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Meating in the Middle
On meat, alternatives, and making the right choice
Isabela from Feminist Food Journal here, with this month’s (and our first official!) Letter from the Editors. Each month, Zoë and I will be taking turns writing about the food- and gender-related topics that are on our minds, through personal essays, resource round-ups, interviews, and more.
A few weeks ago, my partner and I applied for a research consulting gig focused on “alternative proteins”, industry speak for meat substitutes. The idea was to produce a report that analyzed the environmental, nutritional, and social impact of meat substitutes — everything from bean burgers to seitan sausages to the still-elusive lab-grown meats — and articulated what role these products should have in a more sustainable food system.
We didn’t end up getting the job; they instead went with a wisened academic toting a hefty network of contacts, which was entirely fair. But being the semi-obsessive researcher that I am, I went down a total rabbit hole in the days that preceded our interview, gorging myself on dense life-cycle analyses and fighting to access academic journals behind the iron paywall. Around the time we found out the disappointing news, something strange happened. Maybe it was because I was simply more tuned into the subject, but it felt like discussions on alternative proteins were suddenly popping up everywhere — on the FoodPrint podcast, in the Technically Food newsletter, and in the New York Times — and that many were examining the same issues as the report.
These are important discussions. The true environmental costs associated with our industrial meat- and dairy-heavy diets are unsustainable, as every climate scientist now agrees on. From my perspective (and that of many others), the ethical and human costs are also untenable. We need to eat differently; that much is clear. What we need to eat, and how it should get to us, is where it gets trickier. As a researcher — but also as a human who cares about this planet — it can feel overwhelming to untangle the knot of variables related to the great “protein transition”.
This is particularly true for the potential economic and cultural impacts, which tend to be overshadowed by the ethical and environmentalones that dominate the headlines. Until now, mainstream narratives have framed alternative (or “plant-based”) meats as salvation from all the ills that conventional meat consumption brings: animal abuse, environmental degradation, antibiotics, and chemicals in our food. Only recently has attention really turned to the downsides of solving a problem — industrial animal agriculture — we ourselves have created under capitalism, with, as Alicia Kennedy aptly put it, “more, better capitalism.”
The more I learn about alternative meats (here, I’m talking about the ultra-processed and/or high-tech kind), the more uncertain I feel about their role in helping us to reach a more sustainable future, one where we can balance the needs of animals and the environment with those of economic justice and culture.
More money, same problems
First of all, there’s big money in alternative proteins. Investors have coughed up US$3 billion for innovation in cellular agriculture with the expectation that the market could reach $25 billion by 2030. With the current race for patents on new technological discoveries, it’s obvious that this capital (like that of the usual Big Food players) is going to stay concentrated. And centralizing investments (and eventual profits) with meat tech companies (and the actual meat companies like Tyson, JBS, and Cargill which have ironically now jumped on the alternative-meat bandwagon) doesn’t exactly support objectives like breaking up corporate monopolies and promoting food justice for all. As FoodPrint notes in their report, “The Footprint of Fake Meat”:
The ease with which these same companies can retool themselves to succeed at producing meat alternatives speaks to the core issue of presenting meat alternatives as a solution for the problems of industrial meat: while it’s true that they have a smaller environmental footprint than industrial beef, pork and chicken, meat alternatives are made from the same inputs. Dramatically scaling up production — the only way that meat alternatives can become cheap enough to have a chance at displacing meat sales — may require fewer resources than producing more meat, but it is the opposite of divesting from the industrial food system that causes so many problems in the first place.
These “inputs” (like soy, wheat, and peas) are going to have to come from somewhere, and that’s where farmers, and questions of their future, come into play. The transition away from meat is often framed by big tech and industry in terms of opportunities: Farmers can pivot to growing the crops needed to create alternative proteins, or keeping a smaller, constant herd of animals to sample for cell-based meat products. The land freed up from big agriculture could instead be used for high animal welfare farming or regenerative agriculture (if the soil is not completely depleted). We can even dream of a future where the bioreactors needed to scale cells into steaks are located in rural communities and farmers are trained to use them. But with the way the wheels of the food industry turn, I see shiny promises of equity in our meat-lite future as unlikely. After all, this change is being led by the same industry that has milked the margins of farmers dry over the past decades. Without targeted policy support, many farmers and their communities will struggle if alternative meats soon reach the 10% market share predicted by Cargill’s CEO.
