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Moving Away from Meat Means Welcoming the New ‘Flexitarians’

Author and animal-rights activist Jonathan Safran Foer recently argued in a New York Times essay that the COVID-19 pandemic represents a turning point in society’s attitude to eating meat. “Animal agriculture is now recognized as a leading cause of global warming,” writes Foer. “A quarter of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 say they are vegetarians or vegans, which is perhaps one reason sales of plant-based ‘meats’ have skyrocketed… Our hand has been reaching for the doorknob for the last few years. Covid-19 has kicked open the door.”

I agree the pandemic presents the best opportunity in a generation for animal-rights advocates to win over skeptics. But if and when vegetarian and vegan diets become truly mainstream, it will not be for the reasons Foer emphasizes.

Foer provides three main rationales for rejecting meat: (1) “We cannot protect our environment while continuing to eat meat regularly,” (2) we can live “longer, healthier lives” without animal protein, and (3) many forms of animal farming are both cruel and unhygienic. These are valid arguments that inspired my own conversion to veganism a decade ago. But I’ve learned that such stories as mine are relatively rare. Indeed, my own experience suggests that, ironically, turning animal rights into a truly mainstream phenomenon will require that we reject, rather than embrace, the movement’s activist roots.

For decades, the animal-rights movement has approached the public with the aforementioned evidentiary trifecta of environment, health, and animal suffering. But polling data suggests that this pitch has serious shortcomings. According to a 2016 Pew report entitled The New Food Fights, at best one-tenth of American adults claim to be nominal vegetarians or vegans. And even that estimate overestimates the true number, because, as the report notes, “some people who consider themselves either vegetarian or vegan are ‘flexible’ about what they eat and at least occasionally veer from these eating principles.” The share who call themselves “strict” vegetarians or vegans is only about three percent.

Foer, photographed in 2009.

As Foer notes, the vegetarian demographic skews heavily toward younger survey respondents. But it also skews toward bicoastal and liberal. (According to Gallup, “11% of self-identified liberals identify as vegetarian, compared with 2% of conservatives and 3% of moderates.”) Gallup data suggest that the overall share of Americans who say they avoid meat has been somewhere in the mid-to-high single digits over the last two decades, despite growing public consciousness in regard to vegetarian/vegan diets and plant-based alternatives. Yes, greater knowledge of the health risks associated with meat consumption has led most Americans to express a greater desire to cut back on meat consumption. And many have done so, but few have abandoned meat entirely.

A more promising route lies with the group dubbed “flexitarians,” the category name sometimes applied to partially lapsed vegetarians, or to those who depend on plant-based food for daily sustenance but consume meat on special occasions. (Other terms include “semi-vegetarian diet” or SVD.) As a 2019 report published by Barclays revealed, 92 percent of plant-based meals in the UK are consumed by such flexitarians. Pollsters at YouGov report that flexitarians comprise 14 percent of Brits sampled, nearly quadruple the number of strict vegetarians and vegans combined. This is the core group, both financially and demographically, that will help us enlarge the animal-rights tent.

Unfortunately, many activists within the movement too often rely on public shaming as a means to win over the public. Flexitarians often are scorned within vegetarian/vegan social-media circles, rather than welcomed. “The Amazon rainforest is aflame, and flexitarians want a cheat day?” a headline from PETA proclaimed. Such messaging may please purists, but will do little to convince those who are still on the fence.

Foer is correct that COVID-19 presents an opportunity, because the effect of a crisis is often to encourage people to reassess their life choices. As has been widely noted, COVID-19 may have crossed over to humans through a live-animal market in China. As the chief communications officer for Impossible Foods (creator of the plant-based “Impossible Burger”) told Vox in early May, “people don’t like to be contributing to climate change and biodiversity collapse and pandemics. It feels icky, so we try not to talk about it. [But] in these moments, when the gruesome reality of animal agriculture pierces into our consciousness—because of COVID or whatever else—that we start to wake up.”

Of course, zoonotic diseases—infectious agents that make the jump to humans from animal populations—have become a too-common feature of modern society. But COVID-19 has led to a pathogen-related global disruption not witnessed since the Spanish flu a century ago. More people are eating at home, enjoying meals with their family, learning new recipes, and rethinking food choices in the process.

At least 20 meatpacking plants closed in the United States following disease outbreaks, leading to scores of dead employees. Such shutdowns have reverberated throughout the supply chain. The consequent supply backlog, as Foer writes, has led to slaughterhouse workers now injecting pregnant sows to induce abortions, with some even euthanizing whole herds. The closing of borders has left the international meat trade log-jammed as well, causing rising prices. American consumers could face a meat shortage, and turn to plant-based alternatives by necessity. Over time, some may conclude that they should have made the switch a long time ago.

