When activists mean business. An interview with David Benzaquen

David Benzaquen

David BenzaquenMost of us who want to help animals usually end up doing some kind of advocacy or outreach, either individually or volunteering or working for a non-profit organization. However, as I have touched on in other posts and in this talk, we should not underestimate the importance of the for-profit sector: the companies producing and distributing the alternatives. Some of us in the movement have understood this well, and started their own production company (Josh Tetrick at Hampton Creek is a striking example). Other activists, like David Benzaquen, did something different. In 2012, David, who’s living in New York, started a consulting company called PlantBased solutions, which helps clients like Gardein, Miyoko’s Kitchen, or Ocean Hugger Foods, with marketing, branding, fundraising, and more.
I interviewed him…

Vegan Strategist: David, you weren’t always running a business. Why did you switch from a non-profit to a for-profit environment?
David Benzaquen: I originally worked in fundraising and advocacy for various animal protection groups, such as Farm Sanctuary. My motivation to start my business was to advance ethical, plant-based eating through new means. When I worked in the nonprofit world, I saw that most of our movement was using a limited set of tools to encourage positive behavior change. I greatly admire this work to educate people about the benefits of changing their diets, but I didn’t feel that replicating everyone else’s strategy was the most effective use of my time.

What helped you come to that realization?
My exploration of using business (and marketing, in particular) was motivated by two things. First, I was exposed to the field of Effective Altruism, where people attempt to measure the social impact of their choices and careers and make rational choices about where they can do the most good. Second, I attended a talk by a man named Jeff Dunn, who greatly inspired me. Mr. Dunn was once the CEO of Coca-Cola, but after having an epiphany that he could not continue promoting a harmful product he once called “sugar water and fairy dust”, he left the company. He then became CEO of Bolthouse Farms, and created something of a stir in the marketing world by branding carrots the same way we traditionally see done for junk foods like chips and soda. I was so inspired by how he used fun and engaging marketing to make carrots “cool” that I realized I wanted to do the same thing for vegan food!

How do you feel about the impact you’re generating today?
Most of the work that our movement is doing to advance plant-based/vegan living is through what we call a “push” method of marketing. That is, we show the consumer what’s wrong with the status quo and try to convince them to change their lifestyle accordingly. While some people may embrace change this way, most will be reticent to abandon what they’re used to and will feel overwhelmed by the threat our ideologies pose to their view of the world. In the work that we do now, rather than trying to convince someone that the world is bad or that they need to change who they are, we just show how delicious, beautiful, and healthy vegan products are and “pull”, or attract, the consumers to try them. Rather than pointing out the problems, we are offering the solutions and making them desirable and non-threatening. These approaches are incredibly impactful because many people who would otherwise shut down become open to incorporating more vegan products into their lives. They willingly overcome barriers and eliminate assumptions about how difficult or unpleasant living a compassionate lifestyle can be.

How’s business?
Business is amazing! I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I always used to think of business as a “4-letter word”. But regardless of what one thinks of how money and corporate power can be used for bad, the reality is every person needs to buy food and other items to survive. If we don’t engage in the marketplace of goods and work to make vegan products that can compete with the less ethical/sustainable/healthy animal versions, we will never succeed. And, the market is booming! When I started this company, nobody thought that vegan food could be big business. In the last few years, the richest people on earth, from Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing to Peter Thiel and Jerry Yang, have all invested in vegan food companies because they recognize that our reliance on animal protein is just not sustainable. We are honored to be working and growing with so many other compassionate business luminaries. As of the end of 2016, our company has worked with vegan businesses in nearly ten countries, and the list keeps growing as our movement spreads globally.

Can you tell us about some of the main challenges that companies are dealing with, and how a company like yours is able to help overcome those challenges?
The food business is an extraordinarily complex industry. First, operationally, one must grow or manufacture products in one place, process them, store them, and distribute them far and wide, often using strict temperature controls. These practices are very expensive and have high risks for failure (poor weather can lead to low crop yields, electricity challenges can lead to loss of cooling and spoilage, etc.). Second, because there are so many different foods and brands that can meet consumers’ desires to address their hunger or seek gustatory pleasure, companies must devote considerable resources to marketing and sales to ensure that their products break through the clutter and get onto consumers’ plates.
With PlantBased Solutions, we’re able to help companies in several key ways. First, because we are focused on the plant-based space and have worked with many of the world’s leading vegan brands, we know the competitive landscape for our clients better than anyone, and we are able to help market their products in a differentiated and effective way. Second, we have performed a significant amount of proprietary research on the consumers eating plant-based products, both the vegan/vegetarian community, and even more importantly, the flexitarians who are moving in that direction and whom we most need to influence. This allows us to plan our clients’ messaging, branding, and targeted marketing in the most effective way to motivate these consumers to find and buy the products.

