In recent times, eating a plant-based diet has been described as a political decision attributed to progressives. On the one hand, we vegetarians focus on the environment, health and animal welfare as problems in the industrialized world that can be solved by making conscious choices about the food we eat. On the other hand, rejecting meat as an attack on Western culture and infringing on the right to free choice, labeling vegetarians as “awakened” is an opposition position.
Statistics roughly indicate that one tenth of Americans usually are vegan or vegetarian: about 6% of Republicans and 12% of Democrats. It is clear that plant-based eaters are still a small part of the population of industrialized countries, but their influence on the food industry appeared significant in 2020 due to the rising number of meat and dairy substitutes. But then plant-based sales peaked in 2021, and some of the plant-based meat favorites — including Beyond Meat and Impossible — began to decline. Deloitte suspects that the addressable market may be more limited than previously thought with growing cultural resistance to its “woke” status, even among those seeking to reduce red meat consumption.
The Wall Street Journal quotes one questionnaire which showed that nearly 40% of people first purchased a product solely because they endorsed a brand’s stance on a controversial social or political issue. It’s not such a big leap for consumers to associate plant-based food choices with dominant party platforms and ideologies.
a Enjoy your meal essay remembers us that “mass meat production in America is a miserable industry that exploits people, animals and the land we all roam.” With this backdrop, the article reminds us that alleged animal welfare violations loomed large when McDonald’s released its failed plant-based burger. Customers on both sides of the political aisle rebelled against the product. Plant-based food fans interpreted the addition to the menu as corporate greenwashing, and fast-food loyalists dismissed the mock-meat burgers as “awake.” Few of the epithets focused on the potential to help reduce environmental damage. Instead of giving in to social media mudslinging, Enjoy your meal cried McDonald’s, stating that the iconic fast food company could sell non-meat products in the US on a massive scale if it put the right marketing to the task.
Deconstructing Vegetarians as “Woke”
“Food is always political, but meat is hyperpoliticized,” writes Emily Contois, author of Dinners, dudes and diets : how gender and power collide in food media and culture. “This has happened as meat-free eating has transformed from a countercultural and relatively fringe movement to a more mainstream feature in restaurants, in supermarkets and in the food culture in general.”
Look no further than Good Great Britain tomorrow host Piers Morgan, who told viewers that “vegans are unethical” because of the transportation required to import the large quantities of nuts and grains around the world to fuel their plant-based diet. “My belief is that eating meat helps sustain the planet and vegans are unethical because they all eat almonds, which kills millions of bees.”
“In a literal interpretation of the political ‘red meat’ approach, conservative pundits have seized the hamburger as a seemingly effective symbol of personal freedom,” said Contois. “The claim that the Democrats want to take your burger – like the claim that the Democrats want to take your guns – is a strategy for manipulating classic conservative fears about individual autonomy and freedom.”
Then there is the 2023 Swedish study of Oatly’s “Help Dad” marketing campaign which concluded that the company was manifesting some sort of wake-branding and even some “woke-washing” intended to make a statement and seemingly influence young people to discuss sustainability with their parents . Parents are portrayed in the commercial as unaware of social and political struggles in the world, while youths are portrayed as smart and strong. Ultimately, the commercial was criticized for playing on difficult issues and the polarizing rhetoric used throughout the campaign.
Deconstructing the Opposition POV: Vegetarians as “Woke”
In June 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced that it had added “woke” as a new word.
“Aware of social and political issues, especially racism. This word is often used in a disapproving way by people who think that some other people are too quick to get angry about these issues, or talk about them too much in a way that doesn’t change anything.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently stated from the podium at a campaign event. “We can never, ever surrender to an awakened ideology.” Soon after, the ideology was written into it law.
The “woke food movement” is epitomized by findings from the EAT-Lancet Commission, which has called “a radical transformation of the global food system.” Recommendations to achieve this transformation include more than doubling the consumption of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, and a more than 50% reduction in global consumption of less healthy foods such as added sugars and red meat (i.e. mainly by curbing excessive consumption in richer countries).
The EAT-Lancet Commission consists of 37 scientists from 16 countries and different disciplines trying to reach consensus by setting goals for healthy nutrition and sustainable food production. The Commission’s findings have provided the first scientific targets for healthy nutrition and sustainable food production within the limits of our planet, which will feed up to 10 billion people by 2050.
Critic Julian M. Alston argues in the Management and policy of natural resources book series that such a food transformation is “associated with wealthy elite liberal groups” who have “inflicted harm” because “the movement is fundamentally intolerant.” Citing “disastrous consequences of wrong policies” such as global opposition to genetically engineered foods, Alston says the recommended food policy changes are little more than “nonsense that can collectively grow large in terms of their total social costs.”
The author finds fault with “market intermediaries as gatekeepers in the food chain, imposing private policies as de facto technological prescriptions at the behest of activist groups.” Implications for the supply side of the world food equation, the global incidence of poverty and malnutrition, and for the environmental impact of agricultural production are cited as errors by the wake food movement.
In response to such criticism, the EAT-Lancet Commission notes that some populations worldwide depend on agropastoral subsistence and animal protein from livestock. In addition, many populations still face significant malnutrition burdens and it can be difficult to obtain sufficient amounts of micronutrients from plant foods alone. Given these considerations, they recognize that the role of animal foods in human nutrition should be carefully considered in each context and within local and regional realities.
The alarming essence behind the plant-based politicization
For decades, fossil fuel giants such as Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil have spent millions convincing the public that consumer choices and lifestyle changes will solve their image problem: Big oil companies knew as far back as the 1960s that their products were changing the climate, and used their huge profits to cast doubt on the science of climate pollution.
Agriculture makes an important contribution to anthropogenic global warming and the reduction of agriculture emissions – largely methane and nitrous oxide – could play an important role in mitigating climate change. Like Big Oil, leading meat and dairy companies, along with livestock and agriculture lobby groups, have spent millions campaigning against climate action and casting doubt on the links between livestock and climate change. Farm agriculture has often set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but these commitments contain few details or focus on reducing carbon dioxide, while the majority of livestock emissions come from methane. In some cases, the companies’ commitments do not cover the emissions of their entire supply chain.
Pioneering studies calculated historical emissions from individual companies on the fossil fuel industry and then assign responsibility to those companies. What would happen if there was a similar plan to expand the climate responsibility of meat and dairy producers?
Such a question scares Big Agriculture and their lobby groups to the core. So they fought climate regulation in the US Congress and for the Environmental Protection Agency, forming a counter-narrative to the role of ranching in climate change.
Enter vegetarians as ‘awake’.
The knowledge that vegetable food would reduce the direct and indirect threats to Earth’s health and habitability for us, and for all wildlife, flora and fauna are kept out of such conversations. This unfortunately masks the larger discussion of how we live in a period of unprecedented and catastrophic climate change. We should take all possible steps to safeguard human life as we know it for future generations, including drastically reducing the consumption of animals.
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