The newly conceived vegan “fake meat” burger that for a period came to dominate newspaper headlines (one that is purportedly supposed to taste and even ooze just like the real thing) has received a disproportionate degree of attention from various media outlets, with mixed reactions varying from scorn to overt disgust at the mere notion of lab-produced vegan meat. These responses intrigued me for numerous reasons but most fundamentally on the basis of their logical inconsistency; namely, by virtue of the fact that they negate the reality that ultra-processed foods across the board have been making their way onto supermarket shelves with little protest for the past couple of decades, the only difference in this instance being the vegan-esque composition of the product. Out of the blue, there seems to have erupted a public outcry, a sense of disgust and loathing at a particular type of processed food in spite of its compositionally identical nature to its processed meat equivalent, minus the slaughter, not to mention the giant ecological footprint of course. This irony hints at a deeper unwillingness to acknowledge and embrace the rise of the vegan movement in the context of an ultra-processed food industry which extends beyond the lines of vegan and omnivorous diets.
Moreover, the common argument that the conventional vegan diet is somehow synonymous with processed fake-meat consumption and is therefore unhealthy or “unnatural” has been voiced by many, including quite recently by British investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman on the Guardian Podcast entitled The Rise of Veganism , her argument gravitating towards a tendency to draw sweeping generalizations based on the dietary habits of some, in light of the fact that there is as much variety and diversity in the healthfulness of the vegan diet on person-to person basis as there is in the conventional western diet, one consumed by the majority of society. A person can be an unhealthy vegan in the same way that another can be an unhealthy omnivore. The key is acknowledging this variation amongst individuals; the fact that some people care more about their health than others, regardless of whether they are vegan or not.
Further, it is unsurprising, perhaps inevitable in the context of modern day society that the vegan diet, once purely plant-based or “natural” is developing an ultra-processed, lab-produced branch or component, a trend that serves to reflect the rise in processed food production across the board in the past 30 years or so. Thus, although Blythman condemns the rise ultra processed vegan food as her justification for consuming “humane food”, which she has come to believe is synonymous with meat consumption, she essentially misses the point, diverging from the issue of animal use, the justification for killing billions of animals in the first place, in order to isolate and scorn a particular type of vegan diet, and one that does not reflect an issue with veganism as a whole but rather a much greater, systematic issue regarding modern dietary habits and methods of food production; in other words our ever-growing dependence upon processed foods, both as meat eaters and non-meat eaters.
I was particularly struck by Blythman’s line of reasoning regarding the issue of fake meat, and its artificiality in comparison to what she defines as “real food”, namely meat. This statement is logically and morally problematic in multiple respects, but most notably on the basis of its classification of meat as the only alternative to processed vegan foods, and in turn displaying blatant disregard to an entire family of plant-based “real” foods that are harvested directly from the soil, and eaten in abundance by hoards of health-conscious vegans; from beans, peas and lentils to nuts, seeds, grains and vegetables. In this way, the journalist paints veganism in a very one-dimensional light, therefore turning a blind eye to the growing movement of health-conscious plant eaters well versed in the works of doctors such as Michael Gregor, and John McDougall, and food bloggers such as Deliciously Ella and The Happy Pear, all of whom advocate for a plant-based diet free from processed, fake foods.
Moreover, Blythman constructs an inequitable meat versus fake meat analogy in order to justify her claim to being an omnivore when in the interest of balance she ought to have compared processed meat to processed fake meat. In such an instance however the logical shortfalls of her argument would have been stripped bare. Her assertions sought to give the illusion (in the same way media outlets have done in recent weeks) that fake meat products are the first ultra processed commodities to have ever made their way onto our supermarket shelves; as if processed “fake” meat is really that different, that much less nutritionally beneficial than your standard processed beef burger or those famous fry ups that defined many of our childhoods growing up in Ireland and the UK. The main difference between the two is that one implicates the killing of an animal in its production methods, while also reaping havoc upon our ecosystems; so not only does processed meat contain lab-ingredients but also the flesh of a once living sentient being raised into a system which regards the non-human animal as a disposable economic commodity whose life is of less significance than our taste buds, and our environment.
Furthermore, it is worth reinstating the fact that like any diet there are many colors of vegan, the food habits displayed between individuals being dependent on a whole myriad of economic, social and ideological factors. The conditions of a technologically and scientifically advancing society with a more hectic, demanding lifestyle than ever before has perhaps set the scene for a greater demand for convenience foods, and cheap ultra-processed, synthetic ingredients. It is important though to acknowledge the systematic nature of this convenience, that it has come to permeate every aspect of the modern diet, not just veganism, which in spite of its processed components is nonetheless paving the way for a better world, one which seeks to afford a basic sense of moral decency to its ecosystems and the animals that therein dwell.