To what extent does your animal rights background and motivation shine through when you help marketing products?
We are entirely committed to advancing plant-based products that align with our values, but we do not market them based on these values. We know that the vast majority of consumers buy food not based on mission, but based on taste, price, and convenience. Rather than trying to convince them to buy our clients’ brands for the reasons we would, we show them how tasty, affordable, and convenient (both to find and use) these products are.

Still, our work ethic and passion for our clients and their products obviously goes far beyond a marketing or consulting team that is motivated only by their paychecks. We believe that helping our clients sell lots of products means displacing a lot of harm in the world, from cruelty to animals and environmental destruction, to heart attacks and cancer. We are on a mission to help our clients succeed because we know that lives depend on it. We are proud to do this work, and this passion comes out in the time and devotion we give each client and in the thought and care we put in to what we do.

If companies are so important, what can individual activists do to help them succeed?
The most important thing you, as an individual activist, can do to help plant-based/vegan businesses succeed is to vote with your dollars and your forks! Every time you buy a plant-based product at a grocery store or order one of these items off a menu, you are directing money away from companies that do harm and towards those that will use the resources to build a more compassionate world. In addition, we are building a new compassionate economy from the ground up, and it takes a lot of people to support that infrastructure. No matter what your individual skills are, I can guarantee there are ways you can apply them to a career in vegan business.

More info:
www.plantbasedsolutions.com
Or listen to this podcast with David at the Plant-based entrepreneur

 

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Vegan Islands versus Infiltrators

Many producers of meat alternatives dream of occupying a place among animal products in the supermarket. I mean, literally. They want to be sold where the meat products are sold, instead of in a separate vegan section. Apparently, judging by this picture, Beyond Meat managed to get this coveted position with their Beyond Burger.

Beyond Meat products in the meat section
Beyond Meat products in the meat section

Not every vegan may agree that the meat section is the best place for vegan products. Out of a personal preference, vegans may want the vegan products to have their own separate shelf, aisle or island.

I’m using the example of Beyond Meat’s product placement to illustrate the much broader idea of what I call Islands versus Infiltrators. A separate vegan section would be an example of an Island, while Beyond Meat’s burger patties in the meat section are Infiltrators. We can see many other examples – on similar and different levels – of this distinction:

  • vegan restaurants versus omnivore restaurants with vegan dishes
  • vegan shops versus general shops with vegan products
  • vegan cookbooks versus omnivore cookbooks with vegan recipes
  • vegan dating sites versus regular dating sites with the option to check “vegan”
  • vegan catering companies versus mixed catering companies
  • vegan cooking courses or a general course with vegan recipes

And there are many more examples  of exclusively vegan things. Vegan cruises, a vegan version of airbnb, vegan radio shows, vegan schools, etc.

You can ask yourself whether you are more pro-Island or pro-Infiltration. Let’s briefly look at some general advantages and disadvantages of both phenomena.

The advantage of Islands is clear. They are cosy and convenient for vegans. If we’re on a vegan cruise, we know we’ll get good vegan food, and everyone else on the cruise is vegan or at least veg-curious. Using a vegan cookbook, we are not confronted with pictures of recipes with dead animals in them (which, obviously, are also useless to us). Eating in a vegan restaurant, we know the chefs and waiters know what vegan is, and that there is no chance of anything “wrong” ending up in our food.

But the advantages of Infiltrators are just as clear. While Islands mainly benefit the vegans, Infiltrators are important for reaching new audiences and buyers. Infiltrators get much more exposure among omnivores, many of whom will never enter a vegan restaurant or specialty shop, and will never buy a vegan cookbook. They also will not go out of their way to find and stop by the vegan section in their supermarket.

