black&white #10: small is beautiful, some thoughts on Big Food
3 min steep
Big Food, like Big Pharma, refers to some of the most powerful corporations in the world. Some of the most well-known include Nestle, Tesco and Unilever (which owns tea brands like PG Tips and Lipton) – but there are many more working behind the scenes that most of us have never heard of.
The size and reach of these transnational corporations means they’re able to exert a disproportionate amount of influence when it comes to policy-making in the global food system. And, unlike NGOs, charities and even nation states, these corporations are beholden to their shareholders, rather than the people affected by these decisions. Take the recent United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit. Many have criticised and even boycotted the UN’s initiative because of the involvement of Big Food – and the lack of voices from small producers and farmers. Yes, corporate perspectives should be considered. But does the future of our food system lie in the hands of multinationals whose products often fall into the category of “ultra-processed” (usually defined as having long lists of factory-made ingredients)? Or does it lie in the hands of small-scale farmers? We know who we’re rooting for.
01 | © Canton Tea | Yunan Leaf
But admittedly, it’s a thorny, tangled subject. Carbon emissions from meat and dairy production account for a whopping 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and it’s clear that eating habits need to change. Although regenerative agriculture (farming that actively reverses climate change by restoring soil biodiversity) is growing as a movement, it represents a tiny proportion of the industry as a whole – and at least in the UK, is more expensive and less available to much of the population. So in a bid to become more conscious, sustainable eaters, many people have turned to fake or “plant-based” meat – an industry that’s set to grow to $23.2 billion by 2024. And so far as they’re meant to imitate meat, these products are getting really very good. But how many ingredients does it take to recreate animal flesh from plant-based ingredients? And what sort of technology?
02 | Ingredients of a typical meatless burger.
The reality of many plant-based alternatives, the good ones at least, is that they’re highly processed from lots of ingredients with cutting-edge technologies. This is Big Food at its most effective. Impressive it is, accessible it isn’t. If we continue to turn to highly realistic fake animal products – or even lab grown meat – we’ll see even more of a power shift from small-scale farmers to what are essentially big tech companies. What’s more, any purported health benefits of these overly industrialised foods are dubious – they often contain the same additives and factory-made ingredients as you find in most ultra-processed food and meat.
Clearly, there’s no simple answer. Reducing meat and dairy consumption (at least from factory farms) is a necessary and admirable endeavour. And so is supporting small-scale, ecologically-friendly farmers and producers. Perhaps though, lab-grown meat and ultra-processed meat alternatives should be taken with an added pinch of salt.