February 16, 2023
The popular fast food chain Chick-fil-A, known for their delicious chicken sandwiches, is the most recent company to launch a plant-based alternative to their normal meat-based selections. They have created a cauliflower sandwich and are currently testing it in three markets. Predictably, the announcement was met with mostly eyerolls and laugh-reacts from fans of chicken sandwiches and food traditionalists alike. Reaction from the vegetarian and vegan community was mixed; many being disappointed the sandwich is not technically vegetarian or vegan (it is still fried in peanut oil in the same “environment” as their regular food) while others are just happy to see the attempt at a plant-based item.
One particularly interesting “take” on the sandwich release came from a social media account called Libertarian Party Mises Caucus:
“The globalists got Chick-fil-A” they state rather bluntly. The statement appears to have received a heavy mocking online, with the statement above from Brad Polumbo being rather typical; “It’s just a vegetarian sandwich. It’s not that deep bro.”
It is of course “just a vegetarian sandwich” in itself, and not one that looks particularly appetizing at that. If there is truly no more to this than an attempt by a company to meet a perceived customer demand, then the story ends in one of two ways; The sandwich will either succeed and expand to more locations, or it will fail and be scrapped. Personally I would put my money on “scrapped,” at least this version.
I don’t know how serious the Libertarian Party Mises Caucus account was being with their comment, or what precisely they were alleging regarding “globalists” “getting” to Chick-fil-A. There is a particularly large perceived contrast between “Christian” Chick-fil-A and other fast food establishments so this ideological aspect to the story probably has something to do with it if it is assumed they are less likely to give in to the “woke” trends people most likely to be called “globalist” favor. This trend towards more vegan/vegetarian alternatives to meat and even the possibility of an explosion of lab-grown meat into the market however is one that ought to be looked at “deeper” than consideration of meeting mere market demand alone. It is a trend compatible with the desires of certain powerful interests in government and industry alike that, if implemented fully, would have a real impact on the future price and availability of real meat in the market among other consumer choice changes. It would also shift yet another aspect of food production away from smaller producers and towards larger patent holding corporations. This may be undesirable to many that are interested in maintaining natural, diversified food options. Of course, if/when this occurs, it will not have been done immediately, or directly by any one single entity, and it will have been done only with the best intentions advertised (which is why it is usually a good idea to look a bit deeper at things).
Given the concern among environmentalists and policy experts in governmental and non-governmental organizations around the world regarding the promotion of more sustainable practices and lifestyles headed into the future, and given that these same people almost universally identify meat production as a “dirty” agricultural practice (especially cattle) that needs to be reduced and/or drastically altered for the sake of the environment and health, it is not much of a stretch to consider them hostile to the status quo choices of consumers when it comes to meat consumption. This begs the question, what role, if any, are these types of people and their allies throughout society, industry, and government playing in shaping the choices of consumers today in preparation for the policy of tomorrow? Does organically-derived consumer demand always lead to market supply and policy that fosters this dynamic, or can outside forces shift, or “nudge” preferred products and practices into the favor of consumers gradually? If such entities may be doing this, wouldn’t you like to know about it? Or are you ok with remaining blind to their self-imposed paternalism?
As stated previously, nearly every organization that plans for a sustainable future identifies meat production and related farming practices as in need of serious alteration, reduction, or eventual elimination. Certainly changes and improvements can and should be made to existing systems, which is why it is a rather easy sell in general. The World Eonomic Forum is probably the best example of this and its members have too much work published on the subject of meat consumption and possible options for change to list it all here. This innocent enough article details some options for convincing people to eat less meat and is a good place to start to get a feel for their sentiment. It is when the details start to get hammered out and implemented that the negative aspects of these plans start to manifest. Policy that impacts the ability of meat producers to profitably function has already been passed in the Netherlands, as part of their effort to meet their obligations under the 2015 Paris Accords. All the other signatories may need to follow suit in some way as well. You may recall the stories of all the Dutch farmers protesting some of this last summer. Similarly, in the United States reducing impact from traditional meat agricultural practices was identified as a goal in the congressional Resolution proposed for a “Green New Deal” that received a lot of support among Democrats. While officially worded vaguely, supporters had a rather embarrassing Q&A published that suggested “farting cows” were a threat to the environment that we would eventually need to “get rid of.” So far, anti-meat advocates have had less luck in the USA, but their intent is clear. A survey of recommendations and proposals from various environmental organizations, vegan and animal rights proponents, and other advocates for what is commonly labeled “sustainable” policy all reveal support for such actions, consumer support or not.