When I asked on Facebook where the Beyond Beef (and other) products should be in the supermarket, many people answered they should be in both sections. Apart from this probably being difficult to realize (as far as I know, producers pay for shelf space), we also shouldn’t underestimate the impact of us going to the meat shelf and picking out a vegan product in front of other people. The best predictor that a beggar in the street will receive a gift from a passer-by is that the person walking ahead of them dropped something in their hat. The same applies here: the more people see other people picking up the vegan products, the more they might be more inclined to take a look, buy and taste them.

Maybe you’ve experienced how often omnivores seem to think that just because something is vegan, it is not for them (kind of like how ordinary vegans might be deterred from choosing a dish labeled “suitable for diabetics”). The problem today is still that vegan stuff is seen as stuff for vegans. So often, media articles, reviewing a new vegan restaurant, product or service, write something like: “Now, vegans can…” or “Now, there is x for vegans!”, as if it’s only vegans who can profit from it. We need to get rid of the idea that vegan is just for vegans. Infiltrators help counter this idea; Islands are often likely to confirm it.

If you are thinking of setting up some service or selling a product, you can consider whether you want to launch an Island or an Infiltrator. Chances are that as a vegan, you will feel much more comfortable with Island products and services, but the question is whether that is the most impactful.

But also as a consumer, you may consider what you want to spend most of your money on: the vegan restaurant or the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant, for instance. Again, eating at the vegan restaurant is more convenient. But ordering the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant signals that there is a demand, offers opportunities for conversation, for critiquing the dish so that the chef can improve it, etc. You also help keep the dish on the menu, increasing the chances that more people will be exposed to it.

That is, of course, not to say we should stop visiting vegan restaurants or other vegan businesses. On the contrary, they deserve our support. Moreover, Islands may have a symbolic function. They say, “Look, we can do it without animal products and still be viable”. They also may have media value: they may be covered by journalists, because they are new and exciting.

At least for the time being, we’ll have both Islands and Infiltrators. You choose where your money goes. I hope to have given you some arguments to use to think about your options more thoroughly.

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.

 

 

 

“I don’t need meat alternatives”

My fellow vegans now and then say things that I’m critical of, and this one is pretty high up in that list: “I don’t need meat alternatives. I think it’s kinda disgusting, the way those products resemble meat. Give me beans everyday!” (or something like that).

MeatAlternatives

Sure, I get it, your tastes are different. I also get that you are over the desire for anything that looks or tastes like meat. Maybe you want to show how totally you don’t want to have anything to do with animal products at all, so much so that you don’t want to be around anything that resembles them.

But here’s the thing, dear meat alternative-hating vegan: it’s not about you. You are already part of team vegan. You don’t need any convincing anymore. You’ve said bye-bye to animal products (hopefully forever), and that’s just great.

So who is it about, if not you? It’s about the 99% we still have to get to jump on the vegan wagon, of course. We need to do whatever appeals to them. This is, once more, about putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and trying to imagine what they want to eat, what they want to hear, etc.

Most people like (love!) to eat animal products. But I’m sure most of them wouldn’t insist that these products come from a (dead) animal. If we can make meat, dairy, egg… alternatives look and taste exactly the same as the original & cruel thing (and can make them not more expensive, at least as healthy, more sustainable, etc), then we can potentially convince a lot of people.

So people will like products that remind them of the products they like. It’s that simple.

Well, it’s not, of course. I know there are also concerns like “imitations, meh”, and “why do those vegans want to eat stuff that tastes like meat if they don’t want to eat meat”. I would suggest not to take such arguments too seriously.

Bottom line: alternatives for animal products are awesome. If you can get by on rice and beans (or even just raw food), that’s wonderful, but don’t confuse yourself with the people we still need to reach.

 

 

 

Let them eat labmeat – an interview with professor Cor Van Der Weele

I believe that labmeat (also called cultured meat or in vitro meat) is one of the current developments that holds the biggest promises for animals. Professor Cor Van Der Weele, at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands – a country at the forefront of these developments – has been researching the topic for years. She has a degree in both biology and philosophy. I asked her some questions about labmeat, and presented her with some of the objections part of the vegan community may have…

foto: annemieke van der togt
foto: annemieke van der togt

VS: One thing I often hear is that we already have so many vegetarian/vegan options available (from tofu to really good veggieburgers). So why do we need labmeat?
Cor Van Der Weele: In spite of all those good options, for some reason most people remain attached to meat. Cultured meat, or lab meat, is primarily meant for them.