A cultural flashpoint you can eat
This could be one reason why the discussion on alternative proteins, at least in North America, seems to fracture across the same lines as the now-typical liberal-conservative, urban-rural divides. In my interview for the research report, the hiring manager asked me what risks I saw around the rise of meat substitutes on the market. I told her that I’m worried about alternative proteins becoming politicized to the point that eating plant-based becomes unpalatable to certain groups. For the past few years, it’s been hard not to feel like society is crumbling. Meat substitutes, like COVID-19 vaccines, could become just another political soccer ball being kicked around between teams who have lost sight of what it would mean to even win the game. Research has already identified many polarizing narratives around meat alternatives: clean vs. dirty, real vs. fake, progress vs. tradition. I would add another to that list: manly vs. soft. And I feel particularly anxious about that (false) dichotomy, having recently edited articles on the myth of feminizing soy and the future of cultivated milk for our MILK issue.
One only needs to look at food advertisements to see how the Western patriarchy has gendered animal-based foods. High-octane, macho energy permeates ads for big barbecues and burgers; women laugh tautly over low-cal salad dressings. If eating meat is the epitome of manliness, what does this mean for a widespread shift away from meat? Does it mean that without a simultaneous paradigm shift in our social conceptions of food, gender, and power, the only acceptable meat substitutes could be the lab-grown ones that are based on animal cells, and therefore those that still retain some element of blood and grit? Crucially, will this focus on imitation come at the expense of finding more systemic solutions to the problems of our food system?
These are big, serious questions, with no straightforward answers. And paradigm shift aside, there is an ongoing debate on whether ultra-processed alternative proteins are even good for us. Although the precise relationship is still being investigated, ultra-processed foods appear to cause inflammation in our gut, which is in turn linked to a range of adverse health outcomes. This doesn’t surprise me; I’ve long felt that I struggle to digest food containing ingredients unrecognizable from their original form. A few weeks back I ate a Beyond Meat burger and farted miserably for two days afterwards. Pea protein may sound good on the label, but the truth is, that protein has pretty much nothing in common with the pea from which it was laboriously extracted.
So what’s a well-meaning eater to do?
All of this bad news on alternative meat is rather disheartening as a consumer. I don’t want to contribute to fattening the wallets of tech bros and big industry while further eroding food sovereignty and disenfranchising rural communities. I want to make the right choices: right by the planet, by animals, by food workers, by my own health, and selfishly, my own palate and insatiable appetite for engaging with the world through food.But sometimes it feels like the right choice — the one that gets a gold star on every metric — doesn’t exist. Sometimes I wonder if it’s about mixing up the metrics you select for, trying your best to strike the right balance over time.
But in the end, perhaps it shouldn’t be about reductionist metrics at all. After all, people consume foods, not isolated proteins. Just because something has the same nutritional profile doesn’t mean that it’s interchangeable in the collective and personal imagination. Through food, we build families, cultures, and identities. There’s something moving about watching my French parents-in-law spend a full Saturday dismembering whole geese to confit and store for the winter; to separate them from these practices would be, in a way, to separate them from who they are. One could argue that we need to start forging new identities based on new types of foods, but I still see value in some of the old ones. In the freshly-published words of researchers critiquing the blanket framing of meat and dairy as incompatible with a sustainable food system:
A more appropriate way forward would consist of combining and integrating the best of animal and plant solutions to reconnect with wholesome and nourishing diets that are rooted in undervalued benefits such as conviviality and shared traditions, thus steering away from a nutrient-centric dogma.
