Alternative Proteins: Framing The Future Of Food
Clean, or cell-based, and plant-based meat products have gotten a lot of attention in recent years. We can already order plant-based burgers in gourmet restaurants and vegan fast-food chains. Companies are racing to bring clean meat, which we can grow from real animal cells without the need to raise and kill animals, to market. While interest in such alternative protein sources is on the rise, conventional meat production—animal agriculture, meat processing, and retail—remains a multibillion dollar industry.
Advocates for alternative proteins and advocates for conventionally-produced meat are participating in an ongoing public messaging battle about clean and plant-based meat products. The former wants to present alternative proteins in a positive light, to make them palatable to consumers, and to appeal to policymakers to put regulatory rules in place to favor alternative proteins. The latter sees clean and plant-based meat as a threat to conventional meat products, seeks to discredit alternative proteins in the eyes of the public, and lobbies governments to raise regulatory hurdles—for example by banning the use of the label “meat” for alternative protein products.
In a new article, researchers from the University of Oxford mapped the different narratives on both sides. In addition to the narratives of clean and plant-based meat products, they also included food derived from insects, like protein bars, in their analysis. As one of their key findings, they identified three terms that alternative protein advocates use in their messaging and the terms that animal agriculture representatives use to counter these: “Real v. Fake,” “Clean v. Dirty,” and “Progress v. Tradition.”
The researchers stressed that looking at narratives on alternative protein products is especially important since only very few such products—plant-based meat and insect-based products—are available to consumers at the moment. There are no clean meat products available on mass markets right now. So, debates on these product categories can’t rely on empirical facts about food that is consumed at the moment but instead needs to focus more on potentials and on the challenges of such products in the future. Accordingly, the researchers identify that positive narratives about some alternative proteins are promissory—messages of what will be coming.
To analyze these narratives, the researchers selected 10 start-ups and two nonprofit advocacy groups promoting alternative proteins. They then analyzed their websites and social media content as well as publicly available talks (like TED talks) given by people working for one of these organizations.
The five promissory narratives communicated by producers and advocates of alternative protein products are that their products—relative to conventionally-produced meat—are healthier for humans, better for global food security, safer to produce, better for animals and the environment, and just as tasty. On the other side, the researchers found three main counter-narratives communicated by the animal agriculture sector regarding alternative proteins: they are not viable as mass products, they are not real food, and they are legally ill-defined.
For animal advocates who seek to promote alternative proteins, this study offers several considerations for our communication approach, especially if representatives from the animal agriculture industry confront us. For example, the researchers noted that counter-narratives increasingly include wording traditionally associated with small-scale farming and artisanal products to defend conventional meat production.
They further note that the counter-narratives emphasize that the quality and good taste of meat depend on animals living in natural landscapes and a traditional rural way of life. Although such imagery does not accurately reflect the reality of the vast majority of animals who humans confine in factory farms, animal agriculture supporters use such language to contrast with the “sterile,” “cold,” and “technological” framing of alternative protein products.
Overall, analyses of different narratives could be especially useful for advocates; blending those analyses with knowledge about the effects our narratives have on consumers’ and policymakers’ attitudes toward alternative proteins could be winning combination.