Whether vegetarian or flexitarian – ethical eating is working

Whether vegetarian or flexitarian – ethical eating is working

f you sometimes make food choices based on your values rather than your pocketbook or fancy, you should know that those small, occasional pivots are making a difference.


  • You’re on the milk aisle in the grocery store. The milk from penned-up cows is $2.99/gallon; the milk from pasture-grazed cows, $6.49. You hesitate, then pick up the pasture-grazed.
  • You’re out to lunch with colleagues, and the house burger catches your eye. Somewhat reluctantly, you order the veggie version and—to reward yourself—top it with avocado.
  • The in-laws are coming to dinner, and steak and potatoes would be a sure win. You drive the extra mile to the co-op where they advertise that the meat is local and grass-fed.
  • Your seven-year-old visits a petting farm and announces afterwards that she doesn’t eat pigs anymore. When she asks if bacon is from pigs, you grimace but answer honestly.

People make values-based food choices for lots of reasons: improving animal welfare, reducing atmospheric carbon, conserving forest habitat, safeguarding antibiotic efficacy, preventing zoonotic epidemics, or improving food sufficiency to name a few. Of late, it is nearly impossible to avoid articles about the climate-warming farts of grain-fed cattle, the impact of pesticides on bees and other good bugs, the clearcutting of tropical rainforests for beef or palm-oil, or the plight of animals and workers in factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.

But adjusting long-standing culinary habits doesn’t happen overnight, and most of us will never be fully vegan or vegetarian. Fortunately, change doesn’t have to be all or nothing to be meaningful. I remember the first time a dentist told me, “Flossing even once or twice a week helps protect your teeth.” That worked for me, where “You should floss every day” didn’t. I started flossing occasionally, which eventually grew into a habit. And even if the habit hadn’t emerged, the occasional flossing would have mattered for my teeth.

When it comes to values-driven food choices, it’s easy to wonder whether those occasional actions matter—whether the extra money or effort or willpower is worth it. The answer looks more and more like a clear yes. Your small choices, in concert with those of millions of other people, are changing the ways animals get treated, how food gets produced, and what’s available on grocery shelves or even fast-food menus.

You aren’t alone. More Millennials than any other generation of Americans identify as vegan or vegetarian. Even so, at 12-15 percent of their cohort, they lack the numbers to shift the bulk of food production. Increasingly, though, they are joined part-time by peers and older folks who pollsters call casual vegetarians or flexitarians, meaning people who eat primarily a plant-based diet but continue to enjoy meat on occasion.

According to market-research firm Nielsen, 73 percent of Americans say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce environmental impacts. Specialty products produced by small farmers and distributed to local co-ops and farmers markets have defined aspirational eating for the avocado generation, and now—here’s where the change scales up—the titans of industrial agriculture want in the game.

Not fringe anymore. Big players in the commodity food sector are extremely sensitive to brand issues like trust and safety, and they are eager to be seen as providers of humane and healthy foods—even if they have to become the real deal to get the premium brand and pricing. Sales of more-sustainable products (those carrying free-from, sustainable, organic, clean or simple labels) grew to $1.28B in 2018. Plant-based foods that directly replace products from animals sold retail for more than $3.7B, up 17% from 2017. And that’s just a start, because seismic changes are underway in how food is produced and how we eat.

  • Tyson foods, as one of the largest meat companies in the world, basically defines industrial agriculture. Even so, Tyson has decided to go beyond greenwashing and make sustainability a core part of their brand. Tyson has teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to measure and reduce green house gas emissions on 500,000 acres of corn. In 2019, Tyson will be launching their own line of animal-free proteins. Their venture capital arm has invested in plant-based Beyond Meat and in two cellular meat startups, Memphis Meats and Future Meat Technologies.
  • Cargill, one of Tyson’s top competitors in the U.S. now publishes animal cruelty standards. They recently renamed Cargill Meat Solutions as Cargill Protein, made investments in plant-based proteins, and sold their last two feedlots. Cargill has attributed their shifting focus to the shifting preferences of younger consumers.
  • Plant-based milks now makes up 13% of the U.S. retail milk market, availability in grocery stores is approaching 100%, and over a third of American families say they buy plant milks at least sometimes. Plant-based milks have moved from the specialty case to the dairy case, a reflection of their status as an established part of the American diet.
  • Using age-old fermentation processes, research is moving forward on getting algae to produce the same proteins found in cow milk, and when this goes commercial, it will be possible to make a wide array of cheese, identical to those we eat today, from brewed milk—without the annual cycle of breeding cows and separating/slaughtering their male calves. (Dairy breeds aren’t used for meat production.) Perfect Day, which started in 2014 with three nerds and a small grant, now has a prototype product and millions in venture capital funding.
  • Almost ten years ago, McDonald’s, which buys 2 billion eggs per year, heard the outcry about caged hens and began purchasing cage-free eggs. Their eggs will be all cage-free by 2025; rival Burger King saw the move and followed suit. The cage-free egg train seems unstoppable at this point, at least in North America. Tim Hortons, with almost 4000 locations in Canada has committed to the change by 2025; Starbucks by 2020. In the meantime, consumers have raised the stakes further, and many stores now offer pastured eggs from hens that routinely see sunshine and forage.
  • The year 2019 has been heralded in Fast Company as “the year that alt meat goes mainstream.” Impossible burgers—the ones that bleed—are now available in over 5000 restaurants and will be in grocery stores this spring or summer. Beyond Meat, the other popular plant-based brand designed for meat eaters instead of vegetarians now only sells to retailers who put their product in the meat case. The FDA and USDA together may jointly approve the first chicken grown from real chicken cells in a cellular reactor like a brewery instead of a live animal.
  • Investment in alt ag, meaning plant-based proteins and cellular agriculture, is zooming, with almost $1.3B invested since 2010, most of that in the last three years. Investors include strategic philanthropists like Richard Branson and Bill Gates alongside venture funds, tech accelerators like Y Combinator, and traditional meat companies like Tyson and Cargill who are placing their bets on the shape of the future.

The human population curve is bending. Even so, with expected growth in both population and prosperity, global demand for protein is expected to double by the year 2050. How that demand will be met—how it will affect our fellow travelers and planetary life support systems like fresh water, arable land, and carbon sinks—depends in part on how avidly early adopters pursue yummy alternatives to those foods with the greatest ethical costs. Yummy is the key word here, because the biggest non-occasional drivers of food choices are cost, convenience, and taste. So far, trend lines are looking great on all three.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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