Cameron Meyer Shorb is policy coordinator for The Good Food Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a sustainable, healthy and just food supply
In my sophomore year of college, my introductory ecology professor explained that the food chain is less like a chain and more like a short fat pyramid of biomass. The savannah is carpeted in grass but only sprinkled with antelopes. And only very rarely will you find a lion among the herds of antelopes and all those miles and miles of grass. As a rule of thumb, each level of the food pyramid needs a base ten times its biomass.
Unlike antelopes and lions, humans can choose what to eat. We can grow an acre of plants to feed ourselves or grow ten acres of plants to feed the animals that feed us.
When I heard this and realized the implications, I was mortified. I would never dream of using ten paper towels when one would do the trick. But apparently I was just as profligate at lunch, squandering natural resources to eat higher on the food chain.
Shrinking my food’s environmental footprint was surprisingly easy. The supermarket savannah offered much more than tubers and leaves. I found butter made from coconut oil, mayonnaise made from pea protein, milks made from every nut and seed imaginable. Fauna-free chicken nuggets, sausages and cold cuts earned a regular place in my fridge and freezer.
And with each year, the number and quality of products at the base of the food chain grew.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one reveling in this culinary renaissance. Plant-based milks now make up 13% of the retail milk market and the plant-based meat sector is growing 10 times faster than the grocery sector as a whole.
But not everyone is happy to see consumers enjoying new choices.
A handful of conventional meat and dairy producers have started to lash out at their competitors. They’ve settled on a common tactic: attempting to censor the use of familiar food terms on labels.
For example, the dairy lobby wants the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the word “milk” from soy milk cartons.
The American Butter Institute claims “Cultured Vegan Butter” that “spreads like butter” is too confusing for consumers.
Meanwhile, Missouri has criminalized “misrepresenting products as meat” if they didn’t come from a slaughtered animal. Federal law already prohibits labeling that actually deceives consumers, so there must be something else at play here.
Missouri State Representative Greg Razer is happy to confirm consumers aren’t the ones he’s trying to protect. Making his case to the Missouri House of Representatives, he explained, “We have to protect our cattle industry, our hog farmers, our chicken industry.” He and his colleagues are particularly keen on stifling cultured meat, which will one day make it possible to grow actual animal meat straight from a cell without having to breed and feed an entire animal.
In the last few months, more than a dozen other states have followed suit with “tag-gag” bills of their own.
It’s easy to dismiss these as petty corporate squabbles or brain teasers to muse over in quiet moments. If a burger is made of muscle, but no cow was slaughtered to make it, can you call it meat?
But to treat food labeling as a purely linguistic exercise does a tremendous disservice to the consumers who buy these products, the lives they’re trying to lead, and the potential these innovations have to change society.
As options proliferate, we rely on familiar terms like “milk” and “meat” to give us crucial context on how these new products can fit into our lives. Banning these terms would only increase consumer confusion. Is “soy beverage” rich and creamy, or light and refreshing? Do I pour it over my cereal, or chug it on a hot day?
What’s more, the consequences of this particular food fight go far beyond people’s plates.
As our planet grows hotter and more crowded, the pressure’s on to figure out how we’ll feed 10 billion people by 2050. The harder it gets to feed ourselves, the less we can afford to feed farm animals, too.
Fortunately, when it comes to food labeling, the choice isn’t between helping the environment and helping business. By opposing censorship and allowing consumers to make informed choices, the government can make it a lot easier to forage the supermarket savannah.