At lunchtime during Collision, the giant tech conference held this week in Toronto, you had to fight your way through the long line of people waiting to buy a hamburger in order to get to the area where hamburgers were being denounced. The hamburgers smelled delicious, the sizzling promise of a summer yet to arrive, and I nearly stopped to buy one. But I ignored the siren song and took my growling stomach over to the Planet Tech stage, where the burger-bashers were preaching.
“Stop eating beef,” Terry Tamminen of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation was saying from the stage. “Do it today.” He was speaking over the piercing shriek of a fire alarm, which provided another handy metaphor: The climate crisis, he said, “is the equivalent of a smoke-filled room in the news every day.”
The message, from speaker after speaker, was the same. Do you love the planet? Stop eating meat. If you can’t – if striploin is your darling, if you long for lamb – eat less of it. “I became vegan two years ago,” said Roger Royse, a lawyer speaking on a panel about innovation in agriculture, “and I’m from North Dakota.”
Josh Tetrick brought his vision of a chicken-free world to the stage, or at least a world where chickens live without fear for their necks. His mung-bean-based egg substitute, Just Egg, scrambles just like the real thing, and is available at high-end grocery shops. Evan Williams, the pescetarian co-founder of Twitter and a man who has become even richer thanks to his investment in the plant-based meat substitute Beyond Meat, talked about the benefits of “world-positive investing.”
Peas are the new gold, and the streets of Silicon Valley are paved with them. The tiny legumes, through some alchemy conjured in a food-science lab, provide the basis for the delicious Beyond Meat burger patties. And I don’t mean delicious as in “pretty good for something you scraped from the bottom of the compost bin,” but actually go-back-for-seconds enjoyable. Earlier this month on CNBC’s business panel, a group of financial analysts who looked like escapees from The Wolf of Wall Street, marvelled over the twin surprises of Beyond Meat’s stellar IPO, and that a meal could be palatable without meat. “I was shocked at how tasty it was,” one of them said.
These were guys who looked like they’d normally be found eating rib-eye at Peter Luger, so I was shocked to hear it, too. It echoed what Mr. Royse was saying: If a guy from the heartland of a country that eats an average of 26 kilos of beef per person per year, where beefiness is next to godliness – if that guy can go vegan, anyone can.
We need to eat less meat to save the planet. As the World Resources Institute puts it, “Producing beef uses 20 times the land and emits 20 times the emissions as producing beans, per gram of protein.” Joseph Poore, the academic who led a landmark Oxford University study that detailed the staggering cost of animal agriculture, told The Guardian newspaper: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”
The new Canada Food Guide, in its understated, Canadian way, gently suggests putting more plants on the plate. Inventing meat substitutes is a licence to print money, as the Beyond Beef experience shows. Convenience is no excuse, either: You can get a faux-sausage patty at many Tim Horton’s outlets this summer and vegan pizza at the Calgary Stampede.
Still, there are many cultural roadblocks that stand in the way to a less carnivorous world. A rising global middle class wants animal protein, as the Economist recently summarized: “In rich countries people go vegan for January and pour oat milk over their breakfast cereal. In the world as a whole, the trend is the other way. In the decade to 2017 global meat consumption rose by an average of 1.9 per cent a year and fresh dairy consumption by 2.1 per cent.”
Then there are the challenges presented by a culture that equates meat-eating with a certain kind of old-fashioned masculinity. A "meat-and-potatoes kind of guy” is a guy you’d let man the grill at your barbecue. A “soy boy,” on the other hand, is the threatened man’s insult for a dude who’s just a little too fond of vegetables and other girly things. In the United States, the fight over the revolutionary Green New Deal has been reduced to a caricature in which pinkos raid the fridges of patriotic Americans who just want to enjoy a meat patty in peace, damn it. “They want to take away your hamburgers,” former White House aide Sebastian Gorka said. Minced cow swathed in pickles seems an odd hill to die on, yet here we are.
Social conventions change all the time, influenced by factors that may be unclear to us we go about our day, circling the drive-thru and hustling through dinner. Today’s Ribfest is tomorrow’s Portabellopallooza, and it won’t seem weird at all to the young people there. Young people, perhaps not surprisingly, are more open-minded when it comes to diet. Nearly 10 per cent of Canadians are vegetarian or vegan, according to research from Dalhousie University – and the majority of those people are under 35. Young people are also more welcoming to the idea of eating lab-grown meat.
Many of the rest of us are “flexitarians” who want to limit our intake of animal protein – a third of Canadians said they planned to eat less meat in the next six months when Dalhousie researchers asked them in 2018.
This is the season that tests the flexitarian’s resolve. Are you worried about facing a meat-free summer? Afraid that the spirit is willing, but the smell of grilling flesh makes it weak? I am, too. But I’m going to try to do better, one pea-patty at a time.