Commoditization is all around us. Health care is being commoditized, media is being commoditized, and even veganism is being commoditized. Is this a problem?
Actually, yes, it is a big problem. Initially we might think that vegan commodities can compete in the marketplace with the best non-vegan commodities, and that vegan ideas can also compete in the marketplace of ideas. We certainly should try to advance veganism in whatever ways we can, but commoditization has serious adverse effects both on veganism and on society at large. I want to explain why this is, so that we can explore ways of dealing with it.
What is commoditization? Check out, if you can find it, the book Privileged Goods by Jack Manno. (Try interlibrary loan.) You can get the basics of his thesis, which he elaborates at length, in just the first few chapters. His basic point is that some things make good commodities, and others don’t. Things that are standardized, easily transported, can easily be assigned property rights, have embedded energy and knowledge, and are stable and predictable, etc., make good commodities.
Here are two lists of things which fill similar needs. (This is taken from Manno’s book, p. 27). First is a list of some high commodity potential goods, and then there is a second list of things in the same general category of needs which are low commodity potential goods.
High Commodity Potential
Mass marketed drugs
Low Commodity Potential
Knowledge of soils
Knowledge of healing
Life style changes
Energy conservation strategies
Our economic system favors the first list over the second, even when items from the second list might be a better answer to the actual need involved. This leads to distortions in the economy. Is it a problem? You bet. Take a quick look at the problems our society faces, then think about the above two lists. Manno discusses this dispassionately and in some depth in his book, which is really worth reading for this reason.
So does this affect veganism? Yes, and here are three examples.
1. The marketing of medicine.
The way to make money in medicine is through big ticket items and standardized treatments like bariatric surgery and pills. It is hard to make money at being a vegan expert, even if you are somewhat famous like Dr. McDougall. Can they make money at what they do? Well, sort of. You can write a book or two, but any author can tell you that even if you are a good writer, this is not the quick route to riches and wealth. There is basically a limited market for this sort of thing.
The basic reason why bariatric surgery sells better than veganism is that what vegans are really selling is knowledge of basic nutrition. That is not something that can even be privately owned. Eating eggs and bacon cheeseburgers is bad; sprouts, grains, lentils, and green leafy vegetables are good. Now you know. This is not something that Mr. Capitalist Entrepreneur can make lots of money doing. You could consult with individuals as an M. D. or a nutritionist, but even that takes special training, and is not something that can be mass marketed and standardized, and even then it is not a “big ticket” item like surgery.
The marketing of medicine is Exhibit A of the problems that commoditization creates for vegans.
2. Magazine articles and the mass media
James McWilliams’ recent blog “Vapid” explores this problem:
Big media generally relish stories that challenge the status quo, but here’s the rub: only so long as advertisers aren’t threatened. I’ve heard from several reliable sources—one of them an editor at a major magazine—that advertisers have become so dominant in print media that they’re now insisting their ads run next to “upbeat” stories. Ever wonder why foodie magazines dedicated to the world of cuisine won’t go near an article questioning the ethics of eating animals? Advertising would vanish. One editor who’s published some of my writing on-line has claimed that my articles would “sink” a mainstream print magazine. I realize this may be old news for an adbuster generation, but it bears repeating.
Uh, I rest my case. The basic message is that anything that’s critical of the status quo of our industrial civilization is going to have a hard time making in the mainstream media: it doesn’t sell the ads that go with it. But most of the problems in our society could be dealt with in ways that not only don’t involve making money, but would threaten the abilities of people who are currently making money (by peddling pills and death) to continue making money.
3. Vegan diets and Tofurky.
Commoditization even leads to distortions in vegan diets and activism. It’s easier to buy meat and dairy analogs like Tofurky and soy milk, than it is to throw together a good soup, make your favorite salad, or try out the latest in Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. Now I’m not above eating Tofurky on occasion, but basically a lot of “mass produced” vegan food just isn’t that good for you, and people need to understand this.
Outreach is one time when commoditization may actually work to the vegans’ advantage. You can just point to the supermarket shelf and say, “here, buy this,” and you’re done. Some outreach groups promoting veganism will specifically promote these off-the-shelf products, for example VegFund, which suggests this sort of food sampling:
You should serve samples that are eye-opening to non-vegans and will help them transition away from animal products. Examples include vegan mock meats, non-dairy milks, vegan cheese or ice cream, and vegan versions of egg-based products (e.g., tofu scramble).
But it is widely recognized within the vegan community that these off-the-shelf foods aren’t usually the best. Many experienced vegans will smile and roll their eyes when you talk about meat analogs. Better than meat, they will say, but not the best way to “do” veganism. But, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, these off-the-shelf products aren’t always healthy. In fact, some of them, that use soy protein isolate, are downright unhealthy.
I’m not suggesting that we stop doing food sampling with Tofurky. However, it is a problem, because we want healthy vegans. We also want people not just to become vegans, but to remain vegans. For this to happen, you need more than Tofurky. Once people are introduced to veganism and see how easy it can be, then we can bring them to the next step, which is knowledge of healthy foods and how to cook and live vegan. Fortunately, there is a whole vibrant community of activists and individuals (Meetup groups and the like) who can be relied upon to furnish this sort of ongoing education.
