News Round-Up (May 2021)

In this news round-up, we analyse the COVID-19 vaccine ramp up in Canada and Epicurious's ban on beef.

The acceleration across the country of vaccine campaigns against COVID-19 dominated news this past week. With increased volume and stability in shipments from Pfizer and Moderna, the province of Ontario now expects to vaccinate up to 65 percent of adults in the province by the end of May, with the federal government expecting that there will be enough first doses for all wanting one by the nation’s birthday.

This reflected in updates to vaccination schedules in pretty much all health units, making the shot available earlier to the general population, including children 12 and up in some areas based on the latest guidance from Health Canada. These are welcome news to public health officials and to everyone wishing to get a vaccine for personal and social reasons.

The COVID Vaccine Just Got Real. How Do We Think About This?

As this happens, here are three things to consider. The first one is that the vaccination against COVID-19 remains an optional and very personal decision. I celebrate the fact that Canadian governments aren’t making this mandatory, despite being a believer and an advocate for these vaccines and the science behind them myself. The decision must remain personal, and it isn’t simply a matter of knowledge or education. There are several perfectly acceptable reasons why people may hesitate to get vaccinated. As usual, empathy, careful listening and actually understanding what is at the root of a person’s hesitation will go further than just assuming that your reluctant friend or relative needs more information.

Second, there’s no doubt that there will be tension between this personal aspect and the broader social implications. In fact, etiquette experts and academics are already shaping a “vaccine etiquette” around what is appropriate to ask and how to answer questions on this delicate topic. And people will have questions, especially as workers return to workplaces and social gatherings resume hopefully later this year. If I walk into a meeting room or an indoor dinner, and many people around me aren’t wearing masks – am I allowed to ask if they’re all vaccinated? Are they expected to answer? I’m sure you can come up with strong reasons for and against each possible answer here. Many of us will be involved in conversations like this soon; now would be a good time to think through our arguments and check how will our worldview inform our approach.

Which leads me to the third issue to consider: this is undoubtedly a worldview issue. Our philosophies, our belief systems, will select the questions that we care about on this topic and shape the ways we answer them. From a Christian perspective, I can recommend an article by Dr Albert Mohler titled “Vaccines and the Christian Worldview: Principles for Christian Thinking in the Context of COVID.” Dr. Mohler wrote this article in December 2020, but I think it’s timely now, as we come closer to making a personal decision on the vaccine in Canada. He offers seven points to consider, including the theological arguments for medicine, ethical concerns on the use of fetal cell lines in vaccine research, the role of government, and common good and priority access concerns.

Here’s where I stand on this. I intend to get the vaccine as soon as it is available to me. I understand and respect that not everyone will do so, and it’s not my place to question, chastise or ridicule those who disagree with me. I would only suggest very humbly that everyone would carefully think, consider and justify their reasons on this topic.

“Climatarians:” Behind Epicurious’s Ban on Beef

Speaking of topics, other relatively recent news that caught my attention was the decision by famed food site Epicurious to stop publishing new beef recipes, and to no longer promote beef in future articles, newsletters and their social media, out of environmental concerns. In the blog post explaining the new policy, Epicurious editors explained that “what we cook and how we cook it is a powerful action that anybody can take to fight climate change.” They also said that this would allow them to “focus [their] recipes on more climate-friendly foods.” The company’s official stance is that people should consider reducing their beef intake, not necessarily eliminating it altogether. However, the internet has erupted with a wide range of opinions on this, from “it makes no sense” to “it’s not enough.”

I find this fascinating. There are many reasons to adjust your diet: health, budget, religion… To bring climate change into it is very interesting, though of course not at all new. If you’ve been following the evolution of plant-based meat substitutes, you’ll know that beef has a reputation for being greenhouse– and water– intensive. With no intent to discredit them, I find the greenhouse gas numbers tricky to parse. Epicurious quotes a 2013 United Nations report that states 15 percent of global greenhouse emissions come from livestock, with 61 percent of it traceable to beef. This would seem to imply that beef – its production – is directly responsible for 10 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Another article on the site, quoting climate journalist Mary Anaisse Heglar, states that beef is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases in the American diet. But other sources claim that the carbon-sequestering benefits of grass-fed cows' feeding fields isn’t properly factored here. This is typical of the climate change debate. There is science on both sides of the argument, or at least claims to it. It’s a very polarized and politicized topic.

