I’ve seen the Brave New World of food prophesied in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel — and it doesn’t work.
Set in the World State in AF 632 (AF standing for “After Ford”, he of the Model T), Huxley’s dystopia offers nothing but synthetic nosh. At a party for the World State’s Alphas, the guests are induced to “take a carotine sandwich, a slice of vitamin A pâté, a glass of champagne-surrogate”. Even the proles get “beef-surrogate” — which these days we might call a plant-based burger.
If Huxley were to visit the tiny Dutch university town of Wageningen, he would be unnerved by the accuracy of his forecast. So would you. Wageningen, an hour by car from Amsterdam, is the capital so-called “Food Valley”. Every which way you look, there are fields burgeoning with crops, giant glasshouses, and modernist glass-and-steel labs where more than 6,500 scientists are planning the future of food. It all seems lovely — starry-eyed researchers beavering away to end global hunger and halt climate change via a revolution in food technology — until you look closely at Food Valley’s strategic “Sustainable Protein System”, or examine the list of companies investing in the “Silicon Valley of Food”.
The Sustainable Protein System is the promotion of “alt-proteins”, as opposed to the conventional proteins we might get from food, which come from farmed animals. Some of the alt-protein research in Food Valley is directed towards consuming insects (“entomophagy”); some is more focused on algae, fungi — or mycobacterial this, that and the other. But the big research bucks are flowing one way only, and that is to plant-based alternatives to meat.
More than 60 agri-food multinationals have invested in Food Valley and centred their research operations there. They include Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, Cargill, Kikkoman, and Dupont. Upfield, the giant plant-based group behind Flora and the Greek vegan cheese brand Violife, has constructed a €50 million Food Science Centre at Wageningen. This pales in comparison to Unilever’s €85 million Foods Innovation Centre, nicknamed “The Hive”, with its priority research area for “plant-based ingredients and meat alternatives”.
Multinationals love the phrase “plant-based” because it is a euphemism for the messianic, cultish, modish cause they have adopted: veganism. But the official FoodValley NL platform is less squeamish about its mission: it self-identifies as “Vegan Valley”.
Is it not curious how veganism, which dresses itself in the hip clothes of animal welfare, anti-climate change and eco-feminism, can’t wait to get into the blender with big business? Sniffing around the multinationals of Food Valley are no less than 3,500 SMEs, a remarkable number of which are vegan start-ups. They can smell the money, and vegan ethics invariably melt when some suit from a corp opens the wallet — even when that suit is from the very meat industry vegans profess to despise.
The flow of tainted money into veganism began big time in 2016, when Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest meat-processing companies, took a 5% stake in fake meat start-up Beyond Meat. In 2018, Unilever bought Dutch meat-replacement producer De Vegetarische Slager for an estimated €30 million. Last year, the Brazilian meat giant JBS bought the Dutch meat-replacement company Vivera for €341 million. According to statements issued in the wake of the purchase, Vivera will remain an independent operation within JBS and keep its current management. So that’s okay then.
And any vegan SME settling in Food Valley concerned it might miss out on the largesse of the corps need not worry: there are other sources of funding. Food Valley is subsidised by the Dutch state, and the EU. Both have pumped hundreds of millions of euros into Food Valley. In 2020, the Dutch Research Council granted €1.7 million for a single research project into animal-free milk protein.
And this is just the funding we know about. Transparency, in Food Valley, is limited. When Dutch investigative journalist Vincent Harmsen went to court demanding that Wageningen University, the driving force behind the Food Valley “ecosystem”, release information about its scientists’ relations with agrochemical firms Syngenta, Monsanto and Bayer, the court upheld the university’s right to keep schtum. During her tenure as president of the university, Louise Fresco was simultaneously a paid non-executive director of Syngenta. All of which begs the question, how objective is the science coming out of Food Valley, given who’s paying for it?
The story goes that it’s cursed cows that are supposedly wrecking the planet, by belching methane and hogging fields which could be planted with soy for humans. Food Valley’s mission to find a bright answer to humanity’s protein problem trades heavily on the Netherlands’ reputation as an agricultural wonderland. The Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA) — after boasting, “No Beef Here: How the Dutch are Innovating Plant-Based Proteins” — gushes that “the country is the second largest exporter of produce in the world, so it’s clear that the Dutch have created something unique within their borders that might inspire others”.
