On September 8, the Better Food Foundation (BFF) hosted a webinar to hear insights from experts on food media’s role in promoting plant-based eating. Panelists in attendance were Food Network champion and vegan chef Priyanka Naik, journalist and advocate Bel Jacobs, Sentient Media’s Jenny Splitter, Better Food Foundation’s Laura Cascada, and Plant Based Treaty’s Nicola Harris. The event served to commemorate BFF’s newly released report “Recipe For Success: How Climate-Conscious Media Should Nudge Readers Toward Plant-Based Recipes.” Over 2,000 recipes pulled from eight media outlets were analyzed to see whether outlets known for sound climate reporting are equally climate-conscious with their food sections. The answer: a resounding no. Only three of the eight had majority meatless recipes, with vegan recipes even less common. The one-hour webinar — moderated by report contributor Claire Hamlett — discussed the results, why outlets fail to prioritize plant-based recipes, and possible solutions to help outlets improve.
Perhaps Harris summarized the issue best when she lamented, “It is promising to see that The Guardian and Washington Post have this intention to offer climate-friendly recipes, but it’s quite shocking in a way that these are the best publications, and they are still pushing meat and dairy recipes. There’s just a lack of consistency. … I went on The Guardian’s recipe page this morning to have a look at what they had, and they’ve got a featured recipe that makes dairy ice cream. They’re telling you to go and buy your condensed milk and stock up on your double cream to make this delicious ice cream, and it’s so out of alignment and at odds with some of the brilliant reporting they’ve done.”
Bel Jacobs agrees, quick to point out how media shape our perception of the world — though not in a responsible manner: “They push key stories we really need to know very far down the agenda.” But that’s precisely why connecting with individual consumers is so important, rebutted Naik. Because we can’t rely on mass media companies to do what’s right, getting consumers to willingly and proactively reduce meat and dairy intake is important work. While we wait in vain for news conglomerates to put their money where their mouths are, taking a fun, human interest approach to cooking can expand people’s imaginations and transform their daily habits. That’s why Naik intentionally collaborates with omnivorous food content producers to engage omnivorous audiences and introduce them to new meal ideas and new culinary techniques.
She continued, “A lot of my work focuses on using mass media like the Washington Post or TV or my online platform to get people excited about cooking and thinking about food differently and not just thinking about food as that three-segmented plate that they kind of shared in the ’60s and ’70s in America where… you had a giant protein (which is meat) at the center of the plate and you have a carb on the side and a vegetable on the side.” Raised by Indian immigrant parents, Naik says that the United States “is the only place I know that really eats like that and has that perspective … so my mission is to sort of dismantle that.”
According to Plant Based Treaty’s Harris, consumers are hungry for an update. “A number of polls [suggest] that in Britain maybe half the population’s either abstaining from meat or they’re taking active steps to reduce intake, and that could be for a number of reasons: animal rights, health, the climate. And so I think that gives media outlets a mandate to act and take on this role to help shift behavior and encourage people to eat plant-based food. I feel people are ready for it. People do want to help solve the problem.” But do they know how to help?
“Often when people are polled about what climate actions have the most impact,” Harris continued, “things like recycling and turning off the tap when you brush your teeth seem to score very high, but plant-based food is often near the bottom because people don’t really understand the huge impact that it has. So I think the media have a role in communicating science and policy. They’re very influential. I guess they’re like the original influencers, and so I think given that we are in this climate emergency, they have a moral duty and responsibility to help shift the behavior of everyone and communicate the seriousness of the climate crisis.”
Naik believes it often comes down to the judgment of a single editor. In her experience, it’s often one individual who chooses whether to feature/include something, and if a content creator cares about these issues and wants to produce ethical content (as Naik does), they’ll have to self-advocate and work to persuade editors. Jacobs attempts to do just that: “In all my articles I will find a way to mention nature or climate or animals. We have to find a way to fit in these narratives.”
But Nicola Harris wants more than a mention. “There just needs to be this big shift, and I think it needs to go through the whole heart of the organisation down to what are they serving in their canteens? Do they have plant-based menus there? Are they using Greener By Default? Because if they’re not living it themselves, how are we going to expect it to trickle through into the publications?”
“I think we need to see the editors be brave and come out and advocate for policies,” insists Harris. “Newspapers take positions on all sorts of political topics. Why not food? Why not come out and say what we need to hear?”
Why not indeed? Many feel as though social norms are the answer. “Even a restaurant reviewer will probably feel that he or she has to review a meat-based dish, says Jacobs. “It’s almost like meat is highly legitimized in these areas.” Better Food Foundation’s Cascada concurs. Even if plant-based food is as tasty, affordable, and accessible as animal products, at the end of the day, “there are a lot of people who aren’t going to choose the plant-based options because it doesn’t feel normal to them, it doesn’t feel like what they’re used to, the people around them aren’t eating it. So whether we like it or not, we’re really shaped by norms. Our behavior is shaped by what the people around us are doing.”
In the case of food writers and news editors, of course, it’s a matter of what they’re not doing. We all inhabit a mediascape curated by writers and editors who are choosing not to focus on diet’s connection to larger social issues. They’re not normalizing plant-based cooking. They’re not instructing readers how to cook plant-based food. They’re not reporting on factory farms’ pollution.
Quite frankly, it’s currently normal for environmental reporters to ignore animal agriculture — and there’s data to prove it. A report published earlier this year by Sentient Media and Faunalytics found that only 7% of climate articles mentioned animal agriculture, and they rarely discussed its impact on climate change. Across 1,000 articles, only a handful of stories reported in depth on the connection between animal products and climate change. Most articles that mentioned animal agriculture failed to discuss the environmental degradation caused by the industry, let alone the importance of reducing meat consumption or switching to a plant-based diet to fight climate change.
Sentient’s managing editor Jenny Splitter understands why. Journalism is often governed by reader engagement, and animal agriculture, like climate change, is anything but lighthearted. Diet is often relegated to the lifestyle section rather than being contextualized as part of a global food system, and the lifestyle section is supposed to be fun. Readers might not like reading about climate doom or the gore of factory farming — but Splitter insists that’s no excuse for newsrooms’ failure to mention the connection at all. Reporters can talk about any number of positive things (e.g., how versatile plant-based food is, the carbon reduction potential, or the health benefits of eating a plant-forward diet), but they need to start somewhere. Many, including Bel Jacobs, believe animal exploitation is “one of the key issues of our time.”
“I think in order to move forward into any kind of resilient future we really have to question our position in relation to nature, in relation to other species, in relation to ourselves. [F]or me, animal rights has become — I’m not religious — but it’s almost become a battle for the human soul, [and] the future world that we want to create,” argued Jacobs. “I also see plant-based food — I see veganism — as a multi-pronged tool to address climate emergency, ecological breakdown, animal rights, social justice. I mean, people can fight all of these issues three times a day if that is the diet they choose to adopt.”
You can explore the full results in the report, and watch the hour-long webinar below.
Mikhala Kaseweter serves as Content Manager for the Better Food Foundation.