Indeed, the effect of COVID-19 is already in evidence. According to Gardein, a producer of fish, chicken, and beef alternatives, almost 40 percent of recent purchases have been driven by “first-time customers.” Nielsen, a market research group, notes that plant-based meat alternative sales have increased nearly three-fold since this time last year. Impossible Foods, which began selling its Impossible Burger earlier this year in just 150 grocery stores, has just announced the expansion of its retail presence to over 1,700 Kroger-owned outlets.

Foer’s descriptions of factory farming aren’t wrong. But we may have already reached the saturation point in regard to how much these descriptions can move the needle on public attitudes. As one movie character famously remarked, “Just cause people wanna eat the burger doesn’t mean they wanna meet the cow.” Most of us are driven by our taste buds, and the drive to produce plant-based products that please the palate is really the final frontier in this battle. A recent report published by Deloitte concludes that a fifth to a quarter of “non/infrequent” eaters of meat alternatives would migrate to these products if they “taste like meat,” offer “more exciting flavours,” and “have the same texture as meat.”

All of these improvements are starting to happen. Even back in 2018, vegan steaks created by the Dutch firm Vivera sold out 40,000 units within a week of hitting supermarkets. The following year, KFC premiered a plant-based chicken alternative at a location in Atlanta. According to one company representative, the restaurant sold “as many plant-based boneless wings and nuggets [in a single day] as it would sell of its popular popcorn chicken in an entire week.” I can attest that just a decade ago, most vegetarians and vegans would have struggled to find much in the way of appetizing fare at Subway or Burger King. Today, that isn’t a problem. What the purists sometimes forget is that people simply love meat. And it’s hard to recruit them to your cause if you make them feel like monsters for doing so.

Even prior to the pandemic, Barclays was predicting that the alternative-meat industry could grow ten-fold by the end of the next decade. And COVID-19 will accelerate this shift. But it will not take place overnight, and it will be a battle won more through delicious, meatless meals than through strident rhetoric. Though I understand why Foer is in a big hurry, the most effective approach will be to welcome new adherents—be they vegan, vegetarian, or merely flexitarian—without insisting that everyone else is doing something wrong.

 

Ari David Blaff is a freelance journalist and graduate student based out of Toronto. His writings have appeared in National Review, Tablet, and Israel Studies. Follow him on Twitter at @ariblaff.

Featured image: Photo by LikeMeat on Unsplash

Comments

  1. “The arrogance of some of those who are so damned sure they are right is just astounding. Scientific witch hunts are often the worst kind, and have been since the secular authorities stopped enforcing the local bishop’s decrees of anathema.” ~ Jerry Pournelle

    Think that is all that needs to be said.

    Well, there is this …

    “Bureaucracies are progressive. meaning they have a burning fear that someone. somewhere, is doing something without permission.” ~ Jerry Pournelle

    Control what they eat.
    Control what they drive.
    Control what they think.
    Control what they say.
    Control the size of groups that can gather.

    What kind of Hitler NAZI wannabe needs “freedom of association” anyway? We have a pandemic to fight.

  2. Humans are omnivores. Believing we shouldn’t be is human hubris, and worthy only of the response: bugger off.

  3. I would respond to this ridiculous article but I have to clean my AR. I’m going hog-hunting (LOL).

  4. If nothing else, this Wu Flu panic has brought out all the authoritarian types who believe this is somehow their opportunity to impose their views/policies on others, take away the rights of others, etc.

    The is nothing changed by this panic other than, at least for me, the realization of how soft we are in the modern world. This is NOTHING compared with prior pandemics, world wars, famines, you name it. None of those events stopped people from eating meat. And this one, which is 98% entitlement to be completely protected from bad virus, and 2% actual risk of harm due to bad virus, is not going to stop people from eating meat. Especially beef. In fact, just thinking about this and I’m now wanting a good steak tonight. Thankfully, in Wydaho, steak houses have re-opened. No masks. Pretense of SD. Should be corpses piled a mile high according to all the Governor Karen’s out there.

  5. This passage intrigued me–

    A more promising route lies with the group dubbed “flexitarians,” the category name sometimes applied to partially lapsed vegetarians, or to those who depend on plant-based food for daily sustenance but consume meat on special occasions. (Other terms include “semi-vegetarian diet” or SVD.) As a 2019 report published by Barclays revealed, 92 percent of plant-based meals in the UK are consumed by such flexitarians. Pollsters at YouGov report that flexitarians comprise 14 percent of Brits sampled, nearly quadruple the number of strict vegetarians and vegans combined. This is the core group, both financially and demographically, that will help us enlarge the animal-rights tent.