Commoditization is a general problem, not just a problem for vegans. Our culture is a consumer culture and everything has been commercialized. This is a problem first of all because sometimes something that can’t be readily commoditized is actually the best answer to a need. But all the energy, money, and resources are going to the things that can be commoditized. It’s also a problem because this kind of exploitation of nature just can’t continue anyway, because we’ve cut up, dried up, exhausted, and sold off most of the earth already. Environmentalists have been talking about this basic problem for decades. No one has been paying attention (there’s no market for it! except perhaps selling solar panels), and now the bill has come due.
Veganism is a necessary part of the solution. Veganism isn’t something you get off the shelf; it’s a way of life. This is the ultimate message we should be promoting.
I disagree with part of this article. The evidence does not show that that meat analogs and other vegan products are “bad for you.” In fact nutritionist Jack Norris, in his new book, Vegan For Life, recommends keeping these items in your vegan diet. The high concentration of proteins in these products is important for optimal health. They can roll their eyes all they want, but the fact is veggie proteins do not absorb as effectively from the direct plant sources. Other key ingredients such as D2, B12, iron and vitamin A absorb better from cooked and processed foods. Research now shows vegans need 2 X the vitamin A as previously believed. Norris recommends fruit juices like carrot juice that are high in A. A combination of raw, cooked and processed foods works best for vegans. I would not dare take Silk with Omega out of my diet.
The point of the article is not to make a point about nutrition, but rather about economics. My statement that “a lot of ‘mass produced’ vegan food just isn’t that good for you” is a broad generalization, and sure there are exceptions (tempeh, vitamin B-12 pills), but in general I think it’s obviously true and I doubt that Jack Norris or anyone else would disagree. Think Earth Balance and Coca-Cola versus collards and black beans. Uh, which of these are the most profitable? Think about it.
For that matter, think about “knowledge of basic nutritional principles.” This is something which is more relevant to your health than any single food, and isn’t even a food at all. It can’t be easily marketed, and therefore goes begging in the marketplace of ideas.
Thanks for this article, Keith. I certainly understand and appreciate your points about commoditization. I agree with most if not all.
We transitioned to a plant-based diet three months ago following an introduction to the work of Drs. Neil Barnard, Colin T. Campbell, and Caldwell Esselstyn. So, just cut out the animal products, right? Nope. Far from it. Dr. Barnard recommends you eat: 8 servings of whole grains, 4 of vegetables, 3 of legumes, and 3 of fruit EVERY day. Try that. There’s just no much room left for foods that are not nutritionally dense. Now that meat has been off the table for a while, I no longer even think in terms of meat/non-meat when planning meals. Instead I’m asking whether I have incorporated enough of each of the above foods. It’s about what I AM eating, not what I’ve eliminated. That may be a subtle shift, but it is huge, and it didn’t happen all at once. At first all I could think about is: What will I eat “instead”? In our culture, meat is literally the sun around which all other foods revolve, so that cutting animal products from the diet does have a genuinely disorienting effect. But give it time and experience and the menus begin to organize themselves. Food prep is a huge issue for us beginners. A friend of mine said recently: “There is so much chopping!” I’ve learned to plan ahead, and not to try to do it all at once, right before we want dinner. This can actually make meal prep more convenient than in the past, but is a real speed bump in the beginning. Meat-centered meal prep has a different timing and rhythm.
Now I enjoy the vibrant taste of fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains, and have found so many ways to combine them, I seldom even think about meat. My spouse was more of a meat-eater than I ever was, and still misses it, but can’t stand most meat analogs. He, too, would rather eat these other things. His favorite meat “substitute” is actually portobello “steak.”
So, three months into a plant-based diet, the meat analogs mostly sit untouched in the freezer. In the beginning, I made seitan. It, too, sits in the freezer, and I think: I could use that in this or that dish, but why? Eventually, they will surely get eaten. We like a tempeh chili, but I was looking at the fat content on the package the other day….Meat analogs might be compared to the training wheels on a bicycle. Yes, they are helpful, but used less and less as time goes on.
The point I would like to make about commodities(which is, after all, the topic) is that we must continually ask ourselves whether we are using or being used. It is a mental discipline. Anytime I am spending money perhaps I should be asking: Why? Why am I buying this? Do I need it? Is it good for me? For the earth? Who suffered to produce this? Was it made by slave labor? Who do I help by buying this? Local farmers or agribusiness? It matters. Also…could I make or grow this myself? Why don’t I? Yes, as I write this, I have soy milk in the refrigerator, but I also know how to my own rice and nut milks. I don’t have a big vegetable garden yet, but at least have made a small start this year. These things take time.
Keep up the good work, Keith.
I already commented on the article, but wanted to further add that I thought a lot about this topic last week during the IPO of that much-hyped company. Here are folks who like to “monetize” other people’s personal information. Talk about a euphemism. And I thought so many times as I watched the news: what a vast difference between knowledge and data. I guess if you’re Mark Zuckerberg, you believe that the world has changed and now data, not knowledge, is power. And he’s not the only one. No matter where I shop, it seems someone wants to mine me for data by making me fill out a card and then present a store tag every time I shop, or asking for phone numbers and zip codes during cash transactions, and offering me special discounts for surrendering my e-mail address. What gives? So much data. So little knowledge.
So now corporations are people, and people are, what? Something less than that. The sum total of the our monitizable data.