Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy?

The multinational meat company Tyson Foods is – at least to the vegan movement – a monster, slaughtering millions and millions of animals every year.
The startup Beyond Meat, on the other hand, is one of the vegan movement’s darlings, for taking meat alternatives to new levels.
How should the vegan movement respond when one invests in the other?

That’s what just happened: Tyson Foods bought a minority stake (5%) in Beyond Meat.

Judging by the comments on Beyond Meat’s Facebook page, and the company’s public response in a blog, many vegans are not amused.

Beyond meat logo

The accusations are unsurprising: Beyond Meat sold out. They’re only in it for the money. Buying a Beyond Meat product now means financially supporting the meat industry, etc. Therefore, (some) vegans will no longer buy Beyond Meat.

On the other hand, the announcement also got over 1600 likes.

So it seems the audience is torn. What to think?

I’ll take the example of Tyson and Beyond Meat to talk about a very basic distinction when we think about what’s good and what’s not good. It will be obvious for many among you, but is hopefully illuminating for many others.

Basically, one of the ways to explain the different opinions about what Beyond Meat did is in terms of a difference between focusing on values and focusing on consequences. When we look at many moral discussions and issues, this dichotomy is often at their basis.

Let’s investigate.

People who attach the most importance to values will say things like what you read above: that Beyond Meat sold out. That you just can’t deal or cooperate with a company like Tyson Foods because it is evil. That now Beyond Meat has been contaminated. They will point to all the bad things Tyson does, that their intentions are bad, and will say that being somehow implicit in further enriching them is plain immoral.

People who attach the most importance to consequences will look at what will happen as a result of this “collaboration”. They will keep in mind the bottom line (reducing animal suffering, abolishing the killing of animals, or something of this nature) and wonder if what happened will advance this bottom line. In other words, they will not ask whether Beyond Meat did an evil thing or not, but will wonder what good or bad will come out of it: will there be more or fewer animals killed (in the long or short term).

Put very bluntly, for the sake of making it clear, we could say that value-oriented people will say that if something is wrong, it’s wrong, irrespective of any positive consequences. Consequence-oriented people will say that something is okay if the consequences are mostly positive, no matter whether or not we can consider the actual action or deed immoral.

It’s usually not that simple or black and white though. Value-oriented people will almost always take consequences into account to at least some extent, and consequences-oriented people will not throw all values overboard. But it’s a matter of focus, or priority. Two other words for these two approaches would be principled versus pragmatic. In philosophical terms, these two positions are known as deontologist (from the Greek word for “duty”) versus consequentialist (or utilitarian).

Here’s another example that may make the distinction between values and consequences clearer. A skilled hunter may give a wild animal a quicker and more merciful death than when this same animal would die a long, cruel death from hunger. However, this hunter – assuming his first intention is not to reduce animal suffering – wants to have a quick thrill killing an innocent being. Now, if we would have the power to stop this from happening again, what do we do? Do we stop the hunter because we think it’s wrong, even if that would be much less painful for the animal (let’s assume the animal will die in a few days or weeks through lack of food). Or do we say that, exactly because of these consequences, and in spite of the hunter’s intentions, this whole action turns out to be okay and we should support it?

It’s complicated, as you can see, and this discussion has being going on for ages in moral philosophy. It’s what the famous trolley problem is about, and it’s also what my experiment about eating meat for money is about.

(One way to think about this is to put yourself, in this case, in the position of the animal. Would you want people to care more about the consequences, which are directly affecting you? Or about the principles? My view here is that as the animal, I wouldn’t care about what’s right or wrong for humans to do. I would care about my suffering or not suffering.)

If you focus on values, and you have your values clear, then you can often use quick judgments to state whether to you personally something is okay or not okay. But if you judge by consequences, you need to investigate those consequences, and these are not always clear, and you usually have more “work” to do than a values-oriented person.

Let’s go back to Beyond Meat and Tyson Foods. I usually find myself attaching more importance to consequences. Reducing animal suffering to me is what counts, and I’m usually in favor of everything that contributes to that. So, apart from wondering if an investment of Tyson Foods in Beyond Meat is an evil thing in itself, so to speak, we could wonder: what would the concrete, actual consequences for the animals be? More generally, can it ever be a good thing when meat companies invest in plant-based products? Here are some possible consequences to take into account when assessing this case.

If a meat company butters their bread on two sides, or bets on multiple horses (to say it with two “non-vegan” expressions), and is able to profit from the growth of vegan products, we can assume it will become less resistant to this evolution. The lobby for meat is powerful, but as the industry’s financial dependence on selling animal products decreases while its profits from selling vegan products increases, we can expect a shift in their antagonism towards the growth of vegan consumption.

We could wonder – as many vegans do – what happens with the profits the meat company makes from the vegan products? If we are values-oriented, we could say that this is wrong and disgusting in any case: this money is being used to enrich the exploiters. If we are consequences-oriented, we wouldn’t really mind about that in itself, though we might wonder whether these profits might be used to bolster the company’s meat department. In that case, we’d have a negative consequence. This seems unlikely though. I have a hard time seeing a reason why a company would structurally invest the profits from plant-based products to market their animal-based products – unless of course there’s much more money to be made with the latter. But it’s exactly because plant-based is on the rise and animal-based is (very slowly) on the way down in Western countries, that companies like Tyson are starting to invest in plant-based.

Another argument is that these huge companies like Tyson have a big advertising budget. They are able to put veg products really out there: on TV, in supermarkets, etc. Their reach is much bigger than that of the smaller, idealistic companies (though we cannot but be amazed at the attention Hampton Creek has gotten with virtually no advertising budget!).

If Tyson gets really interested, they could also start using part of their resources for research and development of vegan products.

As CEO Ethan Brown says in his blog post, this financial stake of Tyson in Beyond Meat also creates opportunities for the two companies to work together, and to have an influence on Tyson. This may sound naive, but consider the alternative: usually isolating someone or something doesn’t really do anything in terms of influencing them in the right direction. The only thing isolating someone allows you to do is to keep your hands clean. If you are concerned about keeping your hands clean at all costs, you’re very much values-oriented.

You’re also focusing on values when you say that Tyson is only doing this for profit. This is something that you might find morally problematic. However, no matter what Tyson’s intentions are here (and undoubtedly it’s about profit), the consequences could still be positive. In any case, money is one of the main motivations for people to do anything. I think it’s more useful for us to try to make use of and exploit this motivation than to condemn and boycott it.

Whether you focus more on values or more on results, Tyson is not just going to disappear, or stop doing what they do overnight. Rather, Tyson needs to evolve into something else. That is a much more realistic option. And as much as we dislike what it’s doing now, and as much as we may dislike big companies, capitalism, commercialism, consumerism, and so on, I think the best way is to “allow” Tyson to evolve, and to take steps like it just did. Likewise, I think it’s good if we “allow” Beyond Meat to get their hands dirty and get in bed with what is, until further notice, still the enemy.