Ecofeminism and Meat Substitutes: A Critical Discussion

The author, Anouk Dijkman, is a student in the MSc Programme of Food Sovereignty, Water and Resilience, a transdisciplinary post-graduate degree at Coventry University (UK). In this blog, which builds on her research work in the Gender, Food Systems and Natural Resources module, she applies a critical, ecofeminist perspective to question narratives that promote modern meat substitutes as a solution to the climate crisis and injustices embedded in patriarchal, capitalist societies. 


‘Despite often being heavily processed and high in sugars, fat and salt, do meat substitutes* offer value for an increase in plant based diets uptake?’ – is what I asked Associate Professor Lucy Aphramor a few weeks back, in what I expected to be a five minute tea-break conversation. Whilst unable to retell their answer in enough detail to do it justice, I vividly remember being nowhere near prepared for the likes of patriarchy, white supremacy culture, colonialism and capitalism to make their way into the conversation. I sat back at my desk feeling dizzy at how much this conversation had left me to unpack (one of the many things I love about the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience).

Whilst only a short and narrow exploration of the topic, the following blog covers some of the research this conversation has since led me to engage with: it asks whether the ‘progress’ narrative promoted by the meat alternative industry for their products holds water, as it were. Does developing a market for these products address climate change as claimed? Does it interrupt the oppression of animals and/or trouble the deep logic of hierarchical human-animal relations typical of patriarchal structures? How far do the processes and norms carried, generated, celebrated align with ecofeminist values?

*For the purpose of this blog, I have limited my understanding of meat substitutes to plant-based “products that take the place of meat in the human diet and have an appearance, texture and taste similar to meat products”, focusing on more recent westernised and usually heavily processed products made to resemble meat but excluding non-plant based alternatives, such as cultured meat. 

A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO ECOFEMINISM

In the 1970s, Françoise d’Eaubonne is thought to have coined the term ecofeminism for the first time.

Often described as political activism, social movement, and intellectual critique, understandings and traction received by ecofeminism have greatly varied in the last 50 years.

Photo: Françoise D’Eaubonne (liberation.fr)

At its core, ecofeminism is at the intersection of feminism, social justice and environmentalism. Arguing neither feminist or ecological concerns should progress at the expense of the other, the movement grounds itself in parallels drawn between the domination of women through patriarchy and the exploitation of nature through capitalism. In Corey Wrenn’s words, ecofeminism is a “response to male-centrism of environmental and philosophical thought”, recognising patriarchy as a key cause of environmental harm and animal violence.

DIETS AND ANIMALS IN ECOFEMINISM

“What we consume is a fundamentally political act.” – Vandana Shiva 

Ecofeminism has been applied to a variety of topics, one of which is animal rights and more precisely speciesism, looking at animal oppression. It does however remain a contentious issue within the movement whether non-human animal rights should be considered, and if so, how? Yet, Gaard argues that “omitting the oppression of animals from feminist and ecofeminist analyses […] is inconsistent with the activist and philosophical foundations of both feminism (as a “movement to end all forms of oppression”) and ecofeminism”.

The relevance of this argument is highlighted by Adams’ observation that in many developed countries, our principal way of interacting with nature is through the consumption of animals. And so, borrowed from second wave feminism, ‘the personal is political’ slogan is one that resonates strongly within 21st century ecofeminism. The movement therefore reasons that today’s oppression of animals perpetuates ‘hierarchical’ relations typical of patriarchal structures, using the concept of ‘inferiority’ to justify domination*. The vegetarian and vegan ecofeminist strand is one that specifically supports this reasoning, whilst the movement itself calls against the blanket and binary promotion of veganism and stresses the importance of context.

Source: Minnesota Women’s Press

MEAT SUBSTITUTES

The existence and consumption of meat-substitutes is not a recent development, but their considerable market size growth in developed countries, and especially Europe, is. In 2021, almost 40% of the industry’s revenue shares were attributable to Europe, with the meat substitute market segment expected to grow by over 27% annually. Although a variety of motivations historically underly consumption of meat-substitutes and their emergence, sector leading brands increasingly have evolved to, on top of health and animal welfare considerations, incorporate environmental considerations in their mission statements (e.g. Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Quorn). This includes concerns on natural resource use, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with industrial livestock-keeping and the meat industry.

As discussed in the previous section, ecofeminism recognises the importance of reflecting from a feminist perspective on environmentalism, animal rights, and diets – and how these can interlink into a variety of ways to maintain or reinforce oppressive and dominating structures. The considerable expansion of meat-substitutes and their industry are at the heart of such environmental, personal health and ethical considerations. 

But do such products and their industry align with ecofeminist understandings of progress, such as feminist understandings of various forms of oppression based in patriarchal and capitalist structures?


Source: Marine Rouch – Mondes Sociaux

MEAT SUBSTITUTES FROM AN ECOFEMINIST PERSPECTIVE

Starting with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, meat substitutes as discussed are regularly promoted for their reduced carbon footprint compared to meat equivalents. Whilst concepts such as net zero and carbon footprints have faced criticism over being a ‘global north capitalistic’ understanding (Fajardo Mazorra, 2023), it is also important to note that our current food systems are responsible for over a third of all global GHG emissions. The meat industry in particular is a large contributor to GHG emissions, and thus plays an important role in climate change.

