Whether Veg or Flexitarian–Ethical Eating is Working

happycowheroIf you sometimes make food choices based on your values rather than your pocketbook or fancy, you should know that those small, occasional pivots are making a difference.

  • You’re on the milk aisle in the grocery store. The milk from penned-up cows is $2.99/gallon; the milk from pasture-grazed cows, $6.49. You hesitate, then pick up the pasture-grazed.
  • You’re out to lunch with colleagues, and the house burger catches your eye. Somewhat reluctantly, you order the veggie version and—to reward yourself—top it with avocado.
  • The in-laws are coming to dinner, and steak and potatoes would be a sure win. You drive the extra mile to the co-op where they advertise that the meat is local and grass-fed.
  • Your seven-year-old visits a petting farm and announces afterwards that she doesn’t eat pigs anymore. When she asks if bacon is from pigs, you grimace but answer honestly.

People make values-based food choices for lots of reasons: improving animal welfare, reducing atmospheric carbon, conserving forest habitat, safeguarding antibiotic efficacy, preventing zoonotic epidemics, or improving food sufficiency to name a few. Of late, it is nearly impossible to avoid articles about the climate-warming farts of grain-fed cattle, the impact of pesticides on bees and other good bugs, the clearcutting of tropical rainforests for beef or palm-oil, or the plight of animals and workers in factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.

Conventional agricultural practices developed because they are the most efficient way to feed a population that more than doubled in the second half of the 20th Century. Farmers work themselves to death, sometimes literally, providing protein to people who could otherwise afford little; and their ill-paid labor has long subsidized cheap food for us all, allowing town and city dwellers to spend elsewhere. I, for one, am profoundly grateful. But this bonus for all of us has often sacrificed the well-being of farmers, land and animals, both domestic and wild. It’s no accident that the average age of farmers in the U.S. is now over 58 and or that there are six farmers over age 65 for every one under 35.

But adjusting long-standing culinary habits doesn’t happen overnight, and most of us will never be fully vegan or vegetarian. Fortunately, change doesn’t have to be all or nothing to be meaningful. I remember the first time a dentist told me, “Flossing even once or twice a week helps protect your teeth.” That worked for me, where “You should floss every day” didn’t. I started flossing occasionally, which eventually grew into a habit. And even if the habit hadn’t emerged, the occasional flossing would have mattered for my teeth.

When it comes to values-driven food choices, it’s easy to wonder whether those occasional actions matter—whether the extra money or effort or willpower is worth it. The answer looks more and more like a clear yes. Your small choices, in concert with those of millions of other people, are changing the ways animals get treated, how food gets produced, and what’s available on grocery shelves or even fast-food menus.

You aren’t alone. More Millennials than any other generation of Americans identify as vegan or vegetarian. Even so, at 12-15 percent of their cohort, they lack the numbers to shift the bulk of food production. Increasingly, though, they are joined part-time by peers and older folks who pollsters call casual vegetarians or flexitarians, meaning people who eat primarily a plant-based diet but continue to enjoy meat on occasion.

According to market-research firm Nielsen, 73 percent of Americans say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce environmental impacts. Specialty products produced by small farmers and distributed to local co-ops and farmers markets have defined aspirational eating for the avocado generation, and now—here’s where the change scales up—the titans of industrial agriculture want in the game.

Not fringe anymore. Big players in the commodity food sector are extremely sensitive to brand issues like trust and safety, and they are eager to be seen as providers of humane and healthy foods—even if they have to become the real deal to get the premium brand and pricing. Sales of more-sustainable products (those carrying free-from, sustainable, organic, clean or simple labels) grew to $1.28B in 2018. Plant-based foods that directly replace products from animals sold retail for more than $3.7B, up 17% from 2017. And that’s just a start, because seismic changes are underway in how food is produced and how we eat.

