Last weekend Ezra Klein’s New York Times Opinion column focused on the future of meat. There was nothing futuristic about the photo: a pair of hands, wedding-banded and watch-wearing, clutching a greasy half-pounder dripping with American cheese. The headline: “Let’s Launch a Moonshot for Meatless Meat.”
Klein opens: “I’m a vegan, but I’m also a realist.” His realism: Even though animal farming is so destructive (true) and the politics of meat-eating are so fraught (also true), we can have our steaks and eat them, by developing meat-like stand-ins made from the usual soy and additives and, later, those engineered in labs.
The way to get Americans to eat less meat, according to Klein, is to use tax dollars to re-engineer it, trusting that environmental and health issues will be solved by new biotechnology and venture capital. There is no mention of eating, farming, processing, and encouraging actual food — just a push for a high-tech, junk-food substitute for high-tech, junk-food animal products.
On Klein’s part, the push for meat alternatives comes from a place of caring and well-meaning. Meat as a cultural and political symbol is a live wire, vulnerable to scaremongering and totally untouchable in the eyes of many. The hesitancy to avoid policing, taxing, rationing, shaming, or otherwise intervening in diets directly makes sense enough.
It’s funny, in a way, because the perfect meat alternative exists, and has always existed. It’s natural, delicious, sustainable — even soil boosting! It takes no research dollars and is the world’s most important protein source. It’s called the legume. Sure, it’s not smoked brisket or a juicy burger, but it has fed cultures for centuries.
As soon as the federal government stops propping up the meat industry and starts helping real people eat real food as opposed to Whoppers — whether Impossible or impossibly destructive — the sooner we can eliminate meat from the center of our plates. Our country’s diverse culinary tradition, some of which omit meat entirely, can play a primary role in showing us the way.
The people calling for the meatless revolution — the alt-meat entrepreneurs, the fast-food- and agribusiness giants that have hedged their bets on alt-meat for years, think tank bloggers, Silicon Valley and Wall Street investors, and a select group of tech-y vegans, all moderately or extremely wealthy — are almost all white and male.
Indeed, here’s what fake meat “success” looks like: The Impossible Whopper costs as much as three times more to make than a “regular” Whopper, costs $1 or $2 more at the drive-thru, and parallels the nutritional value of a regular Whopper, which is next to nothing. Even so, if these technologies become cost-competitive, it’s a fantasy to believe they’ll replace other products. Chicken revolutionized the industry with its price, accessibility, and health halo, but as one study from this week shows, its arrival didn't suppress consumption of other meats: They all grew together.
This “solution” simply compounds existing inequality and in no way makes the world any more just, healthy, or kind. We can be braver than this.
After his piece ran, Klein wrote on Twitter, “There’s no conversation to be had about banning or taxing or undermining meat. But you can do what you did with electric cars and start helping the alt-protein industry get better.”
That’s dead wrong and ignores the hard work of food-related (and climate, farming, health, and justice) activists who target factory farms every day. Far from invulnerable, Big Meat is facing as much pushback as Big Energy. Industries that are comfortable in their position in society don’t take out full-page ads in the Sunday New York Times to make tactless, declarative statements about their important contributions — as Tyson did a year ago and JBS did last week. This pattern does not project confidence. In fact, it comes off desperate.
Luckily, there’s a lot more to America than hamburgers, and the media can play a role in breaking new ground, ushering us into the 21st century. Instead of saying, “They’ll never give up their hamburgers,” we ought to ask, “What would they give up their hamburgers for?”
What would some of those bold, unprecedented policies be that are better for us in every way and also ameliorate our meat problem? Here are just a few:
Set a livable minimum wage across the economy, and make real food more accessible. Hungry people who work hard and long are the ones who must buy fast food, cheap meat, and junk. Don’t give more choice in the market; lift the prosperity of working-class Americans while supplying the market with affordable and healthy alternatives.
Provide a swift path to citizenship for immigrants, and eliminate the tipped wage. Undocumented labor powers the meat and restaurant industries and allows corporations to pocket the profits on denied benefits, taxes, and fair wages.
Phase out medium and large CAFOs. Cory Booker has introduced a bill that would get it done. We don’t need these animal-raising facilities any more than we need coal plants. Even easier: Enforce existing regulations. One other thing that would cut meat consumption with almost no work? Full transparency in the form of publicly available webcam broadcasts of factory farms and slaughterhouses.
Ramp up collective bargaining, accountability, and inspection in the meatpacking industry. Injuries happen in meatpacking plants because bosses are constantly trying to speed up the chain that moves along carcasses by minimizing the inspections required — they even want their own employees to do it. Slow them down, provide union representation to stand up for workers, and make workers’ jobs safer.
Start talking about land reform. Returning land to Indigenous people, and making Black people, other people of color, and women equal partners in land ownership and farming will improve food sovereignty and provide us with a collective right to determine what we eat. We don’t have that now: Our diet is determined in corporate boardrooms based on what’s most profitable.
The uncomfortable reality is that stopping meat production means stopping meat production, not producing something else that reminds us of meat. The latest report from the meat-substitute industry says that if all goes according to plan, these tech meats will be 22 percent of the global market by 2035, and that’s hardly enough, especially while the OECD predicts a 12 percent expansion in meat production by the end of this decade. We ought to confront agribusiness, and the myths that preserve their power, head-on.
Still, you might say that technology is easier because it doesn’t disrupt the status quo. Yet our democracy, our collective health, and our environment need us to get behind bigger, progressive policies that disrupt our current path on climate change and our careening toward oligarchy. Giving up on this kind of change is giving up on the future.