Comment: Not all proteins are created equal

Beef is in the crosshairs, but it can be a very important part of agricultural sustainability

On the left, a traditional beef hamburger. On the right, its plant-based twin. What vegetable proteins and more plant-based products have brought is more protein plurality.

Protein wars have taken a back seat to the pandemic since March 2020. Most of the attention was obviously given to the virus, variants, vaccines and how to keep safe. Makes sense. But since we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, proteins appear to be back in the spotlight.

Recently the popular cooking website Epicurious made the call of no longer carrying recipes which included beef in them. It claimed that the decision was motivated by its intention to become a better servant for the planet. We also learned this week that one the world’s best restaurants Eleven Madison Park in New York, a well-known Michelin three-star establishment, is going vegan. Every other day, some chef or website is making a claim on proteins.

For Epicurious this was simply a business decision motivated by the will to differentiate. The site has almost 10 million followers, and many of them are younger millennials and gen-Zs 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 gen-Zs did the same. In other words, most Canadians who are 40 years old or less 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 which came with the decision was quite significant. Good for it.

For restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, it is very much about the reset the food-service sector will experience. The will to innovate and offer something unique, something different is something we should be expecting 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, which included 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 them are exported. Now, with more processing happening now within our borders, 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 is misleading to consider all beef products to be the same. Grazing cattle maintain the health of grasslands, improve soil quality with manure, and preserve open space and wildlife habitat. Obviously, not all cattle graze and can contribute to a regenerative life cycle, and the industry should think about how it can make itself more sustainable. Still, beef production is very much part of a natural equilibrium humans have maintained with our food systems for centuries.

Most importantly, food is culture. Eliminating a very important element of our dietary traditions is respecting our past, our history. The average Canadian will eat 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 which does not fully provide a clear scientific picture of what is at stake. With the arrival of more vegetable proteins on the market, consumers have more choice, not less. But suggesting we should be removing choices by using half-truths and scientific innuendos is not serving the public well. Treating science like a buffet is just not helpful. Picking and choosing studies to support a certain narrative is not 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 what is a more complex situation. Seeing restaurants or websites becoming meat free is fine, but they shouldn’t be weaponizing some of the science to support an increasingly populist narrative.

About the author

Contributor

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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