Actually, the Dutch model of agricultural surplus is a little less perfect than advertised. Post-War, the Netherlands’ agriculture minister Sicco Mansholt vaunted industrialised, mechanised farming — and, as the first European commissioner for agriculture, broadcast his vision across the continent. The Mansholt Plan — criticised notably by E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful — was upscaled into the Common Agricultural Policy, and it certainly resulted in plenty (there were wine lakes and butter mountains). But the CAP gobbled nearly 70% of the EU budget and left a continent stripped of nature. The Netherlands was among the worst cases. People rightly complain of the UK being “nature-depleted”, but The Biodiversity and Habitat Index composed by Yale University puts the Netherlands in 25th place and the UK — yes, the UK — comes in sixth.
As a result of its celebrated intensive farming, levels of nitrogen pollution in the Netherlands are so high that in 118 of the nation’s 162 nature reserves, nitrogen deposits exceed ecological risk thresholds by an average of 50%. In fact, the Netherlands is in the midst of a full-scale political crisis over nitrogen. The government’s efforts to cut the amount pumped out by the agricultural sector it once lauded have been fiercely opposed by the farmers it once encouraged. During the summer, police fired live rounds at one of the country’s now commonplace tractor demos, and the municipalities of Apeldoorn and Harderwijk declared a state of emergency.
The Netherlands, then, is hardly a success model of how a country should feed itself — let alone the rest of the world. Perhaps in its promotion of alt-protein, the nation is undoing its previous farming wrong? The cultured meat burger was born here, after all, in 2013, the brainchild of Professor Mark Post. (Post went on to found plant-based Mosa Meat — which, of course, took investment from a real meat company, The Bell Group.) But it looks as if the Netherlands is just repeating its earlier mistake, a double-Dutch agricultural error of mass over matter, surplus over substance.
Proponents of alt-protein claim that it is a necessity, required to feed the world’s growing population. The world’s farmers, however, already produce enough to feed current and future mouths. The problem is waste — a third of global food is binned, or left to rot — and distribution. You can produce as many plant-based burgers as you care to, but if the poor are unable to access them, they will still hunger.
But then, Big Veganism has little incentive to target the hungry. A recent paper, “Vegan food geographies and the rise of Big Veganism”, makes the salient point that “lower-tech, minimally-processed and socially embedded vegan foodways are noticeably absent” from the vegan model being promoted in places like Food Valley. Think about it: the essential ingredients of plant-based food are wheat and soy, precisely those crops already industrialised by the Dutch model and in the grip of the agri-multinationals. A Big Vegan world, without reform to waste and food-distribution policies, would require about one-third more cropland. It would therefore also require more artificial fertiliser (likely nitrogen-based), plus pesticides, herbicides and all the other polluting “cides” produced by Bayer, Syngeta and the rest of the agri-chemical giants.
The Brave New World of Big Veganism will be, in other words, a corporate dream. Industrially-produced crops will be fed into factories owned by food multinationals and transformed — by energy-demanding and expensive machinery — into a meat substitute. That meat substitute is then likely to arrive in a supermarket in an expensive, value-added, ready-made form (“plant-based chicken tikka”, “plant-based spaghetti Bolognese”, ad nauseum). Big Veganism will kill home cooking — the making of meals from prime ingredients — which is a form of freedom, a creative act. Mind you, the veganised masses will be too feeble to protest against the loss of their humanity: in June last year the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that children on vegan diets were, on average, 1.2 inches shorter and had up to 6% lower bone mineral content than meat-eating peers.
Will meat substitutes actually provide us with any nutrients at all? We won’t know. The exact composition of the product will be, of course, a corporate, patented secret, meaning anyone who wants the ability to feed themselves in a world without farm animals will have to cough up. But if Big Vegan’s recipe for its fake steak is hush-hush, you can bet that the principal ingredients are wheat gluten, soy and water — so add a carbohydrate-induced obesity epidemic to the enervation of the masses.
If this is Food Valley’s recipe for the future, then Ford help us. What is to be done? The hero of Huxley’s Brave New World is the noble savage John, brought into “civilisation” from a wild reservation where he grew and cooked his own food. After being persuaded by a World State shopkeeper to buy beef-surrogate, John regrets it, and sets his mind to never eating it again — as an act of rebellion against a fake-nice, authoritarian, dehumanising system. Maybe John was onto something.