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.




Screw the middle of the road

Most people can understand why some people are vegetarian; even though they eat meat themselves, they are often able to appreciate the simple idea that vegetarians don’t want to contribute to the killing of animals for food, or clothing. Veganism, on the other hand, can seem way over the top and many people simply aren’t sympathetic to the cause.

In practise, a vegan lifestyle boils down to paying a lot of attention to what you eat. In many restaurants you may not find something suitable; you will probably be an expert label reader in supermarkets, and when you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, you may need to explain what you eat and don’t eat. And it’s not just about eggs and dairy, but also about products containing them.

As a vegan, you get used to all this quite easily, but the perception of the omnivorous population is that this it is too “extreme.” Veganism is extreme. Vegans are extremists. And extremism is never okay. That’s the way the argument goes.


Most people use words like “extreme” or “radical” to indicate something negative. What they mean is: too much. Too far, too different. People are usually more fond of the truth that is “somewhere in the middle”.

But when can we call something really, truly extreme? When something deviates too far from what most people do – the ‘norm’ – it is usually considered, almost automatically and by definition, as negative and undesirable, just because it deviates so much. But – and this is my point – there’s nothing that says that this norm itself is okay. The norm, in other words, is not necessarily a point of reference.

Back to milk, eggs and veganism. Current agricultural practises seem hard to reconcile with the values we cherish. Yearly, billions of male chicks are killed right after birth because they can’t lay eggs. Layer hens are debeaked without anesthesia, with a glowing hot knife. The efficiency of the egg industry is of an almost demonic level. Animals are packed as tightly as possible in order to save space. In hardly any cases do they get to see daylight and artificial lighting is used to manipulate their laying cycles and production. Regarding milk, just like with humans, a cow doesn’t give milk – at least not enough – when she’s not pregnant or has young. Artificially impregnating cows and relying on them giving birth every year is hence a necessity for sufficient milk production. As for the males, the calf will end up as beef. This is equally true in the case of organic products. What happens is that animals are treated like things, with which we can do what we want, because they aren’t people, not for some morally relevant reason. We engineer everything in a way that ensures the animals get as big as possible, as fast as possible, and to give us as much product as possible – whether it is meat, eggs or dairy.

Is it reasonable to say that whoever doesn’t want to cooperate with or support these practises and this attitude towards animals, that whoever wants to give animals a different position in our culture, and wants to boycott these products in hope of reducing demand for them and finally abolishing them… is it reasonable to say that such a person is extreme? Only in the sense that their behaviour (especially in terms of buying and eating) really deviates from the norm. But does this mean it has to be appraised negatively? Maybe the central question is: can a culture, a society, a nation or maybe even the world be totally, incredibly wrong about something? Could it be that the norm is so thoroughly wrong that seriously deviating from it is maybe the only right position?

Of course, anyone can claim a certain norm is wrong, and that entire countries or cultures do wrong things. Thoughts like these may lead to people bombing buildings and other forms of terror. But in the case of protesting the abuse and use of animals, this protest is based on two fundamental things; it is based on empathy, or compassion, with living beings, stemming from the realisation that they can feel and suffer. And secondly, we can build a rational case showing why the norm is, to put it mildly, problematic.

No one who makes the minimal effort to investigate the implications of egg and dairy consumption can easily dismiss the motivations of vegans as extreme, ridiculous or unimportant. Of course the tactics and strategies used by individuals and groups to achieve their goals can be radical or extreme, independent of the objective, but that is another discussion.
I believe an attitude or behaviour that really deviates from the norm can be perfectly okay and may at times theoretically be the only morally right position, if one has a good argument and if it is rooted in empathy.

Is this a plea for radical viewpoints and behaviour? Not necessarily. It is a plea to be critical about concepts like radical and extreme. It is an appeal to avoid clichés, to not take the middle of the road by default, and to really examine how far exactly we need to go to reach the good, the true and the beautiful.

Our language should include, not exclude others

The idea that as a movement we should be open to people who do not share our vegan/animal rights views, is extremely logical. We want others to join us, so we need to be inclusive, not exclusive. We should, I think, do everything to avoid the “us versus them” rethoric that slips all too easily into our language and attitude. And we should try to make everything that we do attractive to outsiders.

Here I think is a case in point where we could do better:

I heard this cookbook contains great recipes, I like the cover and the main title, so it is by no means my intention to put this book down. I am just bringing it up to illustrate a point. What I obviously have a bit of a problem with is the subtitle: “recipes for the new ethical vegan“.

The authors or publishers may have their reasons to choose this phrasing (UPDATE: see comment of coauthor Josh Hooten in the comment section). Maybe they are intentionally targetting a very specific audience and think that with this title they will appeal more to “new ethical vegans”. I think, however, that words like these exclude people. Surely, the recipes in the book are suitable for non-vegans, or “non-ethical” vegans (whatever that may mean) too? Omnivores don’t feel part of the vegan club (yet), so they don’t feel they are being addressed with a subtitle like this. The words exclude them, while they should include them.

A title like that also confirms something what many omnivores still consciously or subconsciously feel: that vegan recipes and vegan meals and vegan products are… for vegans. While more and more people are realizing that (almost) everyone can eat a vegan dish, there are still many who are thinking: I’m not ordering this vegan option because I’m not a vegan. It may be similar to me not ordering a glutenfree option because I have no affiliation with the glutenfree thing.

I find that “vegan” as an adjective is much more useful than as a noun (“a vegan”, “vegans”, “veganism”). The nouns are black and white, binary concepts, while “vegan meals”, “vegan recipes” are things everyone can participate in whenever they want. Many people may not be interested in becoming vegan right away, but they might be interested in trying out vegan meals. If we want to attract, non-binary words and thinking are probably much more efficient.

I also dislike the term “ethical vegan” in general. It may be nice to call ourselves ethical vegans, or we may think that it’s good to show that we are vegans for the animals and not for health reasons, but again this confirms some prejudices: that vegans have a holier-than-thou attitude, a certain self-righteousness over them, which will probably deter many people.

Let our language show people that our doors are wide open.

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 & 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