I can see that. But suppose we have a plant-based vegan product that is indistinguishable from real meat, and that has the same or better nutritional value, price, texture, etc. Why would some people be more convinced by lab meat? And how big do you think that segment is?
That would in fact be a very interesting experiment. The fascinating thing about the existence of various alternatives is that they help to unravel the complicated mix of motives people can have to eat meat – such as taste, price, habit, health, and various other considerations about eating animals. Maybe for some dedicated meat eaters, cultured meat would be closer to “the real thing.” I suspect that the size of that segment would be different in different countries. It would also depend on framing and marketing, and it would probably grow smaller over time.

Should we call labmeat just meat? Is it meat? What makes “meat” “meat” for the average consumer?
I don’t think it should be called just “meat.” Cultured meat would be meat in that it is made up of animal cells, but it would obviously also be very different from ordinary meat in some crucial ways. Studies show again and again that many meat eaters are ambivalent about (real) meat. One form that this ambivalence takes is that people like to eat meat but at the same time dislike factory farming and/or the idea that animals need to be killed for meat. The development of cultured meat implies that we accept that people like meat, while we hope to produce it without doing harm to animals. Because there are these differences between meat and cultured meat that many consumers find morally important, they should be able to make the distinction.
Cultured meat can be seen as a step away from ordinary meat: too small a step for some, too large a step for others, but in all cases a step that puts conventional meat in a new light.

Do you believe that, as some critics say, labmeat will alienate us even more from our food and from nature? If yes, in what way is that a concern?
Making cultured meat is “unnatural,” but then, how natural is factory farming? I think that the way we deal with animals in factory farming is very alienating, and that cultured meat, produced from a harmless biopsy taken from animals that have had good lives, would be a big improvement. Further, cultured meat needs far less land. It therefore potentially creates more space for re-naturing the world.

You write about “strategic ignorance”: the attitude of people to willfully not know something or be misinformed about something, because the truth is too hard to bear. The way I see it, one part of the fear (apart from the confrontation with suffering and killing) is the fear that people would miss out on a lot of great food if they really opened themselves up to knowing about animal suffering. Would you agree that developing alternatives like labmeat would be able to partially break down this strategic ignorance?
Yes, certainly. What we saw in focus groups is that the idea of cultured meat made meat eaters discuss what they did not like about meat. The very idea of cultured meat triggers a new feeling of moral room and moral options.

Another argument against labmeat seems to be that it could impede moral change, because of the promise that technology will solve our problems.
I understand the idea; it would make us wait and see. And in part, that is what many people are already doing: they are ambivalent about meat, which may make them perhaps slowly more open to alternatives, but they are no pioneers. I don’t claim to really understand social change but I do know that it is hardly following straight lines. For example, all these ambivalent people who are meat lovers when you look at their behavior but who are not very positive about meat below the surface, what will they do when a really attractive alternative turns up? In this complex field, cultured meat can have an influence as an idea, as a definite product in itself, or as a temporary option on the way from meat to plant-based substitutes.

Part of the vegan community may fear that labmeat won’t change the way we view animals; that it won’t teach us that animals are not ours to use.
I disagree, that’s exactly what cultured meat will do. I think it effectively undermines the self-evidence of how we deal with animals, and I am convinced that it will make a difference, whether or not we are looking for it. It’s important to realize that change does not necessarily need to start with clear moral attitudes. In some cases, people adopt attitudes that accompany the behavior that they are already demonstrating. In this case, this might mean that when people get used to eating cultured meat, the idea of factory farming or killing animals may gradually become stranger and less acceptable.

 

A yummy veggieburger or a dreadful vegan burger?

For those who dig them, here’s another thought experiment (you know I love those).

Suppose you’re out and about with an omnivorous friend. He’s very hungry and he wants to humor you and try something veg. The only restaurant in the area has two things on offer: a delicious vegetarian burger (you know it contains a bit of egg or cheese) and a very dry and tasteless vegan burger. Which one do you recommend he order? (Or a bit more difficult: Which one would you buy for him?)

veggie vs vegan

In an ideal world, of course, there’s great tasting vegan burgers everywhere, but going along with this thought experiment may help you discover or make explicit something about your values. I’m sure we agree that the vegan burger is in theory the more ethical choice. But does it follow that it is necessarily the best choice?