  • Tyson foods, as one of the largest meat companies in the world, basically defines industrial agriculture. Even so, Tyson has decided to go beyond greenwashing and make sustainability a core part of their brand. Tyson has teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to measure and reduce green house gas emissions on 500,000 acres of corn. In 2019, Tyson will be launching their own line of animal-free proteins. Their venture capital arm has invested in plant-based Beyond Meat and in two cellular meat startups, Memphis Meats and Future Meat Technologies.
  • Cargill, one of Tyson’s top competitors in the U.S. now publishes animal cruelty standards. They recently renamed Cargill Meat Solutions as Cargill Protein, made investments in plant-based proteins, and sold their last two feedlots. Cargill has attributed their shifting focus to the shifting preferences of younger consumers.
  • Plant-based milks now makes up 13% of the U.S. retail milk market, availability in grocery stores is approaching 100%, and over a third of American families say they buy plant milks at least sometimes. Plant-based milks have moved from the specialty case to the dairy case, a reflection of their status as an established part of the American diet.
  • Using age-old fermentation processes, research is moving forward on getting algae to produce the same proteins found in cow milk, and when this goes commercial, it will be possible to make a wide array of cheese, identical to those we eat today, from brewed milk—without the annual cycle of breeding cows and separating/slaughtering their male calves. (Dairy breeds aren’t used for meat production.) Perfect Day, which started in 2014 with three nerds and a small grant, now has a prototype product and millions in venture capital funding.
  • Almost ten years ago, McDonald’s, which buys 2 billion eggs per year, heard the outcry about caged hens and began purchasing cage-free eggs. Their eggs will be all cage-free by 2025; rival Burger King saw the move and followed suit. The cage-free egg train seems unstoppable at this point, at least in North America. Tim Hortons, with almost 4000 locations in Canada has committed to the change by 2025; Starbucks by 2020. In the meantime, consumers have raised the stakes further, and many stores now offer pastured eggs from hens that routinely see sunshine and forage.
  • The year 2019 has been heralded in Fast Company as “the year that alt meat goes mainstream.” Impossible burgers—the ones that bleed—are now available in over 5000 restaurants and will be in grocery stores this spring or summer. Beyond Meat, the other popular plant-based brand designed for meat eaters instead of vegetarians now only sells to retailers who put their product in the meat case. The FDA and USDA together may jointly approve the first chicken grown from real chicken cells in a cellular reactor like a brewery instead of a live animal.
  • Investment in alt ag, meaning plant-based proteins and cellular agriculture, is zooming, with almost $1.3B invested since 2010, most of that in the last three years. Investors include strategic philanthropists like Richard Branson and Bill Gates alongside venture funds, tech accelerators like Y Combinator, and traditional meat companies like Tyson and Cargill who are placing their bets on the shape of the future.

The human population curve is bending. Even so, with expected growth in both population and prosperity, global demand for protein is expected to double by the year 2050. How this demand will be met—how it will affect our fellow travelers and planetary life support systems like fresh water, arable land, and carbon sinks—depends in part on how avidly early adopters pursue yummy alternatives to those foods with the greatest ethical costs. Yummy is the key word here, because the biggest non-occasional drivers of food choices are cost, convenience, and taste. So far, trend lines are looking great on all three.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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15 Responses to Whether Veg or Flexitarian–Ethical Eating is Working

  1. bewilderbeast says:

    Good message. Just do something. Don’t beat yourself up, just start doing something that helps. And know that “what we know” will change from time to time; be flexible; read and adapt. Maybe choose one thing to do; and choose one thing not to do. Don’t try and change all at once. Thanks.


  2. john zande says:

    I truly, truly hope cultured ‘meat’ will flood the marketplace in a matter of years, if not sooner.


  3. Arkenaten says:

    The day I gave all this up was the time my dog walked in to my office, laid her head on my lap and looked up at me, and I thought: I could never eat you so what excuse have I got for eating any animal?
    There wan’t one so I stopped immediately.

    I am alone on this issue in my immediate family, – wife and kids – but my parents and brother and sister are all vegan, and so are their kids.

    As Aerosmith once sang …. ”Chip away the stone…”


  4. hostirad says:

    As vegans, my son and daughter-in-law have set a high bar for me. Although they totally committed for anti-cruelty reasons, and she is a vegan activist on social media, they don’t push me. They simply set an example. As a consequence, I do not eat meat at home and have cut way back on dairy products. I rarely eat out, and when I do I almost always choose vegetarian dishes. After reading Dr. Greger’s book, How Not To Die, I think I will be moving even closer to the vegan path. The gentle encouragement of my children, Dr. Greger (I attended a talk he gave recently), and the current article are far more likely to steer me in the vegan direction than a more militant approach.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tim Miller says:

    Great article. The only thing I would add is that, based on my experience moving to 100% veganism, it turns out to be easier and more satisfying to go all the way after you get through a 3 week to 3 month adjustment period. Once you eat zero animal foods, and get used to that pattern, you crave the plant foods you eat and feel no desire to have animal foods. When you are still eating animals products, even if only now and again, it keeps your desire for them strong and prevents your desires from doing a complete shift, so there’s stress around what to eat at every meal which disappears when you go all the way. Or at least that’s how it was for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Douglas W says:

    I just find it odd that many of the people who oppose GMO foods, which improve productivity while reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers that harm the environment, are accepting of milk from modified algae and synthetic meat. Personally, I am all for using science and technology to allow us to produce food that is healthier and has less impact on animals and the environment.


    • I think that cellular ag—at least the milk—is about getting nutrients from gmos, so I doubt that the anti-gmo crowd will be early adopters on these foods. I agree with you about food tech. There are reasons to be cautious, to be thinking about risks and taking a precautionary approach but the path forward lies through that.


  7. Of course, there is an entirely other variety of argument. Veganism, as it is entirely depending on industrial agriculture, can be argued as being the least environmentally sustainable diet possible. Veganism didn’t even exist as a diet until industrial agriculture.

    Yet hunter-gatherers have been sustainably eating meat for hundreds of millennia. Consider that 90-95% of land can be used for grazing animals but can’t be used for agriculture. One of the proven most effective ways to restore soil health, capture carbon, and increase water absorption into aquifiers is by increasing grazing ruminants.

    North America doesn’t have more ruminants today than it had before European settlement. The difference isn’t the number but how they’re raised. We could feed the world’s population in a sustainable way, if we gave up industrial agriculture and factory farming that are presently destroying the environment.



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