Meat That Never Mooed, Oinked Or Clucked Changes How America Eats
Jennifer Carrico can spin a story of bovine genealogy about every burger she and her two children grill on their sixth-generation farm in central Iowa. She can trace the animal that produced the meat back several generations of cows and bulls bred specifically for traits beef-buying U.S. consumers don’t think about but are responsible for the taste, tenderness, fat content and other qualities that make the hamburger king of the outdoor grill.
But on the East and West coasts — or, really, anywhere in between — the burgers flipped by a growing number of people may be from plant-based “meat.”
These products are showing up in grocery store coolers and freezers alongside hamburger and other cuts of beef, pork and poultry, with the potential to change how America eats.
Along with their growing presence are mounting concerns about the chemicals used to make them look like meat, the potential for environmental damage from tilling up pastures and grasslands, and what a shift from a meat-based to a plant-based diet could mean for the $1.02 trillion U.S. meat and poultry industry.
Soy burgers and other non-meat proteins have been available for years, but usually fell flat in taste tests. But now plant-based meat is clearly having a moment. Not uncoincidentally, climate change is having the same moment.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat aren’t the only players in the fake meat market, but the two Silicon Valley companies in particular are shaking things up for meat producers. Between them, the two companies have teamed with a long list of fast-food chains, including Burger King, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Dunkin’, Carl’s Jr. and its sister company, Hardees, to get their non-meat meats before more consumers.
Not everyone loves the Impossible Burger, one of the new lab-created offerings, but some food critics, journalists and everyday consumers say its taste and texture mimic a beef burger closely enough that it can compete with the real thing.
That’s setting off a sizzling debate about the future of food production, and a burning fear among cattle, poultry and hog farmers that they’re being pushed away from America’s dinner table.
“On many levels, it’s a new and different competitor.”
— Jennifer Carrico, farmer, cattle producer and ag journalist
Carrico, an ag journalist and former longtime editor for the High Plains Journal, said a way of life for her family and other farmers and ranchers won’t disappear immediately. But fake meat that looks a lot like the products raised on hoof is seen by the farmers and ranchers she talks to as a palpable threat.
“Beef and cattle producers have always thought of their competitors as being other livestock producers of other meat proteins,” Carrico said in a phone interview from her farm about 40 miles west of Des Moines, Iowa. “Now all of a sudden there’s this other competitor — an actual product with ingredients that can potentially be used in livestock feed products. On many levels, it’s a new and different competitor.”
In other words, livestock producers are not only competing with meat-substitute manufacturers for Americans’ food dollars, but also for crops they’d typically feed their livestock — for example, soybeans added to the ration for protein.
No Animal Meat After 2035
The burgeoning simulated meat industry is backed by billionaires and influencers. Technology tycoon Bill Gates has invested in both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, and Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone are investors in Beyond Meat, which is publicly traded on the NASDAQ. Impossible Foods has kicked around the idea of an initial public offering.
Impossible Foods boldly states its aim: to end animal meat production by 2035. To accomplish its goal, the company says it will have to double production, sales and reach for at least the next 16 years.
The company didn’t respond to Patch’s repeated requests for comment, but says on its website that growing animals for food is “prehistoric and destructive technology” that has put the planet on the brink of “ecological disaster.”
Beyond Meat’s argument in favor of plant-based proteins has less sting than Impossible Food’s animal-meat-production-is-the-devil line. But the company makes clear it wants to bring about a fundamental shift in American meal planning.
The company has a “deep and sincere respect for the way of life of American ranchers as hardworking stewards of vast amounts of our lands,” spokeswoman Sarah Waldrop said in an emailed statement to Patch. “The transition that is occurring at the American dinner table offers a unique opportunity, in our view, to usher in a more sustainable and profitable future for agriculture.”
“Now, finally, this disastrously resource-intensive and inefficient system is being recognized by environmentalists and, increasingly, by the public for what it is: a destructive and unnecessary technology.”
—Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown
Livestock producers have been battered for years by activists who call out animal cruelty and pollution-spewing large feeding operations. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have for the most part stayed out of the polarizing animal-rights debate, appealing directly to Americans who are worried about climate change.
The message resonates especially among a generation of younger Americans who have experienced first-hand the effects of a warming climate and think it will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes.
A University of Michigan study comparing the environmental costs of quarter-pound plant-based and beef burgers found the former requires 99 percent less water and 93 percent less land, results in 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires only about half the energy to produce.
The findings showcase that “shifting the protein at the center of the plate to plant-based meat is one of the most powerful things people can do to positively impact climate change,” Waldrop said.
Impossible Foods, which says 93 percent of its customers regularly eat steak and other meat products, makes similar claims. In fact, the company says, if everyone who ate a beef burger in 2018 had eaten a plant-based burger instead, it would have saved the equivalent of:
Beef and dairy cattle, hogs and poultry have sat for so long at the top of the protein food chain they’re “taken for granted as an indispensable part of the global food system” that couldn’t be toppled, Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown wrote in a founder’s statement on the company’s website.
“Now, finally, this disastrously resource-intensive and inefficient system is being recognized by environmentalists and, increasingly, by the public for what it is: a destructive and unnecessary technology,” he wrote. “Yet global demand continues to surge for the foods that have until now been produced using animals — and their catastrophic impact on climate, water resources, biodiversity and ecosystem integrity keeps skyrocketing. Awareness isn’t enough; we need urgent action.”
