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Magazine Issues » February 2021

Opinion: Natural selections

Fiona_RintoulBefore I sat down to write this column, I was in the garden finishing off tanning a deer hide. This is my life in lockdown, which I have spent on the Hebridean Isle of Harris.

It is a far cry from the life I led 20 years ago when we set up this magazine in the hope of contributing – poor, naïve souls that we were – to an ever-closer union of European financial markets. But in some ways, it is the same. As in my Islington barfly days, I am learning new things that give me a new perspective on life. Tanning the deer hide, for example, made me think about the drive towards plant-based foods that is everywhere in evidence. Liking meat and being viscerally opposed to substitutes, I am surely not the core target market for these foods. I’d rather have chana dhal or chickpea tagine than plant-based meatballs or (say it ain’t so) Beyond Breakfast Sausage® any day – to say nothing of Impossible™ burger patties. Let me be clear: they look utterly rank. 

Beyond personal preference, there is another problem with the plant substitute market, which US financial research firm Investor Place says is estimated to be worth US$3.5 billion by 2026 with “vast” potential for growth. For me, it’s an issue of contents. Beyond Meat’s ingredients include peas, mung beans, faba beans, brown rice, coconut oil, expeller-pressed canola oil, calcium, iron, salt, potassium chloride and beet juice. My question is: why not just eat mung beans? And is a food with added potassium chloride healthy? 

The black-and-white equation of animal bad/plant good is too simplistic, it seems to me. Take my deer hide. It came from an animal that was shot by my neighbour. He was participating in a necessary (and legally required) annual cull of the local deer herd. It is necessary because deer have no natural predators where we are, and the herd will deteriorate if it isn’t culled, which means weaker animals will starve on the hillside. 

It is hard to criticise the cull from an animal welfare point of view. From a dietary point of view, the venison that it delivers is organic, lean, far tastier (I feel sure) than a meat substitute and far more nutritious. From a sustainability point of view, if you use as much of the deer as you can, it provides a substantial supply of high-quality organic meat and a range of by-products, such as hide, bones for stock and, in the case of stags, antlers for buttons and tools. Not everyone can go deer stalking. And not everyone will want to eat snipe breasts for dinner, as my deer-stalker neighbours recently did when their cat delivered a snipe to their doorstep. But isn’t using what is available locally and using it well better than munching meat substitutes? 

As investors, this question brings us to the issue of what constitutes ethical and sustainable investment. It’s partly about personal preference. One person’s repellent artificial burger pattie is another person’s ethical food choice. But it’s also about nuance and not jumping on any passing bandwagon. 

We are drowning in strategies that claim to be ethical or sustainable. Are they? According to investment service provider Willis Owen, it depends. Adrian Lowcock, head of personal investing, says: “There is a lack of clarity on what people are really investing in via the range of funds available, and without thorough research into underlying positions it is very hard for investors to know much beyond the labels on the funds.” 

Time for clear standards. ESG cannot just be a marketing gimmick, or the wave it is currently cresting will quickly crash.

Fiona Rintoul, editor-at-large at Funds Europe

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