Protein wars have taken a back seat to the COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020. Most of the attention was obviously given to the virus, variants, vaccines and how to keep safe. That makes sense. But since we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, proteins appear to be back in the spotlight.
Just last week, the popular cooking website Epicurious made the call that it would no longer carry recipes that included beef. It claimed the decision was motivated by its intention to become a better servant for the planet.
And we learned this week that one the world’s best restaurants, Eleven Madison Park in New York, a Michelin three-star establishment, is going vegan.
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Every other day, some chef or website is making a claim on proteins.
For Epicurious, this was a business decision motivated by the will to differentiate. The site has almost 10 million followers, and many of them are younger millennials and generation Z members in Canada and elsewhere.
According to a recent survey by Dalhousie University, 64 per cent of millennials have thought of reducing their meat consumption in the last 12 months and 57 per cent of generation Z members did the same. So most Canadians 40 years old or younger are thinking of reducing their meat intake, despite the complications COVID brought to our lives.
Epicurious’s decision was also reported by several media outlets and the publicity was quite significant. Good for them.
For restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, it’s very much about the reset the food service sector will experience. The will to innovate and offer different fare is something we should expect as we exit the pandemic.
What vegetable proteins and more plant-based products have brought is more protein plurality. Many Canadians who still eat meat daily have appreciated the excitement vegetable-protein-based products have brought to the meat counter. Things got boring with the meat trifecta of beef, pork, and chicken. Vegetable-protein-based products got Canadians to think about proteins differently.
And, coincidently, Canada is one of the largest producers of pulses in the world. We grow plenty of lentils and chickpeas in Canada, as an example, but 95 per cent of it is exported. Now, with more processing happening here, Canadians are slowly mixing things up in the kitchen and on the grill.
However, the rhetoric used to motivate these decisions is concerning.
First, beef can be a sustainable source of protein. The science exists. It’s misleading to consider all beef products to be the same. Grazing cattle maintains the health of grasslands, improves soil quality with manure, and preserves open space and wildlife habitat.
Obviously, not all cattle graze and can contribute to a regenerative lifecycle, and the industry should think about how it can make itself more sustainable. Still, beef production is very much part of a natural equilibrium that humans have maintained with our food systems for centuries.
Most importantly, food is culture. Eliminating a very important element of our dietary traditions is disrespecting our history.
The average Canadian will eat 69 kg (152 pounds) of meat this year. If consumers want to make a change, all the power to them. But seeing more companies and restaurateurs suggesting humanity got it wrong from the get-go is simply using a dangerous narrative that doesn’t provide a full, clear scientific picture of what’s at stake.
With the arrival of more vegetable proteins on the market, consumers have more choice, not less. But suggesting we should remove choices by using half-truths and scientific innuendo isn’t serving the public well.
Treating science like a buffet is just not helpful. Picking and choosing studies to support a certain narrative isn’t science.
Climate change is an important issue, no doubt. And some choices are more sustainable than others. But suggesting we can save the planet by eliminating meat from our diets is oversimplifying a complex situation.
Restaurants or websites becoming meat-free is fine, but they shouldn’t be weaponizing some of the science to support an increasingly populist narrative.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.