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Why we should care who makes vegan food

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23rd Oct 2019

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Why should we care who makes vegan food?  Sure, vegans should – but does it matter to the rest of us if companies who specialise in meat production or who have poor record on sustainability or animal welfare are producing plant burgers?

That’s the big debate splashed all over the New York Times last week which puts the vegan meat industry under the microscope.

The NYT story runs:

“Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, scrappy start-ups that share a penchant for superlatives and a commitment to protecting the environment, have dominated the relatively new market for vegetarian food that looks and tastes like meat.

But with plant-based burgers, sausages and chicken increasingly popular and available in fast-food restaurants and grocery stores across the United States, a new group of companies has started making meatless meat: the food conglomerates and meat producers that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods originally set out to disrupt.

In recent months, major food companies like Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue, Hormel and Nestlé have rolled out their own meat alternatives, filling supermarket shelves with plant-based burgers, meatballs and chicken nuggets.”

The article then goes on to talk about how plant based food is being purchased by non-vegans – i.e. flexitarians like me. It’s no surprise that KFC, Burger King and others all want a slice of the vegan pie and the growth of vegan food in US supermarkets.

The debate mirrors a trend that has been happening the UK for over three years. Now every supermarket champions its own vegan range and Tesco has produced a vegan advert featuring a child who doesn’t want to eat animals.

I would argue that the debate should expand to encompass the cost to the planet of meat production. This is an issue Claudia Romo Edelman and I looked at in a recent Global GoalsCast podcast. We know that globally, animal agriculture is responsible for 13–18% of greenhouse gas emissions. 

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Cow burps (see podcast) are brutal for the planet.

And it is more than carbon emissions. 

A flourishing life on land is the foundation for our life on this planet.  We are all part of the planet’s ecosystem and we have caused severe damage to it through deforestation, loss of natural habitats and land degradation. As a recent biodiversity report shows, industrial agriculture and overfishing are the primary drivers of the extinction crisis, with the meat and dairy industries having a substantial impact. Of course, industrial agriculture is not the only culprit. 

Nevertheless promoting a sustainable use of our ecosystems and preserving biodiversity is not a cause. It is the key to our own survival.

And if that’s too tree-hugger for you, consider that the economic value of ecosystems to human livelihoods and well-being is $US125 trillion per year.

So it does matter that vegan food is being produced by companies who up until now have specialised in animal products. For all the excitement Greggs garnered when it launched a vegan sausage roll, we have to remember this a company that sells 1.5 million meat snacks a week. And it obviously isn’t just Greggs. Several of the big players the article references – Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue, Hormel and Nestlé – have been accused of disregard for the environment and having poor records on animal welfare. 

Though I am cheered by Nestle, Tyson and Smithfield’s sustainability moves, reducing consumption of meat by richer, western countries currently isn’t happening fast enough to make a difference.  For more on that have a listen to The Unsustainable Ratio

So while it is great to see vegan food going mainstream, driving competition – but it doesn’t mean that vegans, as well as committed environmentally driven flexitarians like me should just hold our noses and ignore the fact that many of the new big players in vegan meat actually specialise in the real thing.

If you’re going to try a plant burger – I’d argue to go for one of the cleaner vegan startups disrupting the marketer like Impossible, Beyond and Violife, Vurger, Moving Mountains in the UK.

What do you think?

Written by Edie Lush, Executive Editor, Hub Culture