Opinion: Vegans Couldn't Convince People To Give Up On Meat, But Maybe Capitalism Will

Plant-based burgers are getting lots of love from Wall Street. It puts old-school vegans like me in a tough spot.

For most of my life, veganism has been about eschewing animal products whenever possible — not only skipping meat in your diet, but also leather in your shoes, wool in your clothes, and animal-testing in your cosmetics. Veganism isn’t a diet, it's a radical ethic that reshapes the relationship between humans and other animals — one that rejects their industrialized commodification and demands their liberation.

But in recent years, “vegan” has come to stand in for a much wider array of beliefs and motivations. Many have adopted plant-based diets for their health, to lose weight, or on the recommendation of doctors following a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis. Some New Age spiritualists similarly eschew all processed foods and animal products, often along with GMOs, non-organic produce, and whichever ingredient is the villain of the month. And then there’s the growing number of people who are cutting back on meat, or eliminating it entirely, because of its devastating environmental cost.

This ever-expanding umbrella has led to a general sense that veganism is a growing movement — and movements are made to be capitalized on. Corporations both new and old have shown up to make money from demand for plant-based foods, and judging by the overwhelmingly positive chatter around companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, they are making a killing. Investors are valuing them in the billions and fast food giants like KFC, Burger King, and Subway are scrambling to add bleeding plant-protein burgers and meat alternatives to their menus. Even McDonald's is testing the waters.

This puts vegans, who have spent decades advocating for a serious ethical shift regarding our relationship with animals, in a difficult spot.

For us, the case for not eating living, feeling beings by the billions should be self-evident: why would you, if you don't have to? But it’s clearly not at all self-evident to most people. The vast majority of humans have not changed their diet or lifestyle for the sake of animal wellbeing. Instead, what has moved the needle — and has given many animal activists an optimism they’re totally unfamiliar with — is capitalism. Money from wealthy investors is pouring into these new corporations, money is flowing between these new companies and the fast food brands whose major profit center is still dead chickens and cows, and money is coming in from curious consumers who are lining up for vegan KFC tenders and Impossible Whoppers.

This new industry rises not because of us, but in many ways despite us. Money: it still works!

Meat alternatives have been around for decades — I remember my grandparents finding me veggie bacon at their local Kroger grocery store in Houston in 1994, the year I stopped eating meat — but these new companies have successfully sold their products as a fundamentally new innovation. They’ve made foods that are as close as possible to meat in taste and texture — to the extent that for some longtime vegetarians and vegans, the food has no appeal, dipping into a sort of uncanny valley. “I immediately began to tear up, looking at my sister with terror,” Alicia Kennedy recently wrote of her experience trying a Beyond Burger. “I was so sure I’d just eaten beef, for the first time in years.”

So, who are these plant-based burgers for? The companies, particularly Impossible Foods, have mostly avoided the "vegan" label in their marketing. For Impossible, this may be out of necessity, as they voluntarily tested one of their ingredients (poetically, the one that gives the burgers their “bleeding" appearance) on some 188 rats who were fed the ingredient before being killed and cut open for study. When the company recently premiered their US-wide partnership with Burger King, many vegan groups on Facebook fell into disarray over constant arguments between vegans with different attitudes about the animal testing, shared broilers, and whether vegans should even support a fast food company in the first place.

But while KFC tests Beyond Chicken in Atlanta to lines around the block, animal consumption is still on the rise globally, nearly doubling in terms of per-capita consumption since the 1960s. One factor in this worldwide hunger for more meat is the rapid global expansion of American fast food franchises and their local imitators — today just one in four KFC locations is in the USA. Across the world, the fast food business has increased demand for cruel efficiency in animal production and the environmental destruction that goes along with it, and now some of its biggest players are benefiting from the green halo of embracing plant-based meat.

In May the world's largest meat processing company, JBS — which has been directly linked to deforestation in the Amazon —announced their own plant-based burger line. Earlier this month, Christy Lebor, JBS’s Global Innovation Lead, appeared on a panel at the Good Food Conference in San Francisco, saying “We are the biggest protein company and will remain the biggest protein company. If plant-based is what it takes then we’ll do that.”

That conference is put on by the Good Food Institute, a non-profit founded by PETA alumni Bruce Friedrich, which embraces “market-based” solutions to animal agriculture. Vegans and animal rights activists like Friedrich have been fighting for the end of animal farming and exploitation for decades without being able to put all that much in the win column until recently. For many of these activists, the mainstream embrace of plant-based meat alternatives is an unequivocally good thing for the animals.

This “if you can't beat 'em, join ‘em" approach asks those of us who care to trade in our resentment towards the corporate greed that made animal farming what it is today, in exchange for trust that those same corporations can be part of the solution. We’re being asked to believe the companies who globalized factory faming will now guide society towards less cruelty to animals and a more "sustainable” food system, without a lot of clarity about what that food system will actually look like for farmers and workers at a massive scale in the long term, and without any promises to reduce the animal cruelty practiced by these same companies in the short term.

What looms over my conflicting feelings about these new not-meat burgers is the unsolved calculus of what I am willing to trade and who I’m willing to trust for the possibility that we could stop animal farming as we know it in my lifetime. Eight billion land animals die annually to support the food supply in the US alone — eight billion feeling beings, bred into captivity and spending their short, miserable lives in filth, many of them never seeing sunlight, before they’re transported in crowded trucks and slaughtered because meat tastes good.

That’s what’s at the heart of all this: If it’s ever possible to give people what they clearly want at any cost — the taste of animal flesh — without the cruelty and suffering at the heart of industrialized animal farming, can I really let 188 long-dead rats or my mistrust of corporate greed stand in the way? We can’t trust Burger King or JBS to be an altruistic steward of a reformed food system — but the animals suffering can’t wait for global capitalism to be undone, or for people to stop craving burgers. Vegan ethics never actually broke through, but the almighty dollar may now be the best hope the animals have.

Summer Anne Burton is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Tenderly, a "friendly and radical" vegan magazine.

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