Meat producers turning to veg products: what to think?

Germany’s biggest meat producing company, Tonnies, will play into the growth of vegetarian consumption in Germany by producing vegetarian food products by October. Tonnies is not the first major meat business to jump on the vegetarian bandwagon: a few weeks ago, Rügenwalder Mühle announced something similar. It wants to get 30% of its business from vegetarian products in the near future. Similarly, some dairy companies have invested in dairy alternatives.

What to think of this evolution?

Some people in our movement are of the opinion that we should not support such businesses. The reasons they name are manifold: they are opportunistic, their motive is not right, and they might use our money to expand their meat business. There’s also the principled matter that we would give money to people responsible for huge animal abuse. Another argument is that basically we should support the people who have their heart in the right place: the pioneers, the smaller companies who are not mainly acting from a business interest but out of idealism.

I can see some of their points, but I think the benefits for the animals and the planet are a lot bigger than the disadvantages. This is an area where, I believe, we should be pragmatic.

First of all, meat companies are not going to disappear overnight. This goes for companies like Tonnies or Smithfields as well as McDonald’s. They will, rather, evolve into something else, something better (though I’m aware of the fact that for some people these companies could never be considered “good”). The more of their business they get from vegetarian products, the smaller will be their antagonism to the vegetarian trend. The lobby for meat is powerful, but as the industry’s financial dependence on selling animal products decreases, so will their efforts and motivation to lobby for them.

Secondly, unlike most smaller producers of meat and diary substitutes, these companies have advertising power. 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!)

Third, big companies have a lot of clout to do research and development and to potentially develop really innovating and great products.

Fourth, and very obviously, as these companies are so big and can move a lot more vegetarian products than the smaller ones, the impact for the animals, the enviroment and health is potentially huge.

I am partly open to the “small is beautiful” adage, and I do want to support the small, well meaning companies and help them grow. It is, in a sense, sad that in the end it will be the big companies running away with the money after the pioneers have paved the way (the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese!). All this is part and parcel of the way a capitalist society functions. I’m obviously all for more equality and fairness, and in the end we definitely need to get to a completely different world, but right now, being too idealistic is perhaps a luxury we cannot afford.

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