I meet a stream of people who expect me to concur with the prevalent dictum that for our personal health and that of the planet we should make our diets increasingly plant-based. But cracks in the ‘plant-based is best’ assertion are already on display.
Think of margarine spreads. These ‘healthy’ plant-based products were supposedly going to save us from artery-furring satfats. The first generation ones with their trans fats turned out to be deadly, the newer wave spreads made with interesterified oils are arguably no improvement, and they are all a penance to eat. Unilever’s plans to exit spreads illustrate how the plant food proposition is hitting the skids.
Meanwhile butter is back, big time. Consumers who keep up with health debates decisively favour cows over factories. And dogged, ethical farmers who shun factory farming while defending grass-based meat production – be it hill farms or mob grazing – as a neat biological way to build soil fertility that grows nutritious food, now address an ever more receptive audience.
It looked as if nothing could rehabilitate the blanket ‘scary dairy’ narrative spread by vegans, then Pasture Promise and free-range dairy came along offering a kinder, healthier, more ecological option midway between intensively produced ‘white water’ and creamy, whole, organic. In the naturalness stakes, milk from the humanely reared cow, sheep, goat, and buffalo easily beats plant-based ‘milks’ concocted with additives.
We’re increasingly made aware that veg, cereals, fruits and pulses come with their own tally of death and environmental destruction. Soya and wheat are cultivated in creeping monocultures that kill wild animals through deforestation and habitat loss. Almonds in your nut butter could be draining California’s water table; your strawberries might be driving desertification in Andalucía. Drug cartels control much of the trade in ‘super food’ Mexican avocados. Around the globe, songbirds and pollinators are killed by crop pesticides.
Perhaps the tide is slowly turning back in favour of animal products? Our discussions are certainly becoming more nuanced.
Joanna Blythman is a journalist and author of Swallow This