In my view, holding space for culturally sensitive dietary patterns while saving our planet and animals from the ills of the industrial food system is the ideal destination. Getting there will require the support of the kind of careful, considered policy-making that we haven’t really seen anywhere yet, at least at scale. Currently, people who want to honour their cultural foodways by sourcing high-quality animal products may find that their ever-rising living costs and stagnant wages leave them unable to afford it, or that it racks up a hefty carbon footprint in getting to them. Governments urgently need to divest from rickety systems of industrial agriculture to agro-ecological practices. But even with these changes, the role of high-quality meat in a diet that respects planetary boundaries will still need to be limited. Neither better meat nor alternative meat is going to save us.
The hard truth is that we just need to eat more vegetables — the minimally processed kind. This is a tough answer to confront, because in my heart of hearts, I struggle, sometimes, to see it becoming a widespread reality. It’s possible, of course. To some degree, we all have the choice to change how we eat, and many new voices in the food media are showing us how. But still, I recognize that for many people, cooking meat (or a meat alternative) feels pretty straightforward, and centering a vegetable doesn’t. It’s a skill to be able to envision, and then execute, a nutritionally balanced, plant-based meal, when so many of us have been raised to spotlight meat on our plates. (Heck, even Eleven Madison Park couldn’t get it right.) And learning new skills isn’t always an easy feat in the capitalist hamster wheel many of us find ourselves looping around much of the time.
I’m not throwing my hands up in the air and declaring the planet doomed, at least not yet. I dream of a world where more people have the time and inspiration to slow-cook shitake into char sui (honestly, that was the best bánh mì I ever had). I hope that a few generations down the line, it will seem unfathomable that we ever relied on factory farming or monocropping to get us by. But in my darker moments, I question whether we can shift hearts and minds away from meat on a large scale — for the aforementioned reasons related to gender, to culture, and to the difficulty of change in these polarized times — at the speed that we need to.
My parents-in-law, who have the culinary chops to pull off just about any vegetarian recipe, are still likely to toss an escalope, not a cauliflower, into a pan on a busy Tuesday night. At Christmas, I watch them impatiently waiting for the annual quail pie to come out of the oven, their fingers stiff from an evening of deboning the birds so they can be stuffed with foie gras. The local quail isn’t, in my view, the problem. But I see their anticipation approach something that, for people who aren’t much interested in the birthday of the Christ, looks a lot like reverence. I wonder for how many other households, and with what frequency, this type of reverence of meat could ever be satisfied by an alternative. While the pie is baking, it’s impossible for them to focus on opening presents or sitting by the fire; the gamey aromas wafting out of the kitchen get them worked up into a near-religious fervour. Leaving the church won’t be easy, even if the world depends on it.
That’s all from me for now. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider sharing it. Tomorrow, paid subscribers will receive a newsletter introducing Zoë and myself in more detail. In it, we have a video chat of us discussing what we loved about producing MILK (and starting FFJ), what we learned, and what we want to do next. It also includes some behind-the-scenes footage from the week before launch.
Finally, in case you aren’t tired of us yet, a few weeks ago we were lucky enough to record a podcast episode with the brilliant Fahreen Budhwani at SuperSmashHoes Media. In it, we talk about the importance of intersectionality in feminist food work, the challenges of running a feminist business in today’s hyper content-driven economy, our own journeys into food studies, and more.
On the environmental impacts: although it’s hard to find studies that aren’t sponsored by food companies themselves, research generally shows alternative proteins having less of an environmental footprint in terms of greenhouse gas, energy, water, and land use than their meat analogues. (A precise product-to-product comparison depends on what exactly is in the specific meat alternative, and how it’s made.) It’s worth noting that many of the inputs required for ultra-processed meat alternatives are grown in monocropping systems.
A balance that we’ve struck in our household over the past few years is to avoid bringing meat and dairy home (in the rare cases we do, it’s always of the highest quality we can afford) but to eat whatever our hearts desire when we’re at restaurants and dinner parties.
An excerpt from Pete Wells’ review of their newly vegan menu for the NYT: “In tonight’s performance, the role of the duck will be played by a beet, doing things no root vegetable should be asked to do. Over the course of three days it is roasted and dehydrated before being wrapped in fermented greens and stuffed into a clay pot, as if it were being sent to the underworld with the pharaoh.”