Reducing Meat Consumption: Absolutism vs. Compromise

The other day I was struck, while eating food truck falafel, with the question “where is the vegan equivalent of McDonalds”? There are vegan restaurants but no big, multinational vegan fast food chains. Research seemed to bear out that this is because the most convincing meat substitutes haven’t yet scaled up production to the point that they could even supply McDonalds with the number of patties needed to offer vegan options in all of their locations.

The gears in my head continued turning as I ate. Surely then, the problem is one of demand. If demand increased substantially, production would scale up faster. But meat substitutes have a poor PR track record, as does veganism in general. The public image of veganism is that of the neopuritan pearl clutcher elevating themselves while putting down others, issuing moral condemnations from their ivory towers and high horses.

If the goal is reduced meat consumption, why is it important to totally eliminate meat from the diets of individuals, rather than reducing it across whole populations? If you take an absolutist approach and demand total elimination of meat consumption, you may get a few takers, but those few people won’t make but a small dent in total meat consumption.

If instead you’re flexible and propose a 1/3rd reduction in meat consumption, using arguments related to the heart health and physical fitness benefits of doing so, you’ll get far more takers. Convincing ten people to never eat any meat whatsoever for the rest of their lives achieves far less reduction in meat consumption, on the whole, than convincing a hundred people to eat 2/3rds their normal meat intake.

Why is the first strategy so much more prevalent when it is so much less effective? I would speculate because it isn’t a health issue for vegans but a moral issue. No amount of meat consumption is morally acceptable to them, so they’re unreceptive to approaches that are more effective overall, but which do not achieve the moral goal of changing people’s minds and hearts when it comes to the moral value of nonhuman animals.

This is essentially a religious issue, and thus has the same problems as most religiously motivated capaigns for social change. The abstinence only approach is a good basis for comparison. Abstinence only does not achieve a reduction in teen pregnancies. All available evidence indicates it achieves the opposite. But religious advocates for this approach are unmoved by such figures, and remain unreceptive to harm reduction focused approaches because no amount of unmarried sex is acceptable to them.

Compromise, then, would seem to be the way forward. But also a change in how meat alternatives are marketed. Until now, the moral argument for veganism has been front and center in how meat substitutes are marketed because they just weren’t good enough on their own merits to compete with meat, especially at a higher price. This mirrors the struggles of electric vehicles to gain market share, pre-Tesla. They had to be promoted on environmental merits because they had less range/performance while also being more expensive.

This is no longer the case, and consequently the marketing for electric cars has changed. They have become an aspirational item promoted as much for their superior performance as their environmental bonafides: Nearly every new model exceeds 200 miles of range, a few attaining range parity with their gas equivalents, while at the same time boasting comparatively monstrous acceleration.

We should have already begun to see a similar change in the marketing of meat substitutes, but haven’t. To my knowledge, anyway. If I’m not seeing it, by all means, point it out to me. So far as I can tell the marketing narrative for meat substitutes remains focused on environmentalism and the moral dimension of eating animals when it no longer needs to. More than that, maintaining that focus for so long has tainted meat substitutes in the eyes of many consumers who object to being shamed and may never buy a meat substitute product out of contrarian sentiment.

The sooner we begin to undo that damage, the better. Some decades of reformed marketing may do the trick, wherein the new focus is on the health benefits of reduced meat consumption. This is an uphill battle for burgers because burgers are made from reasonably desirable cuts of beef. But sausages are a different story.

Beyond Meat sausages are remarkable. They actually convincingly imitate both the texture and flavor profile of sausage, where the Beyond Meat burger patties only convincingly replicate the texture of ground beef. Beyond Meat sausages have an added benefit: Their competition, beef and pork sausages, are made from the least desirable edible portions of cows and pigs. Eyelids, anuses, lips, noses, ears and organs. This is the sort of thing we should be hearing in Beyond Meat commercials.

