awakening of conscience about the ethics of our food choices. What will the next 25 bring?
By SYD BAUMEL
Back in 1992 when The Aquarian first hit the stands, most people thought of at most three things when making a food choice:
- Does it taste good?
- Can I afford it?
- Is it good for me?
Not anymore. Over the past fifteen or twenty years, a fourth consideration has become top-of-mind for thoughtful eaters:
- Is it good for others – for other animals, other people, for our one-and-only planet and biosphere?
By 2003, The Aquarian had devoted an entire issue to this fourth consideration, and we were among the first to give it a name: ethical eating.
Of course, there have always been people for whom diet is an ethical concern. Pythagoras was the first principled vegetarian. In its modern incarnation, ethical eating is making people care about such things as:
- Were the people who made my food fairly compensated and not exploited or enslaved (e.g., Fair Trade coffee and chocolate)?
- Were the animals whose meat, eggs or milk I’m thinking of eating treated well or awfully, or somewhere in between (e.g., certified humane and organic, cage-free, free range)?
- Is this food a gas guzzler or a Tesla (e.g., organic, vegan)?
Some ethical eating trends have grown explosively. Fairtrade International estimates that in 2015, Canadians spent roughly $400 million on coffee and other Fairtrade-certified products, up 16 percent from 2014. Globally, Fairtrade sales reached 7.3 billion euros. These Fairtrade food choices are a boon to one and a half million participating farmers in the world’s poorest countries.
Meanwhile, farmers in affluent countries are benefiting from our growing appetite for organic food. In 1992, organic products (mostly foods) accounted for about $1 billion in sales in the United States. Last year, they rang in $47 billion. This double digit growth trend is the same in Canada.
The Fall of Factory Farming
One reason ethical eaters choose organic is to limit the suffering of farmed animals. People are awakening to the fact that meat, milk and eggs have become the single greatest cause of animal abuse, with over 70 billion animals farmed and killed every year, mostly on factory farms.
Years ago, Paul McCartney famously mused: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.” The first half of McCartney’s saying is coming true. Thanks to a surge in undercover investigations in the age of social media and YouTube, more and more ethical eaters are indeed peering through glass walls into the world of factory farming. And most are appalled.
As recently as a dozen years ago, it seemed like a pipe dream that the North American meat industry would ever yield to activist pressure to give up its cages. But thanks to consumer outrage, it finally is.
The caging of egg-laying hens and pregnant breeding sows has long been a focus of animal advocates. In Europe, the protests bore fruit in the 1990s. Most of the cages in the European Union have now been phased out or replaced with comparatively humane cages offering more space and an enriched environment that permits the animals to express some of their most vital instincts. But in Canada and the United States, most hens and sows are still crammed inside barren cages with barely room to stretch, let alone peck dirt or root in straw.
Thankfully, due to years of pressure from animal activists and ethical eaters, that’s changing. In the late 2000s, the movers and shakers of the meat and livestock industry – at first in a trickle, then in a wave – began publicly committing to phase out these inhumane confinement systems, typically within 10 or 15 years. Eggs from cage-free operations (organic, free run, etc.) already account for about 10 percent of purchases. But if the industry lives up to its commitments, products from caged animals will likely be the exception rather than the rule within a decade.
Ethical eaters will need to hold the industry accountable to live up to the spirit of cage-free housing, not just the letter. On the cheap, with lax oversight, producers can make cage-free (or enriched cage) housing just another variation of factory farm hell. Nor can ethical eaters assume their cage-free meat, milk and eggs will necessarily come from humanely treated animals. Other abuses remain endemic in the livestock industry: trucking animals to slaughter for days without rest, food, water or protection from weather extremes, disposing of unwanted animals (spent hens, newborn male chicks in hen hatcheries, runty piglets) in horrifyingly brutal ways are some examples.
The Rise of Plant-Based Eating
Many ethical eaters are disapproving of modern meat by eating less of it – or none at all.
