Heated debates about the quality and source of everyday foods have propagated an atmosphere of suspicion and anxiety for many modern consumers. Central in these concerns are fears for animal health, wellbeing and the ethics of keeping other creatures for food particularly amid widespread concern about the impact of food cultivation on the planet. All this adds fuel to an already toxic atmosphere of anxiety over plastics and packaging, nutrition, obesity and many other food-related ailments. For many people, some or all of these concerns are sufficient for them to take practical steps to eschew certain foods. And unprecedented numbers of consumers are actively pursuing veganism as a means to navigate the ethics and politics of eating. Accordingly, both The Economist and Forbes have labelled 2019 as the “year of the vegan”.
TV chef Raymond Blanc claims that this is “not a trend” but is a lifestyle choice based on “knowledge and awareness” that chefs and food retailers should embrace. Indeed, vegan activists claim that a shift from animal to plant-based food production would help to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions, reduce animal suffering while still providing ample nutrition for humans. Newspapers and digital media proliferate with ‘how to’ guides for the would-be vegan. Such pro-vegan messages suggest that animal keeping is an inefficient way of using precious land and water resources.
Some research strengthens this case, highlighting that while meat, aquaculture, eggs and dairy provides under half of the protein in Western diets, it uses 83% of the world’s farmland – space that many say could be given over to other forms of food production. Markets have innovated their products to accommodate and attract the vegan consumer. While many vegans actively avoid products labelled as such, supermarkets now stack their shelves with an array of branded meat-free and plant-based products such as soy and oat ‘milks’, cauliflower ‘steaks’ as well as highly processed and lab-created proteins that mimic the look, texture and colour of meat.
Despite the growth of the vegan food market, it is a lifestyle choice that divides opinion, something a recent Channel 4 documentary explored. The ‘Veganuary’ campaign, for instance, provoked food producers to campaign for ‘Februdairy’ and ‘Meaty March’ to counter what they perceived to be unhealthy and extreme messages about abstinence and denial. The National Sheep Association (NSA) reported that many of their members only felt compelled to respond to the “Veganuary” campaign because it publicized a “torrent of false claims” of crimes against animal welfare, the environment and human health. The TV presenter and farmer, Adam Henson, recently hit out at “vegan vigilantes” and has suggested that farming needs to be embedded in school curricula to guard against food fads and highlight the importance of primary food production.
Academic research suggests that the animosity between many confirmed meat-eaters and vegans can be linked to cultural norms that put meat-eating at the heart of domestic routines such as Sunday roasts. Meat, therefore, plays a central cultural role in the West as a symbol of family kinship, wholesomeness and citizenship. Some sociologists suggest this can be explained by the historic link between vegetarian/vegan diets and left-wing politics. While other research points out that there is a strong gender-bias in dietary norms and that masculinity and meat go hand in glove, with women the traditional servers and men the traditional consumers of meat. Certainly, historic archives of advertising imagery have drawn uneasy parallels between female bodies and meat as packaged ‘consumables’.
But cultural norms are less overt in other critiques. Many farming action groups point out, for example, that scientific claims about waste, emissions and sustainability are overstated by activists. Carbon sequestration has become a key strategic aim on many farms. For many food producers, however, the debate over veganism comes down to simple economics. The growing number of vegan consumers appears to add further pressure in an environment already destabilised by uncertainty over the future of commodity prices, trade tariffs, and—not least—Brexit. Some two thirds of UK agriculture’s exports are currently sold to EU countries and farmers are unsurprisingly concerned that domestic consumers hold unprecedented power to ‘make or break’ their industry.
How can consumers decide what’s best?
The contemporary politics of food makes it hard to decide what is best for ourselves and our families when it comes to shopping, cooking and eating. But if those vocal on opposite sides of the debate remain entrenched in their own truth narratives—embarking upon campaigns against certain foods—it is unlikely that the majority of consumers can be better informed to make everyday decisions about what they want to eat and serve. So how do we encourage consumers to witness their food and where it comes from?
Recent research with small children points out that food is not easy to learn about in books or the classroom – we learn about what is good to eat through our senses: tasting, seeing, smelling and touching. Perhaps adults would also benefit from a closer sensory engagement with edibles, producing and growing food to try new flavours and textures? Certainly, a closer connection between the means and ends of the food chain would help. Paying a visit to a farm, meat packing plant or a slaughterhouse, for example, provides a unique sensory experience – confronting to some but reassuring to others. In practice, of course, it is almost impossible for members of the public to gain access to such places. Yet seeing for oneself is opinion-forming. This is how we can decide what is acceptable to us and what is not. In this, even those on opposing sides often agree – though their interpretations understandably vary.
Deepening our sensory experience of production and processing fosters thinking and the development of nuanced positions such as the ‘less meat but better’ idea. It also gives confidence in adopting seemingly contradictory eating and shopping habits, buying vegan foods and meat in the same visit to the supermarket, for example. Extreme positions tend to obliterate the possibility of taking this ‘messy’ or sensory approach to food by devaluing the role of subjective decision-making. And research in food production supports this. For example, the conditions under which some animals are reared and slaughtered are dramatically different from others – revealing a different and less clear-cut set of ethical questions. A good example of this is the Herdwick sheep of the English Lake District, a creature that lives the majority of its life on the remote upland fells in relative freedom from human interference and management. Contrast these animals to the intensive caging of battery chickens in large sheds and you begin to see the ethical grey areas more distinctly.
So would a more open approach to seeing, sensing and witnessing food assist consumers to decide what, when and where they want to eat? It is unlikely that in the near future those occupying the extremes of carnivorous or vegan lifestyles will willingly adopt the ideas of each other. But by forging closer ties between different knowledges, between practitioners and consumers, between those who farm and produce food, and those who buy, cook and eat food, individuals can make better decisions about what they like and dislike without relying so heavily on social media messages, celebrity endorsements or food fashions. This might involve taking closer interest in production processes that we are unfamiliar with, and witnessing the unpalatable truths of our key staples and ingredients. But doing so would mean we better understand provenance, quality and source. These are the essential tools by which we make informed choices about foods that feel nourishing and wholesome to us and those we cook for.
Lindsay Hamilton is Senior Lecturer in Management at the York Management School, York University, UK. She is an organisational ethnographer, specialising in the study of human-animal relationships and interactions. Her work has taken her to slaughterhouses and meat production plants, veterinary surgeries, animal charities and shelters, dairies and upland hill farms. Lindsay has recently published work on the benefits of childhood food cultivation and the importance of ‘dirt’ and nonhumans in school gardens. She has also published recent work on the ethics and principles of shepherding in the UK Lake District. She is currently working on new multi-species fieldwork techniques and is author of the book, Ethnography after Humanism with Nik Taylor.
IMAGE CREDIT: Author’s own image