Does that not move you? Even if you’re an ardent meat eater (I myself eat meat, though I preferentially avoid eating mammals) would you rather eat a plant protein sausage or one made of intestines, livers, kidneys, lips, eyelids, ears, noses, anuses and so on? Being that both sausages are equally tasty, and believe it or not, they are. Billions have been poured into the molecular analysis of meat so the chemical properties of how it interacts with your tastebuds could be replicated.

The pinnacle of these efforts so far are Beyond Meat, Impossible Burgers, and Field Roast (in my opinion). There is still room for improvement but it remains a monumental scientific accomplishment that we’ve managed to produce meat-free alternatives that are actually enjoyable to eat, rather than something Whole Foods hipsters choke down to feel good about themselves.

What remains? Some of the obstacles include the current nonexistence of good vegan alternatives to cheese, eggs or bacon. Thus we cannot have totally vegan breakfast sandwiches, grilled cheese, bacon cheese burgers and so on. This limits the menu offerings any hypothetical vegan McDonalds clone could offer. Enormous strides have been made, with impressive results, but there’s just as much ground yet to be covered.

Perhaps the compromise approach may extend to products which blend meat and meat alternatives, reducing meat consumption overall while keeping price down and attaining partial health benefits. Unsuitable for doctrinaire vegans, but still an improvement, and the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. These meats may be lab grown, being that lab grown meat is suitable for little else due to the totally even consistency throughout. We cannot produce lab grown steak, but something more like steakums, or mcnuggets.

Perhaps these meats may instead come from GMO cows, pigs and chicken courtesy of CRISPR whose brains stop developing very early in gestation. The resulting animal would be restrained and stimulated to exertion with electrodes, to give the resulting meat the consistency which can only be achieved currently if it grows on a skeleton and is exercised regularly. This would be ghastly to look at, but as morally benign as lab grown meat since in either case there is no brain to experience pain or fear.

We don’t hear about these possibilities from vegans because they would permit the ethical continuation of meat consumption, which their goal is to de-normalize, de-legitimize, and eventually eliminate entirely. I don’t see the necessity of such a severe goal when, ostensibly, the purpose is to minimize the suffering of animals. We can do that while at the same time not give up on the foods we enjoy. This leads me to believe the real goal is spiritual: To change how people think of non-human animals, to change their hearts and their perspective on how we relate to the rest of the animal kingdom.

I don’t want that job. I don’t know enough about other people to decide that I know what is best for them, that they are broken, or that I can fix them. My interest is not in “how can we live worse for the sake of the planet” but “how can we continue to live better without harming the planet?” The spiritually/morally motivated vegan would say this is impossible. A “have your cake or eat your cake, but not both” scenario. But that’s simply not the case. To date myself with an ancient pop culture quote, “We have the technology”.

I would compare this to how the focus of many environmentalists is the reduction of energy use, when it’s perfectly possible with nuclear energy to continue consuming energy at current levels, or even to continue increasing at the present rate, without increasing greenhouse gas emissions (and in fact steeply reducing or eliminating them). When you propose this to such people you get incoherent, partial arguments about the associated dangers and issues like waste storage which are actually non-issues to anybody who has researched the matter extensively.

Because their goal isn’t really greenhouse gas reduction, so much as it is forcing a change in how people think and live. Using the pretense of concern for animals, or for the planet, to bring in more converts to their particular perspective and value system. To such a person, climate change is a problem “too useful to solve”, hence they do not want nuclear energy as it permits a solution to climate change which does not require people to make the changes they want.

Likewise with spiritually/morally motivated vegans who take an absolutist stance on meat consumption. If their goal were really a reduction in the suffering of animals, they would be completely onboard with a harm reduction focused approach which persuades consumers to reduce rather than eliminate meat from their diet. Vegan foods cooked on the same grills as meat would not bother them, neither would products which blend meat and meat substitutes.

Much can be determined about the particulars of someone’s value system, versus how they portray it, by mapping out areas where they will or will not compromise. The tremendous diversity of human value systems demands compromise from anybody hoping to motivate a change in consumer habits on a large scale, and it is only large scale change of habits which can meaningfully reduce meat consumption, carbon emissions or any other moral/environmental ill.

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