Jul 15, 2019

Going meatless shouldn't be a drag

There is so much more to Slow Food’s strategy for meat reduction than just the pursuit of pleasure; however, it is worth remembering that if Slow Food is seated at the table, then the food on offer better be good. And yes, it should be clean and fair, too.

This spring after six-years at the helm of Slow Food USA, I left to pursue both hyperlocal and hyperglobal opportunities. Among my pursuits, I now serve as the Meatless Monday Ambassador for Slow Food International. In 2014 in the USA, we launched Slow Meat. We recognized how happy industrial food is when the advocates for better meat remain far apart from the those who promote less meat. We invited regenerative farming advocates, like Allan Savory, to seek common ground with vegan-led organizations, like the Humane Society. After all, antagonism between these two groups camps only serves the status quo. Committed to pluralism, Slow Food is a safe haven for such connections. The meetings produced campaigns and commitments to engage the wider public and each other. We learned how difficult are these conversations to begin and to maintain. 

Trust is new and fragile. To make matters more complicated, as Washington Post writer Tamar Haspel has described on many occasions, we do a dreadful job of communicating the complexities of food movement positions to the wider world. Though complex, we must find simple points of entry for the newcomer. The food movement is a journey — as opposed to a fixed ideological position. And yet, we tend to speak to others as if they’re already with us on the journey. They’re not. We fixate on whether a Long Island cheese pumpkin has traveled 50 or 150 miles. Meanwhile, the wider world is trying to figure out if we’re talking about cheese or pumpkins. By contrast, the brilliance of Meatless Monday is its simplicity. It is a call to action, first. Let's lead with behavior change, rather than rely on the ideologically-charged "change hearts and minds" strategies that bedraggle other social movements.

Find a seat at the table

Better meat advocates and practitioners are assembling a table I want to join: Regenerative farm practices put more animals on the ground and fewer into concentrated feed lots. Animals enjoy the five freedoms, whilst adding value to the land. Butchers trade on their skills to make the most out of every animal slaughtered. Chefs provide for this table. They serve a menu that familiarizes diners with funky cuts, organs, and dishes where meat is flavor, not just focus of every meal. Importantly, this table rejects the culture of confinement — the one that confines animals, rural economies, flavor, and our imagination for a better world. I’m all in; and I’m a vegetarian. 

Big Meat does not have a seat at this table. If anything, it wants to crush the table. This figurative table is a threat to the Big Meat business model — the very business model that makes it possible for eaters of event modest means to consume to consume meat everyday. Eat with abandon. Forget the hidden costs: upon the health of people, soil, animals and rural economies.

Herein lies the paradox: The call for less meat is also a call for better meat. Americans (and increasingly more people in the world) eat meat everyday because it’s cheap. This new-found affordability comes with hidden costs. By contrast, farmers who raise animals according to ethical animal welfare practices, plough goodness back into the land, and market outside of industrial distribution channels are marginalized by this cheap meat economy. Their meat costs more. After all, it should cost more. If that package of chicken is too cheap to be believed, there’s a reason for it. And here's where we go all complex and channel Tamar Haspel's critique: The industrial food system is opaque. It's like that for a reason. This keeps the hidden costs hidden. People of modest means run towards cheap meat. And why wouldn't they? Working people have been squeezed for decades beneath the imposition of austerity, neoliberalism, and stagnant wages. And yet, is it the farmers job to deliver cheap meat? Or, in all fairness, should wages rise? Should good animal husbandry practices be rewarded with fair prices? Moreover, can we adjust consumer expectations? Expect less meat each week. Use meat as flavor, not just focus. Learn how to cook the forgotten organs, feet, tongue, etc. Reward the farmer who farms right with a fair price. And, incorporate meatless meals into your weekly schedule. Monday is a great place to begin. 

Calling all gastronauts!

A meal without meat could be a dreadful bore: Something good you do for the planet by refraining from that daily consumption of industrial meat. Or, can it be an adventure? Discover the flavors of world cuisine: While many plant-based diets may be devoted to processed industrial foods, I propose we explore the biodiverse flavors of traditional foods and ingredients. After all, these are the endangered ingredients that serve as the basis of world food — peasant food. 

Puglia's iconic vegetarian staple: mashed fava beans and chicory leaves

These flavors emanate from the birth of human agriculture: ancient grains, vegetables and fruits whose biodiversity we are losing at an alarming rate. Instead, let’s eat it, to save it. Some are cultivated staples that already feed the world. Think of southern Italy’s iconic fave e cicoria. Wherever you go in Puglia, it’s on the menu. Simple, meatless and delicious, the dish is as ubiquitous to local life as is chana masala in India or tabbouleh in Lebanon. Others are foraged foods that define the taste of place. Think of wild sassafras for filé gumbo. An important entry onto the Slow Food Ark of Taste, its future is uncertain. Climate, convenience and culinary homogenization conspire to marginalize green gumbo and other important foods.   

