Dan Murphy: False and Deceptive Positioning

Veggie burgers
Veggie burgers

Modern marketing is all about connecting product attributes with consumers’ fundamental values. But with the positioning of the alt-meat category, that approach is seriously misguided.

I’ve got shamburger fatigue.

Each day, even a cursory scan of the morning news feed reveals half a dozen breathless articles about how the wave of alt-meat introductions is causing Millennials to literally salivate; how plant-based formulations are going to revolutionize the entire business of food production; and how the multi-billions in profit that entrepreneurs and speculators are planning to pocket as all the Impossible, Unbelievable, Astounding burgers take over foodservice is the most wonderful business development since the introduction of credit cards.

Yes, there’s a powerful novelty effect in rolling out a new food category — plants that taste like meat! — and that’s not to be underestimated. It reminds me of a similar groundswell from yesteryear, one that was also fueled by media coverage: the “miraculous” development of shelf-stable, microwaveable, ready-to-eat-’n-eat entrées.

Those first-gen packages of pre-cooked lasagna and raviolis were so new, so out-of-the-box that manufacturers actually encouraged their retail supermarket customers to display them in the refrigerated case. You know, so consumers wouldn’t get confused by foods they always believed need to be frozen.

However, the bigger issue I have with the media’s obsession with alt-meat products isn’t about reporters and writers flogging the category to drum up excitement. These new products, and the technology behind their development, are genuinely exciting.

No, my problem is with the clueless positioning of faux foods as some sort of savior sent to rescue Western societies from the problems exacerbated by the food industry’s relentless drive to promote convenience, indulgence and instant gratification, all of which support agricultural and food processing systems premised on a foundation that is now crumbling.

We — meaning all of us; red, blue and in between — are faced with severe and immediate challenges on a number of fronts, coupled with existential crises once thought to be generations away that are now staring at us from just over the immediate horizon.

And all of the plant protein-based product reformulations on Earth won’t change that reality, nor save us from having to face up to the source of our dilemmas: our lifestyles.

Real-world resource constraints

And that’s where the fallacy of the “alt-meat revolution” comes in.

We are in the midst of a climate crisis, triggered by the burning of fossil fuels and exacerbated by population growth and resource depletion, that has already impacted agricultural productivity.

And it’s only going to get worse, unless we can embrace a bold new agenda.

Take California, for example. The Golden State has been in the news for the last couple years due to horrific wildfires that have wiped out entire towns and made thousands of people homeless. News coverage has documented the lingering droughts that created the tinder box conditions fueling the fires but failed to document an equally distressing development.

That same on-again drought, again coupled with climate change that’s making California’s winters warmer and its summer hotter and drier, has put pressure on the monumental irrigation systems that have transformed the state’s Central Valley from a semi-arid savanna, suitable for grazing animals, into the nation’s primary source of all those fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts vegans insist should comprise out “natural” diet.

But the warmer winter, hotter summers and ongoing droughts have curtailed the once-bountiful flow of irrigation water to the valley, to the extent that researchers in the Center for Plant Breeding at UC-Davis estimated that as much as two million acre feet of water — beyond replenishment — is being pumped out of California’s underground aquifers to maintain the thousands of square miles of farm fields and orchards.

And once we abandon production of animal foods in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables washed down with almond milk, as the alt-meat intelligentsia so eagerly anticipate, where are all those vegan staples going to be produced if California’s agricultural systems end up on life support?

To date, the wave of factory foods manufactured from processed plant-based ingredients have been marketed on the basis of taste and convenience, while being surrounded by a feel-good aura of environmental sanctity.

Yet even if the rosiest of predictions regarding the energy and resource savings allegedly to be gained by a massive shift in our dietary choices away from animal foods, that won’t address the fundamental misconception responsible for the threat of climate change, and the consequent opportunity to position alt-meat foods as the solution.

From the earliest colonial settlers, who slashed-and-burned the virgin forests to grow cotton and tobacco crops that quickly depleted the soil, to modern extraction industries that operate as if sources of coal, oil and minerals will never run out, we’ve been indoctrinated like members of a cult in the gospel of limitless abundance.

Despite centuries of clearcutting, strip mining, overfishing and gobbling up farmland through urban sprawl, we’re still enamored by a delusion that Nature is limitless, causing so many of us to be numb to the real and urgent constraints that are already beginning to cripple food and energy production.

Farmland is not limitless and cannot be exploited without consequence.

Oil is a finite resource and cannot be extracted and consumed without consequence.

Ecosystems aren’t bulletproof and cannot be drained, plowed or paved over without consequence.

And all the test-tube technology deployed to produce faux foods from ingredients historically foreign to human physiology won’t alter that reality.

To truly embrace sustainability, we need to do much more than merely order an Impossible Whopper, along with large fries and soda, as we sit idling in the drive-thru lane.

What has to change is our false and dangerous mindset: that we need only tweak our purchasing patterns; that we need only switch from (allegedly) eco-unfriendly meat and poultry to “healthier” plant proteins and produce; and that we can continue choosing ever-more convenient, highly processed food products to be loaded into our shopping carts or tossed through our car windows, and as long as those items weren’t sourced from a farm animal, we can relax and ignore the myriad ways our consumption patterns and lifestyle choices contribute to problems that, like it or not, we’ll be forced to confront in the decades ahead.

Like the vegan lifestyle itself (which also fascinates the media), there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of the wonders of modern food science and the sophisticated processing and distribution systems three-quarters of the world’s population can only dream about to subsist on products manufactured with non-animal ingredients.

Just stop with preaching about how eating processed shamburgers will somehow solve the existential crises with which we’re now confronted and from which we can’t escape merely by fine-tuning our food choices.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.


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