The experiences omnivores have with vegan food will have a very big impact on their thinking about vegan and animal rights issues. Those who have had only Bad Tofu Experiences will likely be much less open to going vegan, while those who know the joys of vegan dishes may realize that once they quit their omnivorous diet, they will have great alternatives.

So in this context, of course, it does not seem to be a good idea to suggest a bad product to a person, even though it’s vegan. A yummy experience with the veggie burger (which will look pretty plant-based to your friend anyway) will do much more to open his mind.

I remember speaking at a (non-animal rights related) seminar that took place in a hotel. I had eaten there the night before and I knew the vegan food was quite bad. But after the talk I gave on the problems of eating meat, the organizers asked the audience who would want to switch to a vegetarian meal that night. Almost everybody raised their hand, and I thought: “Noooooo! Not here!”

Take away one: Helping people have great vegan taste experiences is absolutely crucial. If we can’t serve them good vegan food, it might actually be better to let them eat a hamburger.

Take away two: Don’t think just about short-term impact, but also about the long term.

 

What about GMOs and hi-tech animal food alternatives?

We’re living in very exciting times.

We’re on the verge of making milk without the cow,
cheese without the milk,
eggs without the chickens,
burgers without the beef,
leather without the bull…

In a lot of cases we’re not talking about imitations but about actually replicating, molecule by molecule, the original product (eggs, milk, cheese, meat…), so that our “alternative” can hardly be called an alternative any longer, but is a product that is chemically (more or less) identical to the original animal product.

hi tech animal products (1)

Obviously, doing stuff like this requires new technologies (like genetic modification) and hi-tech food development environments (labs, say). This is of course a far cry from the local, natural, organic, DIY food movement that is presently quite popular.

The vegan movement too is a bit divided over this. A big part believes our food should be as “natural” as possible, while another part doesn’t mind the involvement of high tech, including GMO’s, to make things better.

To me it’s quite obvious that the label “natural” doesn’t mean much. To simplify things – as is often done in the food movement in general – to something like: natural is good, processed/engineered is bad, seems quite irrational. I find there is little reason to entertain the general idea that what has been produced by nature is necessarily better than what humans make of it. There seems to be no reason why humans, in theory, could not do better than nature. Sure, when we try to improve on what nature provided us with, we need to experiment, sometimes by trial and error, and we have made mistakes and will make more. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ever get it right.

I’m aware of the potential political and social problems in giving food companies too much power, the problem of monopolies, of only big companies being able to develop certain technologies, of patenting, etcetera… But while these issues are very important, they are practical issues that are not inherent to the “naturalness” or “unnaturalness” of foods. It seems sensible, especially in the case of GMO’s, to separate two questions: do you have fundamental problems with something, versus do you have practical problems with something. If you fundamentally disagree with something (e.g. you believe that genetic modification is “unnatural” and therefore “wrong”) there’s no real solution for you in sight. If you disagree with e.g. genetic modification on the grounds that it creates too much power for certain (obviously capitalist) multinationals, that’s a practical issue of a totally different nature.

While we shouldn’t be naive, these practical issues can in theory be solved. A nice example of a high tech initiative that seems to be doing things differently is Real Vegan Cheese, which is a group of “biohackers” (a word which does a great job in showing the “unnaturalness” of their endeavours) trying to develop… well, real vegan cheese. They are crowdfunded and work out of two open community labs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Personally, while I can see many potential or real practical issues with hi-tech food development, I don’t have any fundamental objections against hi-tech food. I basically support science and technology in reinventing animal products and coming up with alternatives, so that we can make of animal use a thing of the past.

Our movement’s newest asset: big money

“We have science, logic and morality on our side. It’s only a matter of time before we win.” 

The above quote is by Bruce Friedrich, long time and much appreciated activist, now working at Farm Sanctuary. I share Bruce’s belief that someday, we will win. I share his belief in the power of science, logic and morality. But I’m happy to see that lately, we’ve seen another factor at our side: money.