It is with this gastronomic spirit, we launch the Slow Food global community of Meatless Monday Ambassadors. I seek activists who embrace the power of simple behavior changes — i.e., refraining from meat one day per week — to make real larger systemic change to our food system. In short, this is where joy should meet justice. What joy? The joy of (re)discovering traditional foods that do not contain meat and/or ones that, if tweaked modestly, can become iconic emblems of tradition reinvented. The justice can be found in liberating us all from the culture of confinement. Animals, rural economies, and our culinary imagination are confined by an outdated idea that every meal should feature a hunk of meat in the center of the plate, surrounded by a supporting cast of characters: also known as, vegetables. Importantly, there is plenty of room at the table. If you're a Better Meat advocate, advocate. Cover that ground. However, if you're devoted to Less Meat, advocate on that turf. We need both. We seek communications and trust between the camps, even if they're working on different points of entry and passions.

Meat the Change at Slow Food

Why is this a Slow Food priority? Think back to the 1980s when Slow Food challenged the European Union’s regulation of lard in Italy (in Italian, lardo). Historically stored in cellars of farms and houses that raise pigs and age the pork fat for future use and enjoyment. Our concern was to defend traditional practices of small-scale pig farmers whose antiquated practices were being marginalized by the standardizing forces of the EU. Slow Food’s defense of small producers is more than just a sentimental longing for the past. Rather, it is a rejection of the gigantism that promotes the very efficiencies that come with concentrated animal agriculture. What is lost with these efficiencies? Family farms, animals that enjoy the five freedoms (from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, fear and distress; and the freedom to express normal animal behavior). But, there’s so much more. This early policy advocacy also challenges the homogenization of flavor, the taste of place, and the ecology of local economies. If small farmers are prohibited from storing lard as they have for generations, then we open already-weakened agricultural economies to the influence of large agribusiness concentration. 

And yet, isn’t lardo and Meatless Monday at odds with one another? No, on the contrary, we promote better meat and less meat — especially in places where the daily consumption of cheap, industrial meat adorns every dinner plate. USDA indicates that American eaters ate on average more than 200 pounds of meat in 2018. Compare this to Costa Rica’s 112 pounds. This was why I helped launch Slow Meat back in 2014. We need to find creative ways to draw the connections between both goals. 


Personally, I have been a vegetarian for most of my life. Devoted to minimizing harm, that’s my beef. The beautiful thing about Slow Food is that it is a pluralist movement. We are that unruly assembly of home cooks, farmers, fishers, vegans, butchers, educators, students, etc. Together, eaters of all lands take hold of the fork, chopsticks, etc. 

The importance of the Meatless Monday strategy is this. We’re not calling for no meat. Only on Mondays. The large-scale meat economy undercuts smaller operations. With their control of feed, transport, and slaughter facilities, big meat accelerates a rush to the bottom. Big, cheap meat makes it possible for diners to eat meat at almost every meal. Meatless Monday is a campaign against big, cheap industrial meat. We confront the culture of meat every meal by exploring the amazing flavors to be found in plant-based dishes. The more we diversify what we eat, the sooner we loosen the stranglehold Big Meat has upon our culinary imagination. The better meat farmers deserve to earn a better living from their products. They should not cheapen their products or their practices. Slow Food should promote ways to stretch the Better Meat farmers’ offerings: Make meat flavor, not just focus of every meal. Learn how to cook the funky cuts and the parts of the animal that have been forgotten by industrial life. Slow Food does these things. We also promote less meat. 

I think back to when I launched community gardens in the early 1990s or farmers markets in the mid-1990s. My goals were many. However, one remains: Make it easier and more exciting to run towards good, healthy fruits and vegetables. They shouldn’t be punishment. They should be the center of our meals. It is with this lever, we can change menus, and change the world. This is why I am excited to invite eaters of all walks of life and in all corners of the planet to join me to learn, share and grow a community of best practice around the simple call to action: Go meatless on Monday. 

Welcome to the table. Join me. Share ideas via the Meatless Monday Global Platform. Learn how activists from around the world are leading with incremental behavior change to leverage systems change. Learn how in cities, like New York, mayors are finding the confidence to take the challenge and implement Meatless Monday at schools and hospitals. Or, how small towns are weaving Meatless Monday into broader concerns for chronic disease, social isolation and the climate crisis.

My hunch is that, together, we will find new ways to promote endangered foods (from the Ark of Taste) and collaborate with farmers, farmers markets, school gardens and others to harness the intimidating and existential fears for the climate crisis and bring them down to the ground with weekly, bite-sized behavior changes on Mondays. With Slow Food from around the world, I look forward to learning new ways to meet the change in the kitchen and at the table.

Other useful resources:
Cook With What You Have for cooking with vegetables
FoodPrint for consumer choice and the impact of these choices
Gunthorp Farms for better meat in action. See how it's done in the MidWest by the best
Meatless Monday Global Platform to join the Slow Food Community of Meatless Monday Ambassadors
Open Markets Institute for the meat monopoly
Savory Institute for how more animals on the ground is good for reversing desertification
Meatless Monday goes to Terra Madre (short film) to meet Slow Food's global tastemakers