Dr Courtney Scott on the power and politics at the centre of the meat debate
6th February 2023
In the food media world, meat was the theme of January. Should we eat it? How much of it? Where and how will it be produced? Will it help us to be healthier? And on and on.
Last week alone, Rob Percival’s book ‘The Meat Paradox’ was Radio4’s Book of the Week, George Monbiot took on the issue of meat substitutes in his Guardian column, and Michael Pollan was on Desert Island Discs recounting stories of industrial livestock farming in the US in between his musical choices. Earlier in the month, Radio 4’s Food Programme did an (excellent) programme on diets, discussing their many challenges and failings – and meat was a big feature of the diets being discussed.
It is not surprising that meat consumption is such a topic of debate - there are many complexities and strong feelings that underpin our meat dilemma. After all, meat has been at the centre of our culture of celebration for a very long time, as those of us who aspire to steamed chicken on the table at Lunar New Year or turkey on the table at Christmas know all too well. The debate is also rife with questions of environmental and health impact, fairness, inequality, and food justice. And at the centre of the meat debate lies power and politics.
The public facing debate on meat is often about meat consumption, about how we as individuals can change our diets. But the system driving our meat consumption – including the power held by large meat companies to influence government and our purchasing habits – is where we need to focus our efforts. Without changing the system, it will be an increasingly uphill battle to change every individual’s diet.
We must have brave conversations about hospicing industrial meat farming and making way for an agroecological farming system, in which we will need to eat much less but much better meat.
We can nourish ourselves with much less meat, and indeed the vegetable-based, higher fibre options that can replace meat would have multiple benefits for our bodies, not the least of which our gut health. Tim Spector’s new book on the 'Food for Life’ - also recently featured on Radio 4’s Food Programme - describes the benefit to us of eating at least 30 different types of plants each week; purely practically speaking, it would be a challenge to fit those plants into our diets if we are eating meat every day.
But what about meat substitutes? George Monbiot wrote in his column this week that we cannot just ‘let them eat lentils’ and that we need meat substitutes. His arguments are elegant, but towards the end of the piece he talks about the big potential pitfall of these substitutes: power and politics.
So-called ‘Big Meat’ is a highly consolidated industry with power in the hands of only a few players. This is a problem because these players, who have profit interests at heart rather than human or planetary health, have a huge say over what we eat and how it is produced, and we lack adequate mechanism to hold them accountable when things go awry. This also gives these ‘Big Meat’ companies powerful influence over politics and policy debates.
To get away from that power imbalance, we know that one of the answers will be government regulation and oversight, and another answer will be an entire shift in meat production to agroecological methods on a much smaller – and diversified – scale.
But what is the antidote to power consolidation for meat substitutes? We are already seeing consolidation in this industry with investment from big financial institutions and ‘Big Meat’ is diversifying into meat alternatives – much as the tobacco, alcohol and food industries have done before them. Yes, government regulation and anti-trust laws could help, but is government going to take it on? With high tech solutions, patents will be king, and unless a deliberate effort is made to open-source the technology, power will end up even more concentrated, with the same associated risks as ‘Big Meat.’ And all of this is a challenge even before we consider the potential health impacts of meat alternatives, many of which are ultra-processed, a category of food increasingly recognised as harmful to human health. As Michael Pollan and Tim Spector point out, we need to eat plants, and lots of them – not ultra-processed ‘plant-based’ products.
Meat alternatives will certainly be a feature of the transition away from meat, but they cannot be the only way. For example, Eating Better’s new campaign ‘Anything is Pulse-able’ is a powerful new frame on an idea that has long been known to be good for people and planet: increasing pulses and legumes in the diet as an alternative to meat.
So where does that leave us? It is about addressing power in the food system – investigating where it resides and who it works for – and designing food systems organised for public value and not just for private profit. Government needs to lead the way through policy change: changing the way we are producing food entirely, and helping all of us to diversify our diets to the benefit of health and planet.
Meat is a hot topic, and one where the debate is unlikely to go away anytime soon, but if we come back to basics and address the underlying issues of power and politics, a different future is possible. Indeed, it is one we are already seeing on agroecological farms up and down the country.
Dr Courtney Scott is Food and Health Programme Lead at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. Full bio
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