    We already HAVE a name for people who consume both meat and plants–particularly those who consume more plants than meat.

    We call them-- ‘People’.

    This is the standard human diet. It is not ‘flexitarian’. It is the base omnivorous diet of homo sapiens sapiens.

  6. He means, of course, that his environment might be spoiled if the poor in other countries will get it into their head to eat meat regularly, as if they were western intellectuals. Really, people just don’t know their place anymore.

    When an “activist” - or a politician - says “we” need to give up something for a cause, he means you should give it up, never themselves.

  7. “Foer provides three main rationales for rejecting meat: (1) “We cannot protect our environment while continuing to eat meat regularly,” (2) we can live “longer, healthier lives” without animal protein, and (3) many forms of animal farming are both cruel and unhygienic.”

    Vegans, vegetarians omnivores, carnivores, ect…may they eat as they choose and may their bounty be plentiful. However anyone who is a vegan or vegetarian for reason number one is food delusional and is only kidding themselves. Land must be cleared for crops same as animals. Sometimes fields must be tilled and herbicides and pesticides must be deployed. Grain harvested for human consumption is no more environmentally friendly than grain grown for feed. Additionally in some instances animals consume the entire plant whereas humans only eat the grain. Crops sometimes require fertilizer. Guess where the most natural/organic fertilizer comes from? Chicken litter, a popular fertilizer, and other types comes from those awful Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.

    Again each should feel free to consume the diet of her choice. However one’s diet does not make him a better person or a better steward of the environment.

  8. The author proves the point that you’re not really a vegan unless you tell people you are.

  9. They don’t want to be stewards of the environment, they want to be stewards of you.

  10. One important thing to remember about meat and the environment is that grazing animals and predators are an essential part of the grassland ecosystem. A field of grass left ungrazed will become overgrown, choke out new shoots, decay, and turn into desert. A herd of grazers left unculled will stay in one place and overgraze, turning grassland into desert. In many places, re-introducing wild buffalo and lions is impractical: they are dangerous for the humans that live there. Thus, for the health of the grassland, cattle ranching is absolutely necessary. We would do great harm to the environment if we stopped farming animals.

    Factory farming is another matter, though it isn’t as simple an issue as sometimes portrayed. Discussing it in depth would make this comment too long: I mention it because I know the response to the necessity of grazing will inevitably be “but whatabout factory farming?” Even if we eliminated factory farming, we would still be eating a substantial amount of meat, more than the stereotypical “flexitarian”. If we became altogether vegetarian, however, it might well doom us all.

  11. “including methane, emissions from trucking all those plants around just to feed the cows, efficiency at it’s most basic form, land use and deforestation, runoff and ground pollution,”

    First of all trucks do not emit methane. Second trucks haul vegetables for human consumption. Tractors and a other farm implements are required to raise fruits and vegetables. Most farm equipment burns high sulfur diesel whether it is used for raising crops and animals. Land is cleared to grow crops. Land is tilled to grow crops which contributes to soil erosion. When no till farming is employed herbicides are required. Crops often require pesticides. As I mentioned in my previous post crops are sometimes fertilized with chicken litter which comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Which means eating crops fertilized with chicken litter one is also contributing to CAFOs. Most everything you deplore environmentally about animal husbandry applies to growing crops. By all means enjoy a vegan diet but do not kid yourself that you are saving the environment. Eschewing meat, fish, poultry and dairy makes one a vegan, it does not make one a better person.

  12. Most of the calories that cows eat come from grass. Even “grain-fed” beef is really grain-finished, and spends most of its life eating grass.

    Grass cannot be eaten by humans. It takes more fuel, pesticides, erosion, labour and so on to produce human-edible food than the grass that cows eat: blithely listing the cow’s calorie consumption does not tell you anything about the efficiency of carnivorous vs. vegetarian diets.

    Even the grain that grain-fed cattle are fattened on isn’t our grain: it is dent corn, a cultivar that is high-yield but not very palatable. You could try to live on it, rather than meat, but you won’t last long.

    Only someone completely clueless about how food is grown repeats the “30x as much plants” nonsense. All plants are not created equal. Cattle eat the hardiest, easiest-to-grow plants, ones we cannot or will not eat ourselves.