Surveys are too inconsistent to say if vegetarianism has been on the rise since the 1990s. The figure hovers around two to five percent. But veganism is on a tear. If the ratio of vegetarians (who eat eggs and/or milk and cheese) to vegans (who eat no animal products) was 10 to 1 a decade or two ago, recent surveys suggest it has rocketed to something closer to 3 to 1 or even 2 to 1.
For the animals who bear the brunt of humanity’s meat-craving ways, a handful of near-vegetarians can be as valuable as a single vegan. Research suggests that for every committed vegan or vegetarian out there, there are two or three times as many people who think of themselves as vegan or vegetarian even though, strictly speaking, they aren’t (hello! chicken and fish aren’t vegetables), or who follow near-vegetarian diets and know it.
There have been efforts to give ethical eaters like these a flag to fly their food values under – a catchy label, like “flexitarian.” We’re tribal creatures when it comes to our cherished values, and if a socially attractive label helps motivate us to eat more ethically without having to swear an oath of vegan purity, I say bring it on. And bring on the flexitarian diet plans. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman calls his “VB6,” for “eat vegan before 6:00.” Graham Hill, the founder of TreeHugger.com, practises “weekday vegetarianism.” My prescription is “eat like a vegan as much as you can.” It’s a great way to warm up to the rewards of a plant-based diet.
The rise of ethical eating has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that per capita consumption of animal foods has been stagnant in Western countries for decades, since peaking in the 1960s. But meat eating is still growing by leaps and bounds in emerging economies like China and India. As the world’s population rises toward 10 billion by mid-century, authorities like the UN’s Food and Agrculture Organization expect global demand for meat to swell by over 70 percent, with dairy not far behind. This is a diet-based disaster in the making. A recent study from the University of Oxford projects that by 2050 man’s meat-heavy menu will account for one half of the carbon we dare emit and still have a shot at holding global warming under 2°C – the “do not pass: extreme danger” zone. (We’re already at 1°C.)
What if we all switched to the healthy omnivorous diet low in red meat and high in fruits and vegetables recommended by public health authorities? The Oxford scientists estimate this would cut those 2050 diet-related emissions by 29 percent. But if we switch to a vegetarian version of the healthy eating guidelines, they say, the impact would be 63 percent; a vegan version: 70 percent. All the while, the effect on health would likely save trillions of dollars and as many as 8.1 million lives per year.
Obviously, we need to be moving away from meat, not closer to it. To which most people still respond, “Mmmm, bacon.”
Is there any hope?
Meet Your New Meat
Twenty-five years ago, if you were a recovering omnivore craving bacon or chicken fingers, the plant-based pickings were awfully slim.
Boy, has that changed.
Today, delicious, satisfying and often pretty convincing plant-based substitutes for ice cream, chicken, hamburger, sausages, meatballs, cow’s milk, cream cheese, mayonnaise, sour cream, fish sticks, cheese – most everything but believable bacon, it seems – are easy to find in most well-stocked foodstores. If you’re averse to soy, there are delicious soy-free options. If gluten isn’t your thing, there’s gluten-free. If it has to be no GMOs or organic – no problem.
It’s a mark of how successful these alt meat products have been that multi-billion dollar food companies keep buying them up. The ubiquitous Vancouver-based Yves Veggie Cuisine, for example, was sold to Hain Celestial in 2001. Yves founder, Yves Potvin, promptly outdid himself with Gardein Protein International, which, in turn, was gobbled up by Pinnacle Foods in 2014 for $175 million. Vegan aficionados may fret that these companies are selling out. But it’s the big fish of the food industry who are best equipped to bring these planet-saving proteins to the masses – and at prices anyone can afford.
We’re far from there yet. With alt meats typically costing 50 to 100 percent more than the animal foods they replace, most shoppers won’t give them the time of day.
But what if they were cheaper and tasted just as good, perhaps even better?
