24 January 2019

Free market veganism – or why government shouldn’t interfere with our food


Whether it was a national bakery chain launching a plant-based sausage roll, or work colleagues committing to a month free from animal produce, veganism certainly started 2019 with a bang. On the whole, few eyelids were batted at this, with most omnivores broadly supportive – Piers Morgan’s manufactured outrage notwithstanding.

January also saw the publication of a report by the EAT-Lancet commission, which encouraged people to dramatically scale back their consumption of beef, pork and dairy on the grounds that they are bad for human health and for the planet.

Whichever way one looks at it, they seem to have a point. On environmental matters, animal agriculture is responsible for almost a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, is a prime driver of deforestation, and causes air and water pollution. On health, studies suggest meat eaters typically have higher incidence rates of various nasty ailments, animal produce goes hand-in-hand with contaminants like salmonella and listeria, and antimicrobial resistance due to animal agriculture’s profligate use of antibiotics should worry us all.

So, is ditching animal products once and for all the way to go? It may well be, but groups like the EAT-Lancet commission shouldn’t assume it’s because of them and their proselyting. On the contrary, their report strikes just the kind of scolding tone that does most to undermine veganism in the eyes of those who do consume animal products.

None of this is to decry the contribution of academics and other experts who have done vital work in highlighting the impact of different diets. Important topics such as the future sustainability of the global food chain do require serious thought. But in an increasingly expert-phobic political culture, bizarre reports like the EAT-Lancet commission, which advocate eating no more than 14 grams of red meat a day, don’t exactly help either.

While this article shan’t concern itself with whether we should or should not encourage people to change their diets, if anything is going to, it’s grassroots actors and free market capitalism, not reports published by evangelising bureaucrats drawn from groups like the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, or other so-called public health bodies.

Where the quangos are failing to cut through with their increasingly absurd messaging on diet change, others are enjoying more success. Celebrities like Lucy Watson, Natalie Portman, and Beyoncé have given veganism the image change it sorely required, while elite sports stars like the Williams sisters, Lewis Hamilton, and Anthony Joshua, among countless others, are showing that eating a plant-based diet can keep them at the top of their game. Their endorsement, backed up by huge fame and slick PR, will do more for the vegan cause than any number of edicts from obscure state-funded quangos.

Indeed, if governments around the world really do want their citizens to eat and drink fewer environmentally damaging products, the answer may be to take a step back, rather than searching for new ways to interfere.

One of the most exciting things about the plant-based food industry is its uncanny ability to develop and advance new products. Even in the space of just a few years, imitation meats and dairy replacements have become vastly more commonplace, and almost alarmingly convincing. Gone are the days of vegans depending on niche health stores for sustenance – most supermarkets now have several shelves dedicated to ‘free-from’ foods. While I accept that there is not yet a meat-free match for the primitively satiating texture of a sirloin steak, I’m also convinced the answer isn’t far around the corner.

“Cultured meats” – which are made from genuine animal protein, but do away with the inconvenient hassle of having to grow it on a sentient creature with a skeleton, skin and internal organs – are a case in point. The first burger made entirely from cultured tissue was produced in 2013, at a cost of £215,000. A few years later, that figure had fallen to just £8. Philanthropists, conventional meat companies, and venture capitalists are scrambling over each other to invest in cultured meat start-ups, because they know which way the wind is blowing. As costs continue to fall, cultured meat will become commercially competitive, and everyday consumers will begin voting with their wallets.

While it may seem trivial, governments will doubtlessly have an important role to play here. From a regulatory perspective, it is vital that they do not cede to the demands of the incumbent meat lobby and place bureaucratic barriers on cultured meats, as has been seen across various jurisdictions with genetic modification, and even the far less controversial practice of genetic editing. In fact, there’s good reason to suggest that such products should be liable for “regulatory sandboxes” – as have been offered for other pioneering services in the financial sector – which provide a friendly business environment for product development.

Similarly, governments should avoid taking an unsympathetic stance towards plant-based alternatives in terms of how they market themselves. The dairy industry, for example, is investing time and effort lobbying various governments to stop their rivals labelling, for instance, oat milk “milk” or soy yoghurt “yoghurt”. Such a prohibition has nothing to do with consumer welfare and everything to do with depressing demand for dairy alternatives – glass of almond-derived drinking liquid, anyone? – and amounts to barefaced rent-seeking. Any free-marketeer, vegan or otherwise, should be opposed to this.

Finally, let us not forget that governments already heavily stack the cards in favour of the conventional meat industry through an abundance of subsidies. Under the Common Agricultural Policy, the UK doles out over £3 billion a year to the agricultural sector, and though not all of that goes towards livestock farmers, a sizeable portion does. This swells the size of the industry, but more perniciously gives them a leg up relative to would-be competitors from the rest of the world, and, latterly, the cultured meat industry. Again, defenders of free-markets should be up in arms over this patently anti-competitive state of affairs.

In a world where many people are reconsidering how they eat, such generous subsidies cannot continue to go unchallenged. Arbitrary rules determining how plant-based alternatives can market themselves warrant close critique. And breakthrough developments like cultured meat, which promise to revolutionise the market, should be afforded a sympathetic regulatory framework from governments.

Perhaps the best way of ensuring we don’t get these things wrong is for governments to ease off, and let others lead the way.

Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.