By NADIA MICHEL
From It bags to Michelin star-worthy ‘clean meat’ meals, you can expect cruelty-free and plant-based to be the new luxury once we emerge from the economic crisis.
If you’re wondering whether or not to give that cashew-based cheese a try, listen to my conversation with Seb Alex on The Men’s Room podcast.
I couldn’t tell you exactly when I stopped eating meat. It happened organically over time, until one day a couple of years ago, I figured I might as well make it official. But not official in the sense that I’ve labelled myself a vegetarian or a vegan. When the subject comes up, I just say I don’t eat meat.
Part of the reason I avoid being called the V- word is that I like to keep my options open. Would I eat Italian salami Piacentino if I was in Piacenza in Northern Italy? Well, it is the world’s most famous sausage, and it was good enough to be served in royal households of Italy, France and Spain in the 1700s. So yes- I’d enjoy every bite like a child eating a fresh orange on Christmas Day in America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. With joy and gratitude.
But also, there’s a kind of cultish-vibe surrounding vegans. They’re often dogmatic about their lifestyle and often bent on converting everyone around them. I recently watched activist Seb Alex (right before he was a guest on my podcast) give a talk in Beirut, and though I enjoyed the presentation and various plant-based appetizers being served before the event, I felt a little out of my element. First, the guy next to me in the audience was giving my Tods leather boots the evil eye. And at the end, when Alex posed with guests and replaced the usual ‘say cheese!’ with ‘say vegan!, I felt that an opportunity for a little lighthearted humor had gone to total waste.
But Alex, a Lebanese-born, Barcelona-based architect-turned-vegan public speaker who devotes his life to educating people about the ethics of it all, makes some valid and massively compelling points. And it all boils down to speciesism, or the idea that we as humans have the right to exploit other species, mostly because they are ‘less intelligent’. It’s a term coined by Princeton professor Peter Singer in his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, and the premise which has underlined the vegan movement and conversation ever since. As an example, many people think of dogs and cats as pets we need to take care of, but don’t give a second thought to the abusive treatment factory farm animals, like cows, get.
“Pigs are more intelligent that dogs. Does that make it more ok to kill dogs?” Alex poses. It’s the kind of ethical reasoning he uses to make his arguments, and it’s hard to disagree with him.
“Let’s talk about the dairy industry. First thing they have to do is anally electrocute a bull, which results in ejaculation. They take the semen and sell it to dairy farms. At the dairy farm, they shove their arms inside the cow and insert the semen. The cow gives birth after nine months just like a human being and that’s when she starts producing milk. If the baby calf is a boy, he’s taken away immediately and sent for slaughter because he’s useless, or sold for his flesh. And if the calf is a female, she’s taken away but kept on the farm until she’s two years old and then has the same cycle as her mother, of forced impregnation and then milking until she’s exhausted. After 5 years of this cycle, the cow gets sent to the slaughterhouse for her flesh. That’s where 50 percent of the meat people eat comes from. The dairy industry is the meat industry. So if you are vegetarian, you are paying for as much suffering as anyone eating meat.”
It would be hard for anyone to ignore such an ugly narrative, and although the animal rights/ vegan movement really took off in the UK in the early 1970s, initiated by a group of Oxford university post-graduate philosophy students, it has gained traction over the last decade, thanks to the internet and social media. Consider the numbers: In 2018, it was estimated that 8 percent of the population was vegan or vegetarian (India ranked first with 38%, Israel, interestingly, second with 13%). But according to The Economist, which dubbed 2019 ‘the year of the vegan’, “Fully a quarter of 25- to 34-year-old Americans say they are vegans or vegetarians.” And, it’s worth noting that in 2014, only 1% of American consumers claimed to be vegan, increasing to 6% in 2017. While it may sound small, it’s still a 600% increase in just three years. Finally, retail sales of plant-based foods in the U.S. have grown by 11% in the last year, making it $4.5 billion industry, according to the Plant-Based Food Association (PBFA). The trend is real and the potential, huge.
We’ve all heard of McVegan burgers and Beyond Meat’s eerily-bloody patties. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Consider Saudi’s Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed, an avowed vegan and the founder and chief executive of KBW Ventures and one of the major investors in Beyond Meat. He predicts that Beyond Meat will be cheaper than traditional meat by 2025 and that it will do $1 billion in revenue within the next two years — maybe 10 times that amount by 2029. He’s also an investor in Memphis Meats, a Californian company developing a way to produce real meat from animal cells without the need to feed, breed and kill sentient creatures. This is called cellular agriculture, or “clean meat”. On the heels of that successful little enterprise, he’s invested in labs making animal-free Bond Pet Food, a biotech start-up called TurtleTree which makes the world’s first lab-grown dairy and human breast milk, and also the cell-based seafood startup BlueNalu.
Sure, it might seem odd to eat lab-grown fish at first, but when you imagine being hooked by your lip and being pulled out of the atmosphere (that’s what Alex suggests) and the pressure that you would feel (because a Harvard paper has established that all animals are sentient), that tasty smoked salmon loses quite a few points in the ethics department.
And ethics, in this historical pandemic, are in the air. When LVMH turns its perfume factories into hand sanitizer manufactures, and Nike starts making masks, you know priorities have shifted. Will we ever want a $3,000 bag again? Fo’ shizzle. But about a quarter of the US market will only buy it if it’s not made with the skin of an animal (note this is a new and growing market), and a good many more around the world will opt for the cruelty-free version because it feels good, if it looks good.
And here’s where it gets interesting if you’re unwilling to trade in your Louboutins. While Stella McCartney is still pretty much the only luxury brand that shuns leather, most labels have eliminated fur from their collections and will almost certainly move towards leather alternatives as they become available, and that’s happening right now. Until recently, faux-leather and fur have been unsustainable petroleum-based synthetics, but new companies like Reishi by MycoWorks, have developed incredibly leather-like biomaterials. In this case, a proprietary fungi-based ‘fine mycelium’ that looks, feels, and even smells like leather- and is biodegradable. The company secured $17 million in financing in 2019. Remember that name. Or at least the mushroom part.
You may not like the vegan-touting documentaries or stomach-turning baby chick-shredding videos, but the truth is that activists have shed light on standard industry practices that are just not acceptable in this PC age. “It’s not propaganda. Think about it: If it’s not good for your eyes, how is it good for your body? If you can’t even look at it, why do you want to pay for it?”
The Internet, which you might call a democratic marketing platform (in comparison to TV for example) has allowed the voices of professors and activists to be heard as loudly as those of big industries, and the result is that people are now aware far beyond the glossy, rosy picture that companies would like to put forward. Call it being woke, or maybe it’s all about the scientific medical data that’s pointing to the health benefits of a plant-based diet (heard of Dr Michael Greger’s How Not to Die ?), but when big business reboots post-COVID-19 with new products, you can bet your Birkin that this will be at the top of their agenda.