Ethical omnivores, vegangelicals and the shift to thoughtful food

Have you heard about veganuary? It’s January, but where you give up eating meat and other animal-based food and home products. The latest celebrities to jump on this bandwagon are Beyoncé and Jay-Z (in case that matters to you), and given that it’s “new year, new you” season, I’m sure there will be many, many new vegans this month or 10 days.

heavy sigh

You know what, though? I’m not here to beat up vegans or roll my eyes at one more celebrity endorsement of a fad diet. Instead, I am watching new words and terms evolve, gain momentum, and stick. We seem to be moving beyond “organic” and “all natural” claims, and instead our customers are choosing food systems that better reflect their values and the philosophy behind how the food was raised vs. a simple “free-from” label or claim.

Most are familiar with the term vegan, and likely most within agriculture align it with activism — vegangelicals, if you will (not my term, but it fits so well, doesn’t it?), but I’ve come across some new terms I thought I’d share here. I do love words, and words matter — which I’ll get to in a moment.

Let’s get comfortable with the term “regenerative agriculture” first. It’s defined as: A system of farming principles and practices that increase biodiversity, enrich soil, improve watersheds, and enhance ecosystem services. Regenerative agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing atmospheric CO2 accumulation.

Did you catch that? While the term is perhaps most associated with organic production, when I read this, I’m actually somewhat encouraged — it’s not a list of must do/cannot do practices, it’s an outcome-based guiding principle. And we all know there’s more than one way to get to the same outcome. I’m not a huge fan of specific terms or names for production systems, as we seem, as an industry, to argue more about semantics than discussing the particulars of what’s working and what’s not. Could thinking in “regenerative” terms be the common ground of several production systems?

I think there’s something here to gnaw on. But, moving on.

Here’s another one: ethical omnivore. As a sheep farmer, I support eating animals. I know we give our animals good lives, and that they are a key part of a landscape ecosystem — cycling nutrients, clearing overgrowth, making good use of land otherwise left fallow or worse, simply mowed. There’s a movement afoot to counter veganuary — the ethical omnivore movement calls it EOMuary, which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue — but the idea is that eating meat is not murder and raising livestock is not killing our planet. That said, ethical omnivores focus on choosing meat, dairy, and game grown in grass-based, high animal welfare systems.

What does this all mean for agriculture and how you farm? Are more terms for what we do just marketing or further division within agriculture? Change is constant, we know that, and our customers are going to gravitate to an ideal that aligns with what they want and how they feel.

What I do know is that the push for more plant protein in Canadian diets is not just coming from activists — our government, too, is pushing for more plant-based meals in the new iterations of Canada’s Food Guide, much to the chagrin of our dairy and beef industries.

(Here is where I would like to point out that I love pulses. They are a huge made-in-Canada success story, and I fully support our pulse producers, so before slagging on “eat less meat” maybe look at it as “eat more pulses.” Also: pulses WITH meat are super delicious. See? We all win!)

What’s more, we can’t ignore the measured increased concern for animal welfare within our food system. The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity’s latest survey on Canadian consumer opinion shows a marked increase in the number of people who are unsure that their meat, milk, and eggs are raised with adequate welfare standards. That’s frustrating — but it speaks to the need for farmers to not just do the right thing, but also speak up loudly when we do do the right thing.

Does that mean agriculture needs more labels? Do you want to call yourself  a “regenerative grain grower” or a “low-stress cattle whisperer?”  Whatever we choose to call ourselves, our words matter and our customers are listening.

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