The impossible logic of the Impossible Burger

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Before you believe plant-based ‘fake meats’* are good for your body – or even our planet – please, read on!
 
Fake meat mania is here – and everyone wants a piece of the “plant-based” action. You have to work hard to escape the daily buzz in the news. And follow the money – it’s been flowing for well over a year. From institutional investors to celebrity investors, and large food corporations like Cargill, Tyson, Nestle, Unilever, etc – all are salivating over the opportunity to take a bite out of the $1.4 trillion meat industry.
 
The latest plant-based meat offerings are hard to miss – they’re now at supermarkets and coming soon to an ever-growing roster of fast-food chains. Fake meat long ago debuted at ‘fancy’ restaurants. Everyone’s doing it. 
 
(Morningstar Farms must be face-palming every. single. day. 🤦‍♀️)
 
And it’s all in the name of “sustainability”.. Or is it?
 
Much media coverage to date has focused on the not-so-virtuous health aspects of the plant-based fake meats.
 
In short: Media has confirmed fake meat’s not much healthier for you than feedlot meat, plus it’s super processed with many more ingredients and processing steps vs ‘real meat’.
 
Ok, we get that. But why aren’t we talking about the deeper environmental implications?
 
There’s been much ado about fake meat being a “sustainable” solution we need for food. Company reports tout the “lower” carbon-footprint of these solutions.
 
But eater beware: numerous scientists say we’re not getting the full story on health and environmental impacts1.
 
Because yes, these solutions can be ultra-processed. And all that processing can be chemical-intense and energy-intense.
 
Another criticism is that sustainability assessment reports fail to include not only all of the energy-intense processing but also the industrial farming processes and inputs behind the plant-based ingredients. Take soy grown to produce protein products, for example. The soy requires pesticides, herbicides, and nitrogen-fixing fertilizers – all of which wreak havoc on soil ecology and contribute to a perpetuating vicious cycle. Not so sustainable.
 

Scientists at the University of Arizona created an assessment to include all parts of soy protein (isolate) production. In the end, they determined that the environmental impact of soy protein production was actually worse than whole animal meats like pork and chicken and that it was exactly equivalent to industrial beef agriculture2. Surprised?

Straight from their report: “This work demonstrates that it should not be assumed that every plant-based food would be better than an equivalent animal-based food when comparing environmental impacts.”
 

Here’s a summary of the key environmental and sustainability concerns regarding fake meat: 

  1. The benchmark to evaluate “sustainability” is exceptionally low. It’s based on industrial feedlot meat, which is the vicious cycle responsible for an estimated 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions3. It’s worth noting not all meat is made in this manner, so we need to understand exactly what’s being said when we hear “it’s more sustainable than meat”.
  2. Much of the supply chain for fake meats relies on unsustainable inputs or processes (e.g. pesticides & herbicides used to grow soy = vicious cycle in soil ecology; energy requirements to maintain homeostasis (temperature, sterile conditions) for lab-raised ‘meats’).  
  3. We need to prioritize biodiversity and soil fertility over soil destruction. Our obsession with singular crops and products can proliferate monocropping &/or increased carbon footprint via shipping requirements.  (America can’t provide all the yellow peas needed to supply Beyond Meat’s rapidly expanding distribution partners – where’s all that pea protein gonna come from? I’m cautiously optimistic they’ll bring other legumes into the mix, but concerned we’ll still get overly fixated on singular ingredients) 
  4. Escalating pressure on the small-to-midsize farms to follow suit, “get big, or get out”. Again, diversity makes us stronger; yet in farming, it seems only the big (or the sell-outs) can survive.
 
I’ll pause to say I’m not here to pass judgment on whether or not you decide to eat fake meat. My point is to ensure you can make that decision – eyes wide open and educated in the nuance – and to understand that the current fake meats might not be as sustainable as folks are expecting. They’re still ‘net emitters’.
 
That’s a far cry from reported net-zero pasture-based systems that a small handful of regenerative and biodynamic farmers are practicing.
 
A study earlier this year found a Georgia pasture-based farm actually contributed back more good into the soil vs the total emissions from the cows across their entire lifetime4. That’s right, this was a negative footprint farm. The process is carbon trapping AKA ‘carbon sequestration’, and the system is also called a ‘carbon sink’, much preferred over the alternative ‘carbon faucet’ (a la industrial meat)!
 
Similar promise in “carbon farming” and “carbon ranching” has been lauded for years in California, where the focus is on replenishing the land and soil, storing up carbon in the ground through a combination of grass and grazing. Reportedly, the grass is capable of pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere and into the soil where it can be stored long term
 
Constituents of such practices hold the soil as sacred and eschew industrial practices required to proliferate plant-based fake meats. 
 
Of course, pasture isn’t the end-all solution – no single solution could be. There’s only so much land. Yet isn’t it refreshing to know we can restore the little that we have?  
 
Bottom line: If you want to try fake meat, decide on the merit of taste, curiosity, or novelty. Just don’t do it in the name of health – for yourself or the earth.
 
The best move for sustainability – and your health – is to eat more real plants (vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and legumes) and small amounts of wild and sustainable animal proteins if you wish — all as local as possible, of course!  
 
I tried plant-based fake sausage recently at a friend’s house. It was in a meal kit she’d bought at the supermarket and tasted like an improved version of the soy meat patties I recall from long ago (hello, Morningstar). But I still detected that distinct ‘processed’ flavor. Meh. 
 
2019 has indisputably (and ironically) become the year of “plant-based meat” (Fans of the hit BBC comedy show “Fleabag” beg to differ, claiming it the year of “Hot Priest”. For now, shall we split the difference and say “impossible love” (or ‘impossible logic’) meets the “Impossible Burger”?!)  
 
 
*For the sake of definition, while we’ve largely focused on plant-based fake-meat, “fake meat” includes lab meat, (AKA “clean meat”), cultured meat, processed ‘plant-based’, soy and/or veggie products, and other so-called alternative meats. 
 

If you enjoyed this article, we think you’ll enjoy: 

The dark side of animal agriculture 

REFERENCES:
 
1. Henchion, Maeve et al. “Future Protein Supply and Demand: Strategies and Factors Influencing a Sustainable Equilibrium.” Foods (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 6,7 53. 20 Jul. 2017, doi:10.3390/foods6070053
2. ISSST, Proc & Berardy, Andrew & Costello, Christine & Seager, Thomas. (2015). “Life Cycle Assessment of Soy Protein Isolate.” 10.6084/M9.FIGSHARE.1517821.
3. “Climate change, air pollution and noncommunicable diseases.” Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, World Health Organization, avenue Appia 20, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland. Retreived at: https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/97/2/18-224295/en/
4. Quantis Report. “CARBON FOOTPRINT EVALUATION OF REGENERATIVE GRAZING AT WHITE OAK PASTURES” Retrieved at: https://blog.whiteoakpastures.com/hubfs/WOP-LCA-Quantis-2019.pdf
 

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