From a relatively uncritical point of view, the argument could be made that by offering a low carbon emissions alternative to meat, substitutes help address climate injustice resulting from food systems, mostly associated with consumption patterns of countries in the Global North. With climate change often disproportionately affecting the Global South and especially women (Sultana, 2014), one could consider this progress from an ecofeminist perspective. Indeed, it could function as a gender and North-South inequality mitigation strategy, addressing social justice issues resulting from the unequal distribution of climate change contributions and impact.

A shift away from meat consumption could also indicate a shift away from considering animals as a resource. As Fiddes writes “our use of meat as food reflects our categorization of, and our relations towards, animals as competitors, companions and [as] resources.” Vegan ecofeminism in particular aims to challenge the sense of superiority and entitlement engrained in non-human animal consumption which maintains what Corey Wrenn describes as “hierarchies of worth”, typical of patriarchal relationships. Gaard, through what she names ‘critical ecofeminism’, extends this conversation on hierarchies and speciesism to our relation to plants, building on scholarly work by the likes of Plumwood and Hall which acknowledge indigenous perspectives, and helping to connect arguments across feminist animal and plant studies.

Another key concern within ecofeminism is capitalism, and destructive extractivism. Campaigned against by Latin American ecofeminists, soy production is a relevant concern here, known for its impacts on deforestation in South America. Whilst soy is predominantly grown for the meat industry’s cattle feed, one of the main sources of protein in meat substitutes is soy. With an expected significant growth in demand for both meat in developing countries and meat-substitutes in developed countries, a shift towards plant-based meat substitutes utilising soy as core protein could potentially aggravate deforestation rates for soy plantations.

This would mean a continuation of existing destructive impacts of capitalism and consumerism, not least based on a Global South-North form of extractivism. Indeed, a majority of soy imported by the EU comes from South America. Regardless of deforestation concerns, this does raise concerns in terms of Global South-North producer-consumer exploitative relations, characteristic of historical colonial relations. In ‘Ecofeminism’, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva explain that ecofeminism aims “to go beyond this narrow [capitalist-patriarchal] perspective (…) [to] address the inherent inequalities in world structures which permit the North to dominate the South, men to dominate women, and the frenetic plunder of ever more resources for ever more unequally distributed economic gain to dominate nature…”. As such, one could question whether the use of soy issued from South America in meat substitutes destined for the EU for example, perpetrates capitalistic and colonial structures of hierarchy and exploitation as well as the knowledge systems they emerge from, issues scrutinised by ecofeminism.

To critically discuss patriarchal and capitalist structures from an ecofeminist perspective, we should also explore the industry behind such meat-substitutes. Several trends here appear as concerning; The conglomeration of meat-substitute businesses, with four conglomerates owning almost 80% of the market, and reports of such businesses being bought up and considerably invested in by the ‘big meat’ industry itself, such as JBS and Cargill, an industry known to be heavily male-dominated.

As stated in the Food & Water Watch report, “Plant-based meat brands are hardly an alternative to the current system if they continue to entrench corporate power”. What these trends really indicate is a global homogenisation and capitalistic power accumulation happening within the meat-substitute industry, with a shift in favour of existing patriarchal, capitalistic and exploitative structures – all exactly at the core of what vegan ecofeminism advocates against.

The promotion of meat substitutes specifically towards women is equally an issue of relevance. Zein & Setiawan’s observe that within patriarchal structures we see “men as the curators of culture and women as the curators of nature”. For the issue at hand, this translates to men having developed a technocratic meat-substitute industry (influencing consumption culture), yet expecting it to be predominantly of relevance to women due to their gendered “duty of care”, supposedly instinctively leading them to more vegan-prone ethics in consumption.

Source: www.pexels.com

Source: www.pexels.com

As a final argument, research points at how meat consumption can support masculine identity development. Being made to look as little as possible like non-meat, it could be argued that meat substitutes simply facilitate the continuation of hegemonic masculinity. By maintaining similar cooking methods, recipes, aesthetics, flavour or even the social contexts (e.g. barbecue) and culture associated with meat consumption, it allows non-meat eaters to ‘fit in’ with meat-eating culture, which is therefore maintained as the norm. Sumpter advances that meat substitutes “fundamentally serve as a social instrument, by providing a cultural symbol to help vegetarians ‘pass’ within the hegemonic social setting, while still embracing their values and reasons for abstaining”.

In parallel, the development of this new meat substitutes segment is described by Carol as a way of “making veganism safe for white men”. Altogether, these types of meat-substitutes from an ecofeminist perspective seem to minimally if at all challenge or redefine the production of gendered identity through meat consumption, even seemingly allowing for patriarchal culture to be continued and reproduced.

CONCLUSION

Summarised, meat-substitutes seem to predominantly help maintain a capitalist industry and the social reproduction of a western masculine meat-eating culture. Whilst meat-substitutes are often positioned as one of the ‘solutions’ that will help work towards a sustainable future through net zero, the current environmental crisis has often been positioned as one rooted in capitalism and patriarchy. One could therefore wonder to what extent these ‘modern’ meat-substitutes are simply a comfortable climate mitigation strategy that minimises interference with ‘meat-eating privileges’, rather than addressing and offering a transformational solution to the patriarchal and consumerist root causes of the environmental crisis. 

The main real takeaway for me? There is no substitute for thinking through inter-connection.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 

A warm thank you to Lucy Aphramor, Priscilla Claeys, Csilla Kiss and lecturers on the Gender, Food Systems and Natural Resources module for their valuable contributions and knowledge sharing.

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