That’s the mission of an ambitious new wave of food startups whose goal is to “disrupt meat” and save the planet. Generously funded by the likes of Bill Gates, Sergey Brin (Google’s cofounder) and other idealistic billionaires, their goal is to make it irresistible for everyone to eat like a vegan, from American soccer moms to Chinese factory workers.
This is the brave new world where a meatless “Impossible Burger” oozes blood and beefy flavour, thanks to a plant-based heme molecule grown by genetically engineered yeast.
This is the age of clean, green foodtech where no vegetable protein, no flavour molecule, is left unturned by Silicon Valley scientists in the search for that perfect fit for faking the taste, feel, aroma and sizzle of beef, chicken, bacon and eggs.
This is where the holy grail of cheap, environmentally friendly “clean meat,” mass produced in bioreactors from the stem cells of unharmed animals, is being hotly pursued by two competing companies founded by medical professors (vascular physiologist Mark Post, MD, of the Netherlands’ Mosa Meat and cardiologist Uma Valeti of Silicon Valley’s Memphis Meats).
The same cleantech entrepreneurship that has delivered solar power cheaper than coal may soon bring us “clean bacon” cheaper than the kind grown on factory farms. The ethical food industry could spawn its very own Tesla, maybe even an Apple.
But so far, these brave new meats are more about the sizzle than the steak.
Impossible Foods’ harmlessly bloody Impossible Burger, which debuted at a trendy Manhattan restaurant last year, has been greeted with rave reviews (“I feel like I’m doing something wrong,” said one lifetime vegan). But as of August, 2017, it was only available in a smattering of American restaurants. Not unlike Tesla, which began nine years ago with a luxury sports car and is only now rolling out a model for the masses, Impossible Foods vows: “the Impossible Burger is only the beginning….We are already developing other types of meat and dairy. Our team of scientists and food researchers can make chicken, pork, fish or yogurt entirely from plants.” Impossible’s dream is to be sold everywhere – and cheap. This March, they announced they were on the brink of scaling up production to a million pounds of product a month. “We’re dead serious about our mission,” founder and CEO Patrick Brown, a medical doctor and former Stanford University professor of biochemistry, said. “That means any food product that currently is produced using animals, we intend to create a product that can compete.”
The ascent to disruption is even steeper for the would-be clean meat merchants, including Mosa Meat, the Dutch company that unveiled the world’s first cultured meat burger in 2013 – a proof-of-concept-burger still gruesomely dependent on the blood serum of fetuses from slaughtered cows as a growth medium and years away from being a commercial product – and California’s Memphis Meats, which served up its own cultured stem-cell chicken strips and duck a l’orange at a press event this March, succulently hinting at what the clean meat future may hold.
The only brave new meat contender whose faux meats are already widely available – albeit only in the United States – is Beyond Meat. Its “Beyond Burger” (“the best burger ever!” or “gross!” depending on who’s doing the tasting) and chicken strips (realistic enough for Mark Bittman and Bill Gates) are still as pricey as other veggie meats. But backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from Bill Gates, Kleiner Perkins, the founders of Twitter, General Mills, Tyson (yes, the “real” meat company) and the Humane Society of the United States, Beyond Meat’s “long-term goal is to offer a product that can satisfy the world’s growing, and largely unsustainable, demand for meat, especially in ballooning markets like India and China,” according to Slate. And that means it’s gotta be cheap enough for Winnipeg, too.
Last year, Health Canada released a transformative set of proposed revisions for Canada’s food guide. Its recommendations are a sign of the ethical eating times:
In general, diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are associated with a lesser environmental impact, when compared to current diets high in sodium, sugars and saturated fat.
What is needed is a shift towards a high proportion of plant-based foods, without necessarily excluding animal foods altogether.
In other words, eat like a vegan.
Syd Baumel has steered The Aquarian’s coverage of ethical eating since the 1990s. He blogs on better food choices at eatkind.blogspot.ca.