Going ‘Beyond Meat’: Investigating Possible Alternatives to Industrial Food Production and Green Consumerism

By Carmen Rueda Lindemann

Introduction: Background on Industrial Meat Production

Eating meat has long been regarded as a cultural staple for numerous countries around the world. For instance, Argentinians take pride in their long-standing barbecuing traditions, while the United States or England regularly enjoy the products of the fast food corporations they have founded and endorse, which work continuously to supply the demand of fried chicken, hamburgers, bacon, to name a few. Countries with rapidly rising affluence such as China and South Korea have been increasing their consumption of meat as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

 Aside from these cultural developments, as the global population increases, the demand for accessible nutrition rises alongside it. Meat products have historically been a calorie-dense protein source that would feed multiple families at once, and are attractive, accessible sources of energy. However, the rise of industrialization also had a significant impact on the development of ‘industrial food animal production’- modern agriculture; mass-production of meat raised in confinement-or ‘animal feeding operations’ as they are now called. Since their origin, they have had a considerable negative impact on the environment, accounting for more than a quarter of the total greenhouse gas emissions. This constitutes 5% of the total CO2 emissions worldwide. In this discussion, let us not disregard the wildlife habitats that are being converted into farmland in order to accommodate the rising global demand for meat, as well as the water and crops, highly valuable natural resources, necessary to raise livestock. In response to these issues, eco-friendly products have been introduced and are available on supermarket shelves, waiting to be consumed. This is known as ‘green consumerism’ and it is presented as one of the principal ways that individuals can drive the industry away from “unsustainable production” towards a “more environmentally friendly future”.            

Throughout this paper, the questions I asked myself were: ‘In what ways do our current sustainability practices inhibit our development towards an ecologically sustainable future?’ And ‘What alternatives are there (outside of our current paradigm)?’.  I will raise the issue of the widely known impacts of meat eating on individuals’ well being compared to eating a plant-based diet. Also, the impacts on the environment will be discussed, but I will direct the focus mainly towards questioning the nature of consumption and production of so-called ‘sustainable’ products.  

A “Sustainable Way of Living”

If we are to engage in a discussion about sustainable lifestyle directions, becoming vegan (consuming no animal products) is one of the first topics to be tackled. Research has reported that transitioning from a high-meat to a mainly plant-based diet has the possibility of reducing global mortality rates by 10%.  Following the recommendation of consuming no more than 100 grams of meat per week is one way to turn research into reality. Currently, the average amount of meat consumption is 122 grams per day. While this is not far from the desired amount, it is still excessive. Furthermore, studies have also indicated that increased consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes lowers risk of heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and cancer, which are the main lifestyle-related causes of death. Consequently, more people seem to be adjusting their lifestyle and changing their patterns of consumption to avoid the previously mentioned health complications. This has led to a rise in purchasing of plant-based products. 

However, veganism is not always the ethically superior alternative to an omnivorous diet:unsustainable agriculture does not end with animal feeding operations. For example, large corporations such as Nestle have ownership of plots of farmland to cultivate crops, primarily soy, which also release toxic substances into the soil, such as phosphorus and nitrous oxide, rendering it infertile for local inhabitants to cultivate their own food. Moreover, veganism does not offer a solution to mankind’s largest impact on the environment, namely the destruction of ecosystems. Additionally, the exploitative nature of these agricultural practices should not be overlooked, seeing as there are around 3.5 million enslaved agricultural workers worldwide who regularly endure sexual harassment and suffer from the chronic exposure to harmful chemicals

Therefore, a greater emphasis should be placed on the local, ethical production of consumer goods, rather than replacing one kind of consumption with another that is labelled ‘sustainable’. Researchers urge individuals to educate themselves on the means of production in order to truly advocate for systemic changes. The following section will address this in greater detail.       

“Vote With Your Dollar”

When speaking about purchasing vegan, eco-friendly or sustainable products, we are referring to a larger concept known as ‘green consumerism’. This refers to consumer behavior that has a preference for goods that are labelled as “pro-environmental” or “sustainable”. It is also an example of ‘disaster capitalism’, which is the tendency to turn pressing global issues into opportunities to accumulate capital by creating new sources of profit. For example, by placing the responsibility of resolving climate change on the individual consumer by placing the burden of acting sustainably on them. This further relieves corporations of the responsibility of encouraging structural changes. In other words, individuals are urged to participate in alternative consumption patterns instead of being made aware of hyperconsumption and its detrimental impacts on the environment and one’s health. Purchasing an eco-friendly product is not in the best interest of the planet; it is a form of compliance to the current socio-economic structure. Moving forward, it is essential to advocate for initiatives that do not rely on economic growth. What exactly these initiatives are has sparked a large conversation among researchers and economists, and may be discussed at a later date. For now, I urge you to further engage with these ideas yourself. 

Future Directions

To conclude, there is often a misplaced focus when it comes to advocating for sustainable lifestyle practices. While having a plant-based diet has demonstrated to be more beneficial for people’s wellbeing, compared to an omnivorous one, it should be re-emphasized that this is far from being  the last stop on the journey towards environmental stability. Many of the eco-friendly alternatives that have entered the market still engage in indecent agricultural practices, such as so-called “modern slavery”, which provides little to no monetary compensation to its workers, is often involuntary, and may also involve other vulgar treatment such as sexual harrassment and abuse. Other such practices are the excessive use of toxic chemicals and destruction of ecosystems. As mentioned before, this is the biggest impact humans have on the environment on a regular basis.  

Therefore, future directions for a sustainable lifestyle could start with economic degrowth in wealthy, industrialized countries, rather than alternative consumption. Sustainable economic degrowth would consist of setting limits on the rates of production and consumption of resources (known as ‘dematerialization’). ‘Sustainable’ refers to maintaining a quality of life that supports human and environmental wellbeing. The overarching position represented by this perspective is that human advancements are possible without constantly seeking economic growth, especially if it means putting an end to the vast destruction mankind is inflicting upon animal habitats all around the world, and shifting the natural balance in no one’s favor. I feel optimistic about this. The sooner we realize that it is not a matter of choosing between paper and plastic packaging, or between tofu and chicken that will save our planet, but rather decreasing how much is produced and consumed in general, the sooner we may pave the way towards a sustainable future.  

Edited by Mara Ciu, artwork by Teresa Valle