What I really find interesting here is what this tells me, yet again, about worldviews. Every significant decision we make stems from our worldview. And to be very clear, this announcement is all about climate change. Again, this could have been about health or the economy or reasons of consciousness – but it’s none of that. Announcing the measure, the site said, “our shift is solely about sustainability – about not giving air time to one of the world’s worst climate offenders.” (That is, beef.)

The second thing is that we will inevitably want to speak about our world views. Epicurious has a large platform, with close to 800,000 followers on Instagram alone, and an estimated 5 million pages served every month; and they don’t have a track record of socially minded announcements and changes. They’re not climate activists. To be sure, there’s no dearth of climate strikers and lobbyists and fans. What’s remarkable here is who is this coming from. Either they saw really good business on this – say, from sponsorships by plant-based meat-substitute companies – or they truly believe that this matters. And I think it’s both. I wouldn’t rule out their conviction at all. The site actually started down this path in 2019, carefully measuring traffic to beef alternative recipes, like vegan burgers, all along. They simply decided to announce it now. This is what we do with our worldviews; we seek to share them. This is why your running friend won’t stop talking about her runs. Why your investor friend can’t stop sharing the latest tweaks to his dividend portfolio. And it’s why your Christian friend keeps seeing Jesus in every nook and cranny and telling you about it. Our worldviews inform our decisions, define and measure our success, and we want to share what we consider good and valuable with those around us.

And here is the most important thing: worldviews are inherently moral. It’s not just a matter of behaviours, of things we can choose to do, of things that will keep us safe or make us feel good or give us inspiration or motivation or hope. Our worldviews inform what we consider right or wrong. We may not seek to impose or convince others of our beliefs, but we do want to share them, and ideally see them influence and shape the environment around us. In a follow-up article, Epicurious speaks to the balance between seemingly meaningless personal sacrifices and contributions, and the impact of policy. Quoting directly from that article: “It’s true that truly tackling the precarious state of our environment will require policy. But policy isn’t just at the state and national level. Rather, it’s everywhere: at your local college, at your place of worship, at your place of work. Epicurious’s ban on beef is policy too.”

You may find this important, or you may find it amusing or irrelevant. Whatever the case, we can have this conversation because of the fundamental rights and freedoms of conscience, speech and press. Something to think about next time you’re evangelizing your worldview, or considering where, when and how should others be allowed to espouse theirs.

Is there a Christian aspect to this whole beef eating thing? There’s enough mention of food in the Bible to fill a whole episode. The summary is that Jesus made it clear that all foods are allowed to Christians. You can argue that Acts 15 qualifies that by excluding blood products. But in any case, the standing doctrine on this comes from Paul, who makes it clear in Romans 14 and 1st Corinthians 8 that these are matters of conscience: things deeply and personally held, and not to be used to accuse someone or to minimise their faith. Now, it is true that in Eden Adam and Eve had a plant-based diet. Animals were added in God’s covenant with Noah after the flood. Some Christians understand this to mean that a plant-based diet is closer to the original design of God’s perfect plan. It’s an interesting idea, but it remains a matter of personal conscience – not a doctrinal mandate. Beyond this, there is a broader matter of how we relate to nature, and more specifically how do we think about climate change. In Episode 17, “Naturally” (podcast, article), I elaborate a bit more on these topics.

As for this episode, no food pun intended – but let’s keep it short and sweet. Your worldview influences everything – even your diet, even if you get or skip a vaccine. Keep refining it. Keep deepening it. Keep working hard on respectfully and persuasively conveying it in your public square, and on respectfully and empathetically listening to those of others. You can count me in on that.

Published: May 10, 2021