Will we all be vegan by 2070? Probably not

But “alternative meat” could be a bridge to a better diet and a healthier planet.

Is it possible that in as little as half a century people will look back at eating meat as abhorrent? Dr. Melanie Joy, author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnismmade such a prediction as part of a 2019 Vox magazine series where 15 experts answered the question “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?” Dr. Joy writes that the current mindset “teaches us that eating certain animals is normal, natural and necessary, a belief that makes little ethical or logical sense but which sufficiently disconnects us from our natural empathy towards ‘edible’ animals.”  Dr. Joy is an unabashed promoter of going vegan and bases many if not most of her arguments on morality. She goes as far as putting the “global system” of eating meat in the same basket as institutionalized sexism or racism, which may be a bridge too far for some. But whether you agree with her position or not, it’s amazing to consider that the average American consumes more than 220 pounds of red meat and poultry per year.

Let’s ignore the moral ground for now and examine the issue from a human health perspective. There are multiple studies (not done by vegans) that show unambiguously that diets high in processed meat and red meat — alongside, of course, things like sugar, other processed foods or high-fat dairy products — are associated with cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Are people unaware of these facts? No. We know the facts. But we also very much enjoy the taste of meat. There may, however, be a viable way to harmonize these apparent opposites. Technology offers a possible solution: “new meat” made by a 3D printer. New meat uses 100% natural ingredients and is possibly the first successful attempt at recreating the experience of eating animals. The veggie burgers that “bleed” and other fancy meat substitutes already on supermarket shelves are acceptable to a degree of the population, but they don’t quite hit the spot for serious meat lovers. Could new tech be a path to that predicted vegan future?

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) based in Bethesda, Maryland, argued in December 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic will affect meat consumption as public awareness of ‘zoonosis,’ the term for infectious diseases transmitted to humans via animals, increases. Following this, says the NCBI, people may choose to change their diets. This makes sense. We’ve been fixated on health for the past several years, so there’s a good chance more people are enacting lifestyle changes, from exercising to reconsidering the things they eat. But there’s reason to be skeptical about Dr. Joy’s Vox prediction that eating meat will be “unthinkable” in 50 years. Would you be willing to put money on the entire planet going vegan by 2070? Meat tastes good to the majority of people, and has been a part of our evolutionary heritage for literally tens of thousands of years.

Meat consumption does lead, however, to a disassociation that can’t be good for either our physical or psychological well-being. A British Nutrition Foundation survey spoke to 27,000 children in the U.K. in 2017 and found that about a third of them believed cheese comes from plants. Roughly 14% could not make the connection between bacon and its source, the pig. Dr. Melanie Joy may be proved correct. Humans may indeed one day look back with shock or even horror at meat-eating. But we’re most likely going to have to get there in increments. After all, it’s been several decades since the fad for veganism erupted, first in celebrity culture and then moving over to more surprising public figures such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Despite celebrity endorsements, however, vegans are but a tiny percentage of the American population and an even smaller percentage of the global population.

If, however, people can enjoy the flavours associated with meat with substitutes that very nearly approximate the texture, look and smell of meat, we may begin to decouple our evolutionary connection to meat-eating and move in a direction that is undeniably better for one’s health, the environment, and does away with moral or ethical issues that almost all of us who eat meat repress. As Time magazine put it, just because we evolved to consume meat does not mean it’s necessary for humans in the 21st-century … “But saying no to meat today does not mean your genes and your history don’t continue to give it a loud and rousing yes.”

Moving to a synthetic version might be likened to an alcoholic drinking low-alcohol beer as a step towards total sobriety. But that beer needs to deliver some satisfaction. Healthy living and the enjoyment of food don’t need to be separated. Many children in the U.K. may not know where bacon comes from, but all adults do, and many of us know it’s not very good for us, and certainly isn’t a happy fate for the animal. We can, should and likely will move towards an ultimately vegetarian or vegan future… but in baby steps. ■

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.