We’ve got work to do, folks.
Since I’m going with the obvious conclusion that the majority of regulars who visit this space have connections to the meat industry, my comments are specifically addressed to the good people in that profession.
PETA, if you’re reading this, you’re welcome to continue, but the rest of this column ain’t about ya’ll.
Here’s the situation: After just a few years of alt-meat sector profiling by both mainstream and special-interest media — much of it in the format of a Hallmark valentine, I’ll admit — it appears that the following two “facts” have become conventional wisdom:
- Consumers are very concerned about the environmental impact of meat production, to the point that millions are becoming vegetarians — at least occasionally — while virtually everyone else is reducing their meat consumption.
- Soon, shamburgers will taste and look the same as conventionally produced meat but will require up to 90% less water and produce dramatically less greenhouse gas emissions.
On point No.1, consider this passage from FoodDive.com, a supposedly “neutral,” business-oriented website: “Many meat eaters find themselves at a crossroads. Many have an interest in helping Earth and reducing their meat consumption because of the industry’s negative environmental impacts, but at the same time, they love the taste of meat.”
Not a lot of nuance in that statement. Meat production is ruining the planet, and people want to help. But oh gee, darn it. Meat tastes so good, what’s a person to do?
That FoodDive.com statement is an outright fallacy.
It’s quite a leap to presume that “many meat-eaters” are at some crossroads in their dietary decision-making. I mean, when more than 120 million eligible Americans didn’t even bother to vote in the last election, I’m not convinced the public is all that concerned about environmental issues, especially when a potential solution might require people to give up something they admittedly love.
On point No. 2, the “90% less water, land and GHG emissions” has achieved the same urban legendary status as the mantra that “3,500 people die every year from foodborne illness.” Neither has been validated as other than an educated guesstimate for the latter, and a fanciful daydream for the former.
The fantasy of Vegan Nation
Both of those increasingly normalized propositions need to be challenged on all fronts by reputable voices within the industry.
By that I mean, the scientific data involving animal agriculture needs to be distilled down. Down to the point consumers unfamiliar with how carbon footprints are measured or why the energy demands of food-industry supply chains aren’t radically different understand that factory-fresh alt-meats cannot be manufactured with some magical methodology that produces delicious, nutritious food products with only a tiny fraction of the energy and resources currently contributed (for free) by sunlight, rainfall and photosynthesis.
In addition, there needs to be pushback against the notion that the country has suddenly gone vegan, that the average American now harbors fear and loathing of animal foods and the livestock from which they’re derived.
Cellular agriculture can and should proceed as an emerging technology that will hopefully complement, rather than cannibalize, existing food production systems. But raising livestock is neither the principal source of the planet’s eco-woes nor an industry going the way of the VCR because some newer, better technology has totally displaced it.
Most importantly, the industry needs to more vigorously communicate its commitment to stewardship of land, resources, energy and livestock. In its most fundamental form, animal husbandry is a local, renewable, sustainable enterprise, one that has made tremendous strides over the last several decades in improving efficiency, productivity and conservation of inputs — not to mention production of leaner, healthier, more nutritious products.
And isn’t that timeframe — from the 1980s to the present — the same one during which producers have increasingly been blamed for climate change, environmental destruction and the rising incidence of a plethora of so-called “lifestyle” diseases?
There needs to be a counter-narrative to the media’s demonization of animal agriculture and meat-eating, and maybe that’s as simple as presenting a juxtaposition of those two trends: Even as red meat consumption has declined dramatically, and producers have gotten more efficient with their use of resources, and the end product has gotten safer and healthier, now the industry’s getting blamed for poisoning people and the planet?
Such an indictment ought to be easy to refute, and if it’s not, it cannot be allowed to stand.
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