Food Is Not Tech: Stop Comparing Meat Alternatives To Energy And Cars
One of the more common reactions to the recent spate of media stories declaring plant-based meat a fad is how we should not give up so soon because it’s still early days, and just like alternative energy and electric cars, things take time to shift.
The “alternative protein” industry’s PR arm, the Good Food Institute (GFI) loves to promote the comparison of meat to energy. This interview with GFI’s leader Bruce Friedrich illustrates the talking point well (note he uses the euphemism of “cultivated meat”, aka cell-cultivated or biotech meat):
“Just like renewable energy can replace fossil fuels, and just like electric vehicles can replace conventional vehicles, plant-based and cultivated meat can replace industrial meat – if they give consumers the entire meat experience at an equal or lower cost.”
There are several fallacies inherent in this line of reasoning. It’s important to dispense with the tired analogy so we can focus on viable solutions to the myriad problems caused by the over-production and consumption of conventional meat.
Food is emotional and cultural
People are not emotionally tied to using coal or gas the way that many are emotionally tied to eating meat. Most of us grew up on a meat centered diet and have fond memories of family gatherings and other traditions tied to enjoying meat and other animal products. In contrast, how many childhood memories are tied to how our homes were heated or the type of gas that ran the family car? Nobody’s parent nurtured them back to health with natural gas instead of chicken soup. You don’t see your grandmother’s recipes for energy sources handed down to the next generation.
I asked Alicia Kennedy, food writer and author of the forthcoming book, No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, what she made of the comparison of meat to energy. She agreed that, “Meat is different from energy because it’s tied into our cultural lives and nostalgia.”
Memories are very tied to our senses: the sights, smells, flavors, and textures of food are often deeply embedded in our very identities. American culture is especially tied to the masculinity of eating beef. As food historian Jane Ziegelman wrote in the New York Times
“It’s no coincidence that the archetypal American hero, the cowboy, is a cattle herder, or that we claim hamburgers as the quintessential American food”. And she added: “Much of what has defined us as Americans is expressed through our meat consumption.”
The same cannot be said of what fuels our homes or vehicles.
People don’t consume food like energy or cars
Also, consumption patterns for food and energy are not at all similar.
For most people, the energy source that powers their home is invisible to them, so it makes no difference to their experience. Moreover, while they may get a gas or electric bill, most renters have no agency over their home energy sources. While that’s different for homeowners, there are still downsides.
In sharp contrast, we each have plenty of agency when it comes to choosing what to eat, multiple times a day. And food choices are everywhere, around us all the time. Consumers spend far more on food than any other consumer good, including cars and energy. You cannot compare a commodity like energy that operates mostly in the background to food, the most ubiquitous consumer good.
The comparison to electric vehicles breaks down even faster. Promotors of meat alternatives love the electric car analogy, especially Tesla. For example, Beyond Meat
Similarly, Upside Foods, which says it’s working on cell-cultured chicken, in 2016 explained it was going with the “Telsa approach” by starting with a “luxury product”.* (In the same interview, the company predicted selling product in grocery stores by 2021.)
Many meat alternative promotors like to pretend that meat is like a car chassis and just like a driver doesn’t care what fuels their vehicle, meat eaters won’t care if their meat comes from a slaughtered animal, made with soy and coconut oil, or concocted from entirely new biotechnology by growing animal cells in a laboratory.
Except the two are not analogous on multiple levels. For example, the frequency of purchase and consumption between cars and food could not be further apart.
How often to most people buy a new vehicle? According to one survey, the length of time people hold on to their cars is getting longer, with 64 percent of Americans owning their cars for five years and the longest group averaging eight years.
In contrast, we eat at least three times a day and go shopping for food an average of eight times per month. That’s a lot of food-related decision-making. The more often we make decisions about what to eat, the more ingrained those purchasing behaviors are likely to be. Humans are very much creatures of habit when it comes to food.
Moreover, a recent survey found that the time the average car buyer spent on looking for a new car topped 14 and a half hours, between researching and shopping. In contrast, most food shoppers spend less than 44 minutes in a grocery store and 36 percent of shoppers spend less than 30 minutes.
This 2017 survey is particularly sobering when it comes to how little time most people spend making food-related decisions as compared to other activities. The press release headline reads: “New Survey Reveals Americans Make Snap Decisions When It Comes to Food”. The study found that while Americans spend more than 23 minutes deciding what to watch on Netflix
- Fifty five percent say they pick their food almost instantly;
- Almost 75 percent spend less than three minutes reading food labels;
- Just four percent say they carefully plan or think about what they’re eating.
It seems quite lazy to compare the complex decision-making of buying a new car with how carelessly most Americans treat purchasing decisions related to food.
Only politics, not consumers, can solve the meat problem
When I asked food writer Alicia Kenney about the comparison of meat to energy, she also noted how they are similar, but not in a good way: “Clamoring for electric vehicles and lab-made meat are individualized, profit-driven solutions to problems that are public in scope.”
In other words, by focusing too much on consumer decision making, we are missing how the problems caused by meat production are inherently political. This ensures the status quo remains firmly entrenched.
Agriculture journalist Tom Philpott’s Mother Jones article from last year (entitled ironically, “How Tesla is the Fake Meat of Cars”) also questions this consumer approach:
“Both Tesla and meat-that’s-not-meat startups have experienced meteoric rises and come down to earth a bit. For all their achievements and market penetration, the incumbent industries they aimed to disrupt—Big Oil and Big Meat—are chugging along. And the whole model of a consumer-led, tech-centered approach to climate change is looking tattered.”
I asked Kennedy what she thought about the call for government support of “alternative protein”, which many are touting by comparing taxpayer dollars going towards renewable energy. She is not impressed:
“The support for ‘alt energy’ in the form of tax rebates privileges very few people—it’s not in service to the massive shifts that need to be made. Also, if the government’s support of ‘alt protein’ doesn’t simultaneously cut support for industrial animal agriculture, it’s a distraction.”
Similarly, journalist Charlie Mitchell sums it up in his article at The New Republic from last year:
“Energy activists these days have no trouble understanding that boosting renewables alone won’t cut it: Unless oil and gas production and expansion are stopped, fossil fuel consumption will continue. When will the meat conversation advance to this enlightened stage?”
I asked GFI to respond to this critique and they emailed me the following statement:
“From a policy standpoint, we advocate for alternative protein research and support the same kinds of private sector incentives that have allowed the cost of solar energy and electric vehicles to fall so precipitously.”
While it may be true that government support for solar energy and electric vehicles has resulted in lower prices for those technologies, this does not address the fact that the consumer decision making around food remains completely different.
The comparison is a lazy trope for investors, start-ups, NGOs, and others who stand to gain financially by promoting the fantasy that the market – even with government support – will solve the meat problem. But markets don’t solve complex societal problems, especially those problems that the market caused in the first place.
* I emailed both Beyond Meat and Upside Foods to ask if they still stood by this comparison but did not hear back from either company.
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