A wave of alternatives to meat has swept through the UK. In this article Lynne Davis unpacks the debates around these packaged processed food stuffs, and the nature of the debates themselves.

One day, not so long ago, I walked into my local Co op and the tofu was gone. So were the lentils. These mainstays of my meat-reduced diet had been replaced by products with quirky names – clucky non-chicken pieces and brown textured lumps moooving into the meat section.  The fake meat revolution had reached rural Wales.

What really riled me about this was that the beef didn’t actually have to move over. Meat products hadn’t been impacted. All of the Welsh lamb, cheap chicken and questionably-sourced fish still took pride of place on the shelves. The fake meat revolution took my tofu and my lentils.

Having been involved in climate and food activism for decades, I’ve known my share of vegans. Vocal vegans holding placards, friendly vegans handing out vegan meals, violent vegans posting letter bombs, righteous vegans shaming me for my dietary choices. They all made up the  small yet loud group that campaigned for a reduction in consumption of animal products in every way they could imagine. For decades this group stayed small. Then, all of a sudden, following a few years of VC investment in fake meat products, veganism became the trend. Suddenly every tiktok-ing GenZ was declaring their vegan stance. What broke my little heart was the cold, harsh realisation that change happens when capitalism profits. Gone was the idealism of my youth. Gone with my tofu.

Suddenly every tiktok-ing GenZ was declaring their vegan stance.

So, from my cynical mid-life position I suppose it is time to get real about this fake meat revolution. Its attendant debate is fierce, emotional, heated and lengthy, spurred on by vocal individuals with well-formed arguments (see box Fleshed Out). But much more important than the points of division in this debate, are the points of consensus.

Fleshed out
There is a buffet of ideas surrounding our collective approach to meat consumption and land use. Here is an abridged summary.

Rewilders take the stance that Earth systems want to regenerate and will do so if humans get out of the way. Regenerating Earth systems is necessary to stabilise the climate. Rewilders advocate reducing human pressures on the land, generally citing that removing livestock grazing in marginal and ecologically sensitive areas like uplands would have significant ecological benefit. Those with firm identities and cultures that would be impacted, like upland farmers, strongly oppose such ideas as urban idealism.

Precision Fermenters espouse that human protein requirements will be much more efficiently met by fermenting bacteria in vats and processing this into human food, than the current industrial livestock system.

Small-scale agrarians argue that maintaining the high demands for energy in urban life cannot be feasible in a genuinely regenerative future. Returning to the primary energy source – the sun – by living in small, rural, agrarian communities is the only way to achieve a genuinely regenerative way of life. Livestock will play a crucial role in small-scale agrarianism.

Marginal Livestockers argue that there is a role for some livestock in effective farming systems, particularly to turn marginal land and waste streams into quality food for humans. Examples include feeding food waste from kitchens to pigs and chickens, and low-density grazing in areas where biodiversity will be improved by doing so, like woodland management.

Pundits on all sides want to live in a world in which everyone has the right to quality and nutritious food, and that this food is produced in a way that regenerates the Earth systems that make this planet hospitable to humans. The angst is more in how we achieve the vision, rather than the vision itself.

The space is crowded with lofty visionaries selling books and baiting clicks, but they have succumbed to the greatest of all farces – the age of individualism. This is the age when individuals put forward statements so sweeping in nature that they, by design, create conflict and tension with individuals who hold counter views. The intentions of those advocating individualism are noble, and stem from an underlying worldview that if an individual can create the most convincing argument, they might lead change in the world for the  better. But in their world view absolutes prevail, regardless of how implausible they are. “Everyone should move into sustainable rural communities and manage the land” is equally implausible as “all meat should be replaced by textured clumps of fermented bacteria”.

Perhaps even more fundamentally, we need to be able to have ideas, share them and discuss them without becoming emotional and defensive.

It strikes me that pining for change by vocally claiming your position in the thought leadership narrative is an outdated form of change making. What if we don’t need to debate which idea is right? What if, instead, our task is to find ways to implement all of the proposals? To create a vibrant ecology of alternatives that genuinely take into account the multitude of unpredictable events the coming decades have in store. We know the general gist: extreme weather events, enormous crop losses, political instability, mass migration, unstable trade flows. What we don’t know is when they will happen, or in which order. When energy becomes scarce, we need people on the land who know how to manage it. When crops fail we need systems that maximise calorific yield from the margins. When trade flows are unstable we need high-volume domestic production. When the parts of the planet with the most sun become the most uninhabitable we need technologies that can harness solar power for increasingly dense populations elsewhere. And we need to nurture as much vibrant life as possible into as much land as we possibly can.

But perhaps even more fundamentally, we need to be able to have ideas, share them and discuss them without becoming emotional and defensive. We have all the solutions. We need all the solutions. We need to be able to enact them in communities, working with people who are very different to us, ensuring that everyone feels seen, heard and respected. We need to be able to work in groups, try things out, allow them to be wrong, and concede that the collective vision is more important than the individual’s ideas as we try again. And again. And again.

In the meantime, however, I’ve discovered that UK-grown lentils are now commercially available via Hodmedodsgrown at Wakelands’ Agrofrestry. I’ve also discovered that I can make my own tofu from UK-grown flamenco beans. And so, I’ll wrap up with a little slice of delicious irony that the fake meat revolution has driven me toward small-scale agrarianism.

Lynne Davis

Lynne has been working to build food system resilience across the UK for over a decade. In this time she has founded a number of food and farming organisations including …

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