The Grocery Cart |  Politicizing protein

The Grocery Cart | Politicizing protein


Turkey at Christmas, lamb at Easter, BBQ during the summer with a piece of meat or two, these animal proteins have always brought us together.

Sylvain Charlebois

Sylvain Charlebois
Senior Director, Agri-Food Analytical Sciences Laboratory, Dalhousie University, Special Collaboration

Protein is fueling division in discussions these days, mostly because it’s being politicized. Prioritizing food is one thing, but imposing food choices is not worthy of a democracy that respects its citizens.

Posted at 7:30 a.m.

During the Quebec election campaign, Quebec solidaire recently proposed a shift in the plates of public sector cafeterias by offering a menu made up of 50% plant-based protein meals. The primary objective is to encourage public institutions to offer choices. In the same vein, the party also suggested that 70% of food products served in public institutions should come from local production. Consuming local products is one of the best ways for the state to stimulate the local economy, but politicizing protein is another challenge.

Similarly, some groups across the country these days are even going to suggest adopting Canada’s new food guide to save the planet since it encourages a plant-based protein diet. However, the food guide, which dates from 2019, has nothing to do with our environmental priorities. Nothing.

Whether we like it or not, animal protein plays a very important role in our food culture, especially in Quebec. Turkey at Christmas, lamb at Easter, BBQ during the summer with a piece of meat or two, these animal proteins have always brought us together. Beef, pork, chicken, lamb, seafood, cheeses and other dairy products are part of Quebec’s gastronomic heritage.

With the massive arrival of products based on vegetable proteins, veganism and vegetarianism continue to fuel debate. Thus, consumers come out ahead on several aspects and benefit from a greater range of products than before. Prior to the Beyond Meat invasion, the meat counter, which typically includes beef, chicken, and pork, was a bit lacking in vibrancy. Our literacy on protein has greatly progressed in recent years. We have a better understanding of the nutritional values ​​of each of the sources offered. The vegan movement, which was completely marginalized a few years ago, is now socially normalized. An important gain for our society.

Protein is politicized to the max and in an effort to save the planet, various political and apolitical groups are encouraging citizens to adopt a diet with less meat or no meat at all.

Some of these groups sanction various researches which abound in the same direction. There are even some studies that blame humans for climate change because they eat more meat. This all goes a bit far. Increasingly, protein is being used as a political tool to fight climate change.

This movement can be seen as much in Quebec as in Ottawa. The Climate Institute of Canada, a center that received $20 million from Ottawa to conduct research on climate change, released a report in August on protein. The report suggests a shift from a meat-heavy diet to a more plant-based diet, which would help Canada meet its 2030 and 2050 goals. This study, partially or fully funded by the federal government, is one among many others like this wave.

Admittedly, the science is pretty clear in saying that the production of animal protein emits a lot of greenhouse gases. For milk, beef, pork and chicken, the findings of recent years are quite obvious. But these industries are adjusting and expect to reach ambitious emission targets by 2030 or 2040, and some even plan to become carbon neutral. Maple Leaf Foods, the country’s largest pork processor, has already achieved its carbon neutral target. The industry recognizes that there is work to be done. But it’s a safe bet that our animal choices will become more ecological in the next 10 or 20 years. You have to give them time to adjust.

Eating involves personal and cultural choices. Seeing a political party use protein and food as a tool to fight climate change creates unease among some voters. Currently, more than 90% of Quebecers eat meat on a regular basis. Humans have been eating meat for millennia. Over time in the West, as we adopted new diets with lower levels of this or higher levels of that, we never pushed public institutions to ban the consumption of any food, especially meat. The approach has always followed an inclusive attitude. Playing with our culinary mores becomes an extremely dangerous game.

Food remains an intrinsically personal choice. In 1967, Pierre E. Trudeau declared that there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. He was right, but his words should also apply to our kitchens.

The state has the right to guide us in our food choices through education and awareness campaigns. However, food should be prioritized, not politicized. Imposing choices on our plates goes beyond the limits of a democracy that respects its people.