Proposals vary in scope and in seriousness. While sounding the alarm about cattle, some advocates at the World Economic Forum for instance suggest we must eventually eat less beef and get more protein from insects to supplement our needs. There isn’t much inherently wrong with bug protein powder, if it is healthy, but the suggestion illustrates the “no stone unturned” effort to get people out of the “habit” of eating beef. It must be stressed that it is the coercion and threat against choice that is of issue here, as well as the general hubris of trying to guide massive transitional systems and movements from the top-down. Criticism of all this is not simply a mockery of the existence of a “vegetarian” choice or other alternatives (no matter how disgusting they look) here in the present, nor is it necessarily a rejection of “sustainability.” Rather it is simply a questioning of the methods, definitions, the motives, and the disregard for choice and opportunity costs.
Of course, it is much easier to shift policy in one’s preferred direction over time if there is public support for it. It is even easier if there is also a monetary and power incentives for vested interests. This is where the manipulation, or “nudging,” might come into play. A lot of academic focus has been placed on what is called “choice architecture” and other related theories and models of influencing decision-making, especially regarding the choices made by consumers. The idea is that subtle “nudges” in preferred directions can be made via presentation and other preparatory unconscious factors without formally limiting or coercing one’s choices. Businesses of course will want to know how to “nudge” more money out of customers, while government policymakers are interested in “nudging” compliance with their policies. President Obama had a “nudge unit” in his Adminstration, for example. Knowing people employing this type of thinking are probably behind everything you see and do in the market and in society in general will probably make you think twice about how “deep” seemingly mundane things really are. Here is an example of a study specifically related to nudging consumers towards more sustainable meat choices at the store. While not completely evil, immoral, or even avoidable, it is certainly open to abuse by devious actors and can help shift public opinion and practices in unnatural ways over time and eventually lead to less choice as top-down preferences begin to dominate the options. Given our interconnected society and markets, it isn’t hard to imagine some of these “nudges” may be planned to push multiple goals in multiple domains at the same time.
Interestingly, food choice has actually been identified by many studies as one of the most susceptible to “nudging” because the target does not view such a choice as particularly consequential relative to other choices they make. Can this knowledge lead to efforts to “nudge” consumers away from meat and towards alternatives? Certainly the advocates for “sustainable” future policy would attempt to do so if they could. Investors in companies trying to patent lab-grown meat and profit off of plant-based meat alternatives may also have an incentive to do so. This gives them power over the market, power over consumers, and would eventually hurt their competition if their market share increased and government successfully hindered traditional meat processing with burdensome regulation. There are also more traditional ideological interests in support of increasing regulations on meat producers and ideological opposition to the meat industry as a point of the larger “social justice” movement. All this can manifest in the ESG practices of corporations downstream from the meat producers as they hedge their bets for predictable future market changes. This at least in part explains why restaurant chains that have an interest in keeping customers hooked on meat would take a risk on alternatives – they can simply transition to them later on if they dominate the market. This is probably unconsciously driving opposition to certain marketing decisions by businesses in the minds of many consumers.
Could any of these entities have “got” to Chick-fil-A and other traditional meat-heavy food outlets? What “trusted voices” in the media and the culture may have been paid to promote such products or suggest to their audience the benefits of going meatless or reducing their meat consumption? Let’s not even start on the possible lobbying efforts in government. All this seems possible, but this is sort of missing the point. None of what I am referring to requires some direct, elaborate “conspiracy,” rather it is just indicative of how these types of things work in society and in the markets over time. Change in certain preferences is often inevitable, we only ought to be weary of that which may unjustly limit choice, abuse government power, or present dangers to important goods. Of course not everyone that promotes vegan/vegetarianism or thinks we ought to have more sustainable practices in agriculture is acting from such a selfish ulterior motive intent on causing harm to some for a perceived greater gain. Much of the current trend towards these meat-free products is certainly in reaction to real demand at the moment, but how much of that perceived demand is genuine, and how much is “nudged?” Do people really want to eat a piece of cauliflower fried in peanut oil pretending to be a chicken sandwich? To each their own, or to each the “nudgers” own, I suppose.
Dismissing this type of thing as mere fuss over a sandwich may be good for a laugh and it may be trendy. But sometimes considering and rejecting trends that seem disingenuous and may present threats to traditional systems and practices long-term is worth a deeper look. And sometimes it is just as easy to laugh at and reject disgusting-looking food in favor of delicious meats. What’s the matter with that? -“It’s just a little criticism, bro!”