  13. “To be clear, are you arguing that cows don’t require more land than plants because this is obviously false and I shouldn’t have to explain why,…”

    If you could explain why, you would have. You throw out theses unsupported bromides. There is approximately 300-340 million planted acres in the U.S. Thus it is not obviously false. I know because I have 500 planted acres and 200 acres of pasture. You have just strayed from the primary vegan argument which is eating animals is cruel because they are raised in confined spaces. You can’t have it both ways. Cows graze on grass and often consume the entire corn plant. So feeding cows is more environmentally friendly than feeding humans. It is just a matter of where one wants to pin the blame. Cows produce methane but how? Simple by consuming plant material. Rotting plants (think corn stalks remaining in the field) produce greenhouse gases. I realize someone you respect told you growing crops is better for the environment than raising animals and that claim dovetailed nicely with your beliefs. But I’ll wage your source of information comes from outside agriculture. Saying that there would be less impacted acres if crops were not used for feed is beside the point and does nothing to prove that raising animals is less environmentally friendly than raising crops.

  14. “I like how you keep glossing over the zoonotic diseases and drug resistant bacteria in order to focus on feed.”

    That is a separate issue, namely public health not environmental.

    I will try one more time. On our farm sits a 1500 gallon fuel tank which contains high sulfur diesel. This tank is refilled 8 or more times per year. This tank fuels the tractors, combines, sprayers, backhoes and trackhoes used for the row crops on the farm. These farm implements run over several hundred acres, for several hours, several times per year. Fields must be tilled, creating soil erosion, or in the case of no-till sprayed with herbicides. Some years and crops require the use of pesticides. We also trap beavers which can build dams that flood fields. Last year due to excessive rain several fields had to be re-planted. To convert an existing pasture into a field for growing crops requires a lot of dozer work to terrace the former pasture as well as a trackhoe to cut drainage ditches. These practices are repeated several times over by my neighbors.

    The cows are managed with a few gasoline and low sulfur diesel pickup trucks which are used maybe half a dozen times. The cows graze the pasture. When the pasture becomes depleted, the cows are turned out into another pasture. In the winter purchased or harvested hay and sometimes feed is put out for the cows. In short cows are fairly low maintenance.

    “until then you are arguing in bad faith.”

    And you are grasping at straws comparing pest treatment for cattle with spraying several hundred acres at once several times per year.

    You keep going back to animals require feed be grown for animals with all the attendant row crop practices, which only proves my point that it is the raising of the crops which causes the greater environmental impact. You rely upon the fact that animals require crop production to claim they have the larger environmental impact. Humans consume more row crops than animals. Your argument boils down to raising animals has a larger environmental impact than farming row crops because of the farming row crops involved with raising animals. Like I said I realize you have been raised on this nonsense and it is hard to give up. I think the only thing that would convince you is actually operating a farm. But that is the trouble when beliefs conflicts with reality, which is always the biggest harm to the environment.

  15. Kurt:

    You miss the larger picture. I have no problem with you being a vegetarian. In fact, IMO, vegetarianism is a healthier diet that one that includes a lot of red meat. But here’s the deal. I like red meat! I have a safe full of guns that you want to ban and I drive a 2008 500 HP Corvette ZO6. When I floor it, I tell people you can actually watch the gas gauge go down (LOL). I am willing live and let live. You can drive your electric car and scold people like me all you like. Heck, I am in the oil biz and I shoot guns for fun. I am an NRA/4H certified Shotgun instructor who has taught well over 200 Boy Scouts and adults to shoot safely. I have been public enemy No.1 for the left for my entire adult life. I am used to it.

    The problem comes when your colleagues are not satisfied with simply condemning my behavior. They want to make my car illegal; they want to confiscate my guns, and they want to eliminate my right to eat a nice juicy steak. They want to force me to pay more for my energy to get it from solar and wind. They have good reasons for doing all of these things. They want to save the planet. They want to reduce mass shootings.

    But what happens when I refuse to go along? What happens when I say no? I tell you that I want to drive my gas guzzler car, shoot my guns and have a nice juicy steak. What happens when I say screw wind and solar, I want to pay 9.7 cents per KwH for my electricity like I do now instead of 16.7 cents, which is the average rate in California. The answer from the left is always the coercive power of the state. All of a sudden, we don’t live in a democracy anymore. We live in a state that sues nuns who devote their lives to caring for the poor.

    Finally, the most important attribute of a scholar is intellectual humility. I understand that it is a rare commodity in the academic bubble. I do not doubt that you know more about Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Judeo-Christian religions than I do. You teach classes in these subjects. I also have no doubt that Farris, who is a farmer by trade, knows far more about farming than you do. He knows more about farming than the authors you read on agenda websites who condemn it. You should listen and learn from him before you reflexively disagree.

    When you walk into your classroom, you are the professor. That makes you the smartest guy in the room. That is not always true on this forum.

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