Ryan J. Phillips is a Contract Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University in Toronto, ON. His research focuses on the promotional cultures of plant-based meat, as well as the political economy of public broadcasting in Canada.
Neoliberalism and Plant-Based Burgers
Imagine reading a newspaper headline or social media post about how dire the global climate crisis has become. Now imagine reading a second text linking climate change to meat consumption and animal agriculture. If these sorts of messages stir any emotional response or desire to do something, the odds are good that your mind will quickly jump to what products you should start or stop buying. Which products are being made sustainably, and should therefore be supported? Which companies are harming the environment, and should therefore be avoided or boycotted? If you do stop buying certain products, which other products should you purchase as replacements? The fact that social or political action is so intuitively equated with consumer choices is indicative of what is called neoliberalism.
Neoliberal ideology is an obsession with markets and market-based activities—a view that everything is either already market-related, or else needs to be brought into the realm of the market—even social and environmental change. Neoliberalism assumes that wherever markets do not yet exist, they should be created in order to further expand the (re)production of the currently dominant economic system, capitalism (Harvey, 2005). Unsurprisingly, then, neoliberalism insists that addressing environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation can be achieved simply by individuals buying more environmentally friendly products. As a result, more and more companies are promoting their products as environmentally friendly, sustainable, or ‘green’.
In relation to food, neoliberal arguments have been made for decades that individual consumers should choose to buy foods labelled as ‘organic’, ‘local’, ‘non-GMO’, ‘free range’, ‘grass-fed’, or ‘plant-based’, in order to reduce their carbon footprint. In other words: it is up to you, the individual consumer, to solve environmental problems through your choices at the grocery store—despite the fact that most existing environmental problems were created by large corporations in the first place. Neoliberalism shifts the onus of responsibility to the individual, diverting attention from more substantive structural changes.
Neoliberalism emerged as a radical re-orienting of governmental policies in places like the U.S., the U.K., and Chile during the 1970s and early 1980s. These policies worked to systematically dismantle publicly funded protections for things like labour, healthcare, education, and the environment. By the 1990s and early 2000s, neoliberalism had been adopted as the dominant ideological position by most countries, international organizations, and individual persons.
Today, neoliberalism is so pervasive in our everyday lives that many people simply equate this ideological position with ‘common sense’. Individualization (the process by which emphasis is placed on individual responsibilities rather than social cooperation) is one of the most fundamental elements of neoliberalism. As such, we now see a widespread cultural emphasis on individual food choices as crucial to addressing social, economic, and environmental issues, rather than more co-ordinated or collective efforts to address those issues systematically (Aschoff, 2015; Kevany, 2020).
The emerging plant-based meat industry’s emphasis on individual choices is a recent example of neoliberalism. Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods promote their products as environmentally friendly ways of eating meat without feeling guilty. Beyond Meat’s CEO, Ethan Brown, encourages people to eat more of what they love, stating that “If you love meat, I can give you plant-based meat” (Brown, 2017). With these sorts of promotional talking points, Brown appeals to people’s self-perceptions as consumers in a market rather than as social or political subjects with responsibilities. Indeed, the logic of neoliberalism is such that we feel compelled to fix the negative aspects of things we enjoy (such as meat), rather than just avoid harmful or problematic products in the first place. In other words, neoliberalism does not allow us to consider giving up meat for environmental reasons—instead, we are encouraged to figure out how to keep buying and eating ‘meat’ in more sustainable ways. This is also why words like ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ are noticeably absent from plant-based meat advertising: veganism/ vegetarianism are defined by their not consuming certain things, whereas ‘plant-based’ encourages more consumption.
Moreover, even the sorts of critiques of neoliberalism mentioned above are themselves somewhat stuck in the loop of neoliberal logic—they are still primarily concerned with individual choices and actions rather than cooperative efforts aimed at structural change. But it is also important not to interpret neoliberalism as a totalizing or all-consuming force, given that alternatives to this dominant ideology do still exist. Small-scale gift and sharing economies, the global cooperative movement, and perennial instances of collective social action all represent fissures within existing neoliberal societies—and, indeed, represent alternative ways in which we might restructure society in a post-neoliberal world (Gibson-Graham, 2006)
The idea of appealing to the individualized, selfish nature of consumers—or, appealing to people’s wallets rather than their hearts or minds—might seem normal in the 21st century. Yet, it is this sense of normalcy that masks just how deeply embedded into our cultural consciousness neoliberalism has become since the 1980s.
- Have you ever experienced the neoliberal condition of wanting to address social issues through your own consumption habits?
- What products or services have you bought (or, purposefully not bought) for ethical or political reasons?
- How might we better address ongoing social, political, and environmental issues outside of market activities?
Look through some of the foods currently in your fridge or cupboard and record how many of them have a certification label (e.g. ‘organic’, ‘non-GMO’, ‘vegan’, ‘plant-based’, etc.). The next time you find yourself shopping for groceries, take note of how many items you come across that also include these certification labels. Do you find that these labels entice you to purchase certain products over others? If not, have they become so commonplace that you no longer consciously notice them when shopping?
Aschoff, N. (2015). The New Profits of Capital.London, UK: Verso Books.
Brown, E. (2017). Beyond Meat: Ethan Brown. NPR’s ‘How I Built This with Guy Raz’. Web. [Accessed June 15, 2019].
Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2006). A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Kevany, K. M. (2020). “Succulence and Sustainability for Life” in K. M. Kevany (Ed.)
Plant-based Diets for Succulence and Sustainability (pp. 217-231). New York, NY: Routledge.