Don’t Close The Barn Door Just Yet
It’s undeniable that livestock production and farming in general are big contributors to global warming and other environmental problems, including emissions of the greenhouse gas methane, which has about 30 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.
Belching and, to a far lesser extent, flatulence by cattle, goats, sheep and other ruminants are culprits in increased methane emissions, but a recent Cornell University study concluded increased fracking associated with fossil fuel production is the No. 1 methane emitter.
“Methane levels have been rising rapidly over the past decade,” Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “The shale gas boom in the U.S. is the single largest culprit, making up one third of the increase in all fluxes of methane globally from all sources.”
Ruminant animal production is a close second, accounting for about 27 percent of methane emissions in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The manure pits at confined animal feeding operations are responsible for 9 percent of methane emissions, the agency said.
Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Meats play up methane gas emissions, but neither company takes into account the damage of soil erosion when traditional row crops or vegetables are planted on hilly, sloped land, Carrico said, pointing to published research that shows much of the land currently dedicated to livestock operations “is not capable of raising plant life to the extent that you would be able to harvest a crop.”
“If you take away livestock and meat production, quite honestly, there’s not going to be enough food.”
— Jennifer Carrico
Soil erosion is hardly an inconsequential side effect. Topsoil, a nonrenewable resource needed to grow crops, will disappear entirely in 50 or 60 years if nothing is done to check erosion, according to a United Nations report.
Carrico said sodbusting pastures and fragile grasslands to grow the ingredients for simulated beef and other meats is counter-productive, adding “knowing what’s possible on your ground is important.”
That’s why Carrico, who has a bachelor’s degree in animal science, grazes cattle on hilly, sloped land that’s prone to soil erosion and wouldn’t do well in row crops.
“It’s a misconception, really, that livestock is taking up ground” that could be converted to grow plant-based proteins, Carrico said, adding, “We’re not here to cause problems. This is a way of life. This is a way of feeding the world.”
The World Resources Institute estimates food production will have to increase by 56 percent between now and 2050 to feed the world’s population.
“If you take away livestock and meat production, quite honestly, there’s not going to be enough food,” Carrico said.
The Politics Of Plant-Based Meat
Coupled with nagging worries that a growing number of Americans are “agriculturally illiterate” — for example, a survey a couple of years ago showed 16 million people think chocolate milk comes from brown cows — farmers and ranchers aren’t brushing off plant-based meats with the same tepidity as they did the cardboard-textured soy burgers of a few years ago.
One tactic has been to force the issue in state legislatures where agriculture is still a primary driver of the economy. Livestock industry groups say they’re fine with letting Americans decide what’s for dinner, as long as truth-in-labeling levels the field of competition.
Particularly irksome in beef country is Beyond Meat’s logo.
“Beyond Meat Beefy Crumbles has a picture of a cow on the front and says ‘plant-based’ in very small lettering at the bottom,” Mike Deering, a cattle rancher and the executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, told The Washington Post. “I’m a dad and I’m going through the grocery store before one of my boys has a meltdown, and [if] I pick up that package that says beef with a picture of a cow on it, I’m going to buy it.”
Waldrop, Beyond Meat’s spokeswoman, declined to address concerns the label is deliberately misleading, but said the company is “staunchly in favor of truth in labeling and complete transparency with customers, so we always make sure the words ‘plant-based’ are among the largest font on our package.”
Labeling laws that prohibit plant-based meat companies from using words like “meat,” “burger,” “sausage” and “jerky” are on the books in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Wyoming. About two dozen other states are considering regulating how plant-based meat companies brand their products.
Missouri’s law is one of the strictest, making violation a criminal offense punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. And the American Civil Liberties Union, the Good Food Institute (a nonprofit promoting plant-based meat) and the Animal Legal Defense Fund said in a lawsuit filed in July the labeling law in Arkansas violates the First and Fourteenth amendments.
But Is Fake Meat Good For You?
Plant-based meats may be good for the planet, but some consumer groups say they’re not that good for humans. Fake meats are loaded with chemicals, according to the Center for Consumer Freedom, whose analysis showed more than 50 additives — including:
Waldrop said the company stands behind the integrity of its ingredients and processes and says its Beyond Burger has more protein and iron, less total fat and 25 percent less saturated fat than a beef burger that contains 20 percent fat. There’s no cholesterol, antibiotics or hormones in the product, and it’s made from simple, non-GMO plant-based ingredients, she said.
“We believe it is a tale of two processes between industrial livestock production and our approach of bypassing the animal to build burgers directly from plants, a process that is far more sustainable and humane than traditional livestock production,” Waldrop said.
The Center for Consumer Freedom said the chemicals in simulated meat are in small enough quantities that they are “probably not” harmful in the small quantities used, “but people may want to avoid them anyway,” especially if they’re clean food aficionados.
“So,” the organization said, “if fake meat companies or their marketing surrogates tell you fake meat is natural and healthy for you and your family — make up your own mind about whether that’s true.”
Carrico is sticking with “the actual beef.” Animal-derived foods are the only reliable dietary source of vitamin B12, a nutrient that keeps nerve and blood cells healthy.
“I’m not saying you need to have it three meals a day,” she said, “but it’s a healthy product that keeps you healthy.”
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