Explained: Why popular recipe website Epicurious is banning beef

The meat will be completely shut out of any new content appearing anywhere on the website and on its Instagram feed, although old recipes and articles featuring beef remain available.

On Monday, Epicurious, one of the world’s most popular recipe websites, announced that it will no longer be publishing any beef-related content — recipes, articles, newsletters — as part of its effort to envision a more sustainable way to cook. The meat will be completely shut out of any new content appearing anywhere on the website and on its Instagram feed, although old recipes and articles featuring beef remain available.

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What was the reason behind the decision?

Epicurious said the decision was not “anti-beef” but “pro-planet”, describing the meat as “one of the world’s worst climate offenders”.

A note from the website’s editors stated, “The conversation about sustainable cooking clearly needs to be louder; this policy is our contribution to that conversation.”

It also said the website had actually begun phasing out beef over a year ago, putting out a vegetarian recipe in place of every beef recipe not published, and that the traffic and engagement on those recipes had made it clear that home cooks (primarily American, the website’s target audience) had embraced the change.

How was the news received?

Not unexpectedly, an avalanche of reactions followed the announcement. Epicurious’ decision was welcomed by animal rights and sustainability activists, including People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which described the move as “terrific”. Not surprisingly, given what the website said about traffic and engagement for its non-beef recipes, the move was also applauded by many users on social media, who appreciated the space this opened up for more diverse recipes, especially plant-based.

The overwhelming response, however, was negative. Many users responded on social media by posting photos of their beef dishes, some claiming that “cattle are sustainable” and that their pastures are green spaces that would otherwise be “developed for housing”. Others raised doubts about Epicurious’ “concern for animals” (which was not a reason offered by the website itself) by pointing out that it hadn’t made any move to ban poultry, seafood and other animal proteins.

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Is there any substance to the website’s charge against beef?

It is widely-accepted by the those working in climate science and sustainability that agriculture, particularly animal husbandry, has an outsize impact on the environment, especially when it comes to land use, biodiversity and greenhouse gas production.

According to data from UN Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, 50 per cent of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, of which 77 per cent is used for meat and dairy production. Raising ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats) has a particularly massive impact: for 119.49 sq m of land is used to produce 1,000 kilocalories of beef, compared to 6.61 sq m for poultry, 4.35 sq m for eggs and 1.44 sq m for wheat and rye. Moreover, a significant chunk of this land is used not to raise beef cattle, but to grow crops like soybean for cattle feed. All of this matters, especially in a country like the US (where Epicurious is based), where despite the rising popularity of chicken and greater availability of alternative protein products, 58.8 pounds of beef per person was consumed in 2020, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

But will Epicurious’ decision have any impact?

Perhaps only a little. This is something the editors’ note from Epicurious also acknowledged. “Individual actions … can feel so small they’re essentially pointless. But every time you abstain from beef at the grocery store or a restaurant, you send a signal — to the grocery store, yes, but also, and perhaps more influentially, to whomever you talk to about your decision”, they said.

So sending out a signal about sustainable cooking was why the website announced a decision that it had actually taken a year ago. This may also explain why the reactions from agriculture and meat industry bodies have mostly been muted, with much of the outrage against the decision coming from readers who, in any case, can still access the older beef recipes on the website.

It’s important to note, however, that Epicurious’ decision is part of a larger shift away from animal protein, particularly red meat, as the environmental impact of the global food system becomes clearer. According to a report, ‘Food for Thought: The Protein Transformation’, released last month by the Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corp, the market for alternative meat, seafood and eggs could grow to $290 billion by 2035, making up 11 per cent of the total protein market.

Well-known figures from culture, business and politics, besides environmentalists and climate scientists, have also thrown their weight behind the movement towards a more plant-based diet. For example, in February this year, Bill Gates urged consumers to make the change, saying rich countries should make a 100 per cent switch to plant-based meat to avert the climate crisis. Best Actor Oscar 2020 winner Joaquin Phoenix used his speech to advocate a plant-based diet.

While a purely editorial decision may not immediately convert readers, the signal it sends out, about the need to talk about sustainability when talking about food, is important. As one of the world’s most popular recipe banks, Epicurious is hoping to amplify this conversation.

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