My mother’s family were food faddists, a long line of Free Thinkers, nudists and spiritualists who changed diets like socks. They had already tired of vegetarianism in the 1920s and moved on to water diets, caveman diets, lemonade and cabbage soup cleanses and even a cigarette diet. “Reach for a Lucky Strike instead of a sweet,” was the call to action. They all enjoyed ill-health into their 90s and felt vindicated.
But it made me a skeptic and a rebel. I made a vow when I was about seven that, if I ever had my own children, I would never argue about food at the table. When my mother bought a farm an hour north of the city in the sand hills of Mono Township, I fell into the company of rugged cattle farmers who lived on roast beef, potatoes and pie. They rolled their own smokes, drank Labatt 50s, lived hard, drove fast, got piled into feeders by rampaging animals and still managed to wheeze and limp into their 80s like everybody else. I was thin and weedy, smokes made me cough and I couldn’t finish a second beer, but otherwise I tried my best to be just like them.
When I grew up and had kids of my own, they all began to lecture me on endangered species and recycling, the only subjects that are now taught effectively in our schools. My eldest daughter announced she was 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 and the care of coyotes 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. Every second person who comes to our table has some sort of allergy or moral position on food. Until the pandemic halted visits to our kitchen, at most meals we offered separate dishes that catered to a different spectrum. The people who did eat meat wanted to be taken to the pasture and shown the frolicking lambs and free-ranging chickens to be assured that what was on the table didn’t come from a factory farm.
A few years ago Tyson Foods, the meat titan of America, bought a stake in Beyond Meat, and ramped up production of a hamburger made from wheat, soy and a yeast enzyme that mimics the DNA structure of meat. Since then it has sold that stake and launched its own brand of Raised and Rooted. Several other big names like Kellogg, Nestle and Smithfield have joined them. In Canada, Maple Leaf Foods is leading the drive to be “the most sustainable protein company on earth.”
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 on their minds, like personal health, animal welfare and the planet, 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 another half century of the margarine myth before the scientific community recovered its wits and admitted that there was no clear association between saturated fat consumption and the risk of heart disease. But the damage was done.
Per capita consumption of beef is down roughly 20 % since 1999, mostly because of price, static incomes and health concerns. Pork consumption is off by 30 %. The pandemic is driving those numbers down even further.
Plant-based meats still only account for 1 % of retail meat sales in North America. But growth is brisk. Barring a devastating recall or some other event that discourages consumers, my children’s families and their friends will continue to ignore their aging fathers and explore meat substitutes. 2020 was the first time in 30 years we failed to eat our way through a freezer full of pork, chicken, lamb and beef.
To my daughter’s delight, I’m not winning this argument anymore.
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