Not that the vegan movement didn’t have any money at all before, but today it’s kind of a whole new ballgame. For the first time, big money is being bet on vegan products. Companies like Hampton Creek, Beyond Beef and Impossible foods have raised literally hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. Check out some others here.

For the first time, investors can see a big future for meat, dairy and egg alternatives. Given that the production of animal products will become more and more problematic on environmental grounds, and more and more unacceptable to people on ethical grounds, people like Bill Gates and Twitter’s Biz Stone have been opening their wallets. Google’s Sergey Brinn has invested in the research for in vitro meat by Mark Post in the Netherlands, and Google has recently made an offer to buy Impossible Foods.

The perception value of investors like these betting on meat alternatives is important: these guys are not stupid. If they see something in meat substitutes… well, it must mean there might really be something in it.

But other than mere symbolic or perception value, the millions of dollars these venture capitalists are making available, allow entrepreneurs to put together dream teams and acquire the best researchers, tech people and marketeers to develop and then market their new products.

developing alternatives

If you read some of the media coverage these new ventures are getting, you can see that the entrepreneurs are looking to imitate (and improve) meat (or other animal products) like never before. They want to make a product that is at least indistinguishable from the original animal product, but hopefully even better. And now they have the money, the brains, the technology to do so. Read about Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Hampton Creek (egg substitutes) or Muufri (real milk, but not from animals). It’s fascinating stuff.

I think the importance of developing good alternatives for animal products cannot be overestimated. Meat still has a symbolic value (especially in emerging ecomomies), but as far as people choose to eat meat for culinary reasons, almost no one, I am sure, insists on putting pieces of a dead animal in their mouth. Rather, people are looking for a certain taste and texture. If you can imitate that taste and texture exactly (or improve upon it), and make the products healthier, more sustainable and cruelty free while you’re at it… there is no reason why we couldn’t get every omnivore to eat these “alternatives” rather than the “animal originals”.

There is no doubt that all of these developments happen within the classical capitalist framework, which is probably not the ideal solution. However, to call all of this nothing more than “vegan consumerism” which has nothing to do with ethics, is misguided. Making our society less dependent on the use of animals by developping alternatives (in food, research, clothing) is high priority. It is crucial for people to have good alternatives if we want them to be able to let their compassion flow.

Is Ben and Jerry’s vegan icecream “veganwashing”?

Ben & Jerry’s recent announcement that they would soon be offering a vegan ice cream flavor has been cheered by many. Inevitably, however, they were the few dissident voices claiming that this was not a victory for the animals at all.

Ben-Jerrys

Ben & Jerry’s, so these people claim, made this move purely for profit. It’s a commercial decision, not a moral one. It has nothing to do with the ethics of animal rights, but is pure consumerism. It is even veganwashing.

Well duh. Of course profit is what drove the decision to offer vegan ice cream. Does it matter? Not so much.

I’m all in favor of erasing all the injustices of capitalism and creating a much fairer and more equal society (with or without capitalism). Yet I’m happy that today, for the first time in history, commercial interests finally can drive vegan product innovation. It means not just that there is a sizeable market, but it is also the way to get these companies on our side. It is the only way businesses invested in animal (ab)use will stop being an enemy to our cause: when they find out they can make money with the alternatives, and, as demand grows, replace more and more of the old with the new.

Does it matter that all of this is not ethically motivated? Hardly. I’m repeating it ad nauseam on this blog, but behavior (selling or buying vegan icecream) can precede attitude change (believing in animal rights etc).* It is extremely important to have vegan options out there: it’s important for businesses to sell them, and for people to buy them.

Is a vegan Ben & Jerry icecream flavor a reason to celebrate? Given the sometimes abundant negativity in our movement, I would say that we’d better celebrate too much than too little. Is it a reason to congratulate Ben & Jerry’s? Why not? Sure, they are still using the milk of thousands of cows, but the more we let them hear from us, the more they know we value what they’ve done. Not that Ben & Jerry should become complacent, but congratulations encourage, and create more goodwill than criticism.

So I’d say, go get a vegan Ben & Jerry icecream (if you’re somewhere where you can find it), and have a little faith in people. A vegan portion of Ben & Jerry’s may be just what they need to open their hearts and minds for the plight of animals.

* if you want to find out more, read this chapter from Meyers’ Psychology