As policy-makers and consumers become more concerned about the environmental, health, and animal welfare consequences of consuming meat and animal-derived products, sweeping dietary changes are currently taking place across the globe. In the UK, worries about animal welfare, the risks associated with consuming some animal products, environmental sustainability, diet-related ill health, and lifestyle trends have meant that an increasing number of people are switching from animal-based meat and dairy products to plant-based replacements.
According to Mintel, 12 per cent of UK adults are following a vegetarian or vegan diet, and amongst 16 to 24 year olds this figure rises to 20 per cent. What are the implications of these shifts? And how do we balance the ethical tensions within them? Does a shift from one type of food to another necessarily resolve such tensions?
For UK dairy farmers, this change in dietary habits has been described as a ‘dairy crisis’ and a ‘demographic time bomb’. Looking at milk alone, current ‘replacements’ or ‘alternatives’ include soy, almond, rice and coconut milk. Although in the US, dairy companies are currently contesting the definition of milk, and making the argument that soy and almond milk are not actually milk, and to call them such is misleading to consumers. Their growth has also been questioned environmentally.
The dairy industry is well-recognised as having a large ecological footprint, so too are almond and soy. About 80 per cent of almonds are grown in California, where production is extremely water intensive in a drought-prone region. Likewise soy production has been linked to deforestation and agrochemical run-off.
They also have interesting and complex connections to the global meat and dairy industries. For example, according to the WWF almost three-quarters of soy produced globally is used in animal and fish feed.
Although these industries may appear to be in direct competition and contradiction – with non-animal based alternatives frequently posited as ethical alternatives to dairy and meat products – in reality, consumer and ethical discourses sometimes mask the role of continuing consolidation of global food giants. For example, the large French dairy company, Danone (whose products have traditionally been derived from cow’s milk), recently purchased White Wave (a purveyor of many plant-based alternative milk products whose brands include Silk, So Delicious, Alpro and Vega).
Therefore, whilst on the shelf there is more consumer choice and the possibility to move away from diets based on animal protein (something that has been called for by many non-governmental actors in the food system, such as the WWF’s call to eat ‘less but better’), many of the replacements come through the same processing supply chains with their own social and environmental challenges. This arguably demonstrates the continued dominance of large corporate players in the global food market, as new, more ‘ethical’ alternatives are gobbled up by them and become mainstream. Are we therefore consequently witnessing the harnessing of ethical goods to sell more of them? Or, to put it another way, perhaps, the commodification of ethics?
Although moving from cow’s milk to replacement milk certainly resolves the ethical problem of animal suffering, the rise of plant based-alternatives opens up a whole new set of ethical questions – with regards to the environment, health and farmer’s livelihoods – that are not always well understood.