I have been scoffing at animal activists and vegans for most of my adult life. That is partly because my mother came from a long line of Free Thinkers and food faddists who all shared the same deathly pallor that you see in people who work in health food stores. My grandparents were also nudists and spiritualists and a huge source of embarrassment to me when I was going through public school. I was very careful about bringing friends home because you just never knew what you were going to find when you opened the front door.
When my mother bought a farm and I was released into the company of the rugged cattle farmers of the sand hills of the Seventh Line of Mono Township, it came as a huge relief. I admired those meat-eating, roll-yer-own smoking, Molson drinking eccentrics. They lived hard, drove fast, got piled into feeders by rampaging animals and still managed to wheeze and limp into their 80s like everybody else. These were the True Free Spirits and I wanted to be just like them. So when the health food craze swept North America in the 1980s, I was already steeled against it. I found comfort on the side road with my politically incorrect friends. I began raising my own cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens and stocked the freezer with the abundance of field and barnyard.
But then I had kids. One by one, they began to lecture me on endangered species and recycling, the only subjects that are now taught effectively in our schools.
My eldest daughter even became a vegan and urged me to release our sheep back into the woods so that they could return to their natural state. I pointed out that sheep no longer have a natural state because they were domesticated into a state of complete helplessness 6,000 years ago. If I release them to the woods they will be compost by morning.
“But they have rights,” she wailed.
“No they don’t,” I replied. “If animals had rights they would also have responsibilities and that would make your cat a murderer, which is absurd.”
“I hate it when I argue with you because you always win,” she moaned.
That was then and this is now. I am not winning anymore. Every second friend the kids bring back to the farm has some dietary restriction based on a moral choice. Our table must offer separate dishes that cater to every whim. The ones who do eat meat want to be taken to the pasture and shown the frolicking lambs and free-ranging chickens to be assured that what is on the table doesn’t come from a factory farm.
And now I read that Tyson Foods, the meat titan of America, has bought a stake in Beyond Meat, a company that makes a hamburger out of wheat, soy and a yeast enzyme that mimics the DNA structure of meat. It even ‘bleeds’ beet juice just like a barbecued burger. Beyond Burger is now on the menu of Momofuku in New York City and in the freezer section of Whole Foods. Bill Gates has tasted it and declares that he can’t tell the difference from the real thing. He calls it an idea that “may help save the planet.”
I was taught that, as a general marketing principle, you can’t replace something the consumer already likes with a product that is ‘just as good.’ Consumers are reluctant to give up a product they value. But if there are other factors, like personal health, animal welfare and the planet on their minds, they begin to look at the substitute more carefully. Look at the way margarine replaced butter after Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955. Butter sales were cut in half over the next 10 years. It took a half century before the scientific community recovered its wits and admitted that there was no association between saturated fat consumption and the risk of heart disease. But the damage was done.
In Canada, per capita consumption of beef is down 19 % since 1999, mostly because of price, static incomes and health concerns. Pork consumption is off by 30 %.
At our dinner table, I offer a succulent ham from a pastured pig, raised lovingly by a hormone-free farmer. But I watch my kids’ friends politely pass the plate and reach for the broccoli and I get the unmistakable feeling that, once again, the world may be leaving me behind.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.