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The Future is Meatless

Issue 252

Meat has been part of our diets for more than 2 million years. That may soon change.

Peter Rugh Nov 11

It used to be that the worst thing you had to worry about was chlorinated chicken in your soup, fecal matter in your burger, horse parts in your frankfurter. But nowadays, in this age of climate change, when some of us stare down at our foie gras, we wonder just whose goose is being cooked.

Humanity is in the midst of what the writer William Burroughs might have called our “naked lunch,” that “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” There’s near-universal agreement that fossil fuels are the predominant driver of global warming — i.e. the end of humanity as we know it — but wasteful food production, livestock rearing in particular, is a major contributor as well.

Livestock account for 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), much of that from methane-belching bovines on industrial farms.

Meanwhile, Earth’s population is expected to expand to nearly 10 billion people by 2050. Already more than one in 10 people are suffering from chronic malnutrition in a global food economy dominated by corporate monoculture farms that actually yield less than their sustainable counterparts. Nevertheless, there’s already enough food produced on this planet to make every single inhabitant overweight, while an international commodities market that monetizes basic staples cultivates artificial scarcity.

So it’s not more of us that is cause for concern, it’s what we are putting in our bellies. With a third of the planet’s cultivable land currently used to grow livestock feed, meaty diets in Western nations are a big part of the waste in our food system.   

Enter Beyond Meat and Impossible, two of the leading meat-substitute startups aiming to change our diets. Part of the success of these meatless marvels is that they actually taste good. Unlike the previous generation of vegetarian mock-animal, they have nearly the same flavor and texture as their flesh-and-bone inspirations.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘O.K., eat more plants, put more vegetables on your plate,’” says Richard Waite, a research associate at the World Resources Institute (WRI). “But that advice has been around for a while, and vegetable consumption in the U.S. hasn’t really grown in decades. The fact that these new plant-based meats are now out there and they’re trying to mimic the taste and the feel and the texture of meat and are targeted not only at vegans and vegetarians, but at people that like and enjoy meat, is really interesting. It is easier for the consumer to choose that product because it tastes just as good as what they’re used to.” 

For its burgers, Impossible uses genetically-modified heme, an iron-carrying molecule found in most animal and plant life that it extracts from soy. Beyond Burgers come from non-genetically-modified proteins taken from rice, mung beans and peas. Both products look like meat and taste a hell of a lot like it too. They even bleed something resembling myoglobin, the “blood” meat excretes when exposed to heat.

This culinary realism has helped Beyond and Impossible’s offerings migrate from the shelves of natural food stores to those of major grocery outlets, and even to the kitchens of fast-food chains like KFC, Burger King and McDonald’s — the kinds of restaurants one in three Americans eat from every single day. Sales of Beyond Meat products, which are more widely available in supermarkets than those of Impossible, have risen by 257 percent over last year, to $107.5 million so far in 2019. Restaurant sales of meatless alternatives are up 268 percent, according to the Dining Alliance, a restaurant industry research group.

While picking up supplies for a recent barbeque, this reporter witnessed the mouth-watering allure of these faux fetchings firsthand. Looking around the supermarket, I couldn’t find any veggie burgers or dogs. A clerk pointed me to Beyond’s sausages right next to the traditional brats in the fridge. The things looked so realistic that I worried he had steered me wrong. The vegetarians at the BBQ were suspicious too, even as they devoured what I put on their buns.

Over at my local Burger King, I tried some of this fake meat myself, ordering both an Impossible Whopper and its beefy counterpart. Both were fairly mediocre, assembled and packaged with all the love you’d expect people making a sub-living wage, preparing industrially-processed sandwiches to muster. But the Impossible Whopper was a bit less prosaic. And, while the charbroiled flavor that Burger King markets was more pronounced in the traditional patty, the patty itself was dry and tedious to chew. The Impossible Whopper has nearly the same texture you’d expect from meat, only it’s more succulent. Not bad.

There are plenty of reasons to eat less meat, animal cruelty is not the least of them. Photo: Indypendent Staff.

Good enough at least to have ranchers smelling death in the air. Their lobbyists are working diligently to outlaw the use of terms such as burger, jerky and sausage to describe food unless it comes from a living animal. Lawmakers in 25 states have introduced such bills this year, and legislators in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota have already passed them.

While the cow people beef up their attacks on their leafy competition, major meat companies are getting in on the act. Tyson, Purdue and other food giants unveiled veggie versions of their factory-farmed foods this year. It’s what consumers want and it doesn’t hurt that it helps green up their image after years of exposés of animal cruelty, worker abuse, pollution and general filth at the farms they contract with.

“I’ve been inside those chicken houses with 40,000 chickens, and there’s a guy walking around whose job it is to take the dead ones out,” says Fred Magdoff, professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont. “They’re dying all the time. That’s one of the reasons they’re lacing their feed with antibiotics.”

After Nestlé, the world’s largest food conglomerate, introduced a line of ground beef alternatives it’s calling “Awesome” in September, Magdi Badato, the company’s operations chief, linked them with its recently announced commitment to reach zero emissions by 2050.

Given that its soy and beef suppliers are clearing land in places like the Amazon rainforest for farms and ranches and do not report their emissions, how Nestlé plans to reach zero is a bit of a mystery. In reality, Big Meat isn’t going vegetarian, it’s just adding vegetables to a long line of butchered products. Consumption of meatless meat may go up, but its environmental impact will be meaningless if meat-eating continues on its current trajectory.

Globally, meat consumption has risen from about 70 million tons in 1961 to more than 300 million tons today. FAO predicts a 16 percent increase over 2013–2015 levels by 2025.

That’s a tremendous strain on natural resources.

One pound of industrially reared beef requires 1,847 gallons of water, according to the Institute for Water Education, and we eat 68 million tons of it a year. According to a study by the University of Washington’s Department of Animal Sciences, 13.5 pounds of feed, mainly corn and grain, go into one quarter-pound burger. On average, Americans eat two to three quarter-pounders a week worth of ground beef, leaving the same greenhouse gas footprint as 34 coal-fired power plants.

There are rotational methods of pasturing cattle that can be near carbon-neutral. These draw on the ways ruminants graze in the wild, allowing areas of land to regenerate before the herd returns to them. “If you do that well, you are actually stimulating the growth of the grass,” Magdoff says, “which is stimulating the growth of roots, which is stimulating the sequestering of carbon in the soil. The problem is that it is more costly.”

Hence, grass-fed beef is marketed as a high-end product. Whether this animal-rearing method could be scaled up to meet America’s current dietary habits is another matter as well. Feeding the animals exclusively on grass also requires more space. If all cows reared in the United States were to be raised on grass-fed diets, according to the University of Washington study, more than 200,000 square miles of additional land would be required, the equivalent of Colorado and Wyoming combined.

Most ranchers simply allow their cattle to graze expansively, often on land rented on the cheap from the U.S. government out West. Then, in the months leading up to slaughter, the animals are fed corn and soy grown thousands of miles away in nitrogen fertilizer produced with natural gas.

As countries in the Global South increase in affluence, we are all in deep kimchi if they consume meat in any way like the United States, Europe and Japan. Based on current trends, FAO estimates global meat demand will rise 70 percent by 2050 in order to feed a population of 9.8 billion people. That would require additional agricultural land roughly twice the size of India, a recent WRI report warns.

Feeding the planet based on current agricultural practices, Richard Waite and others write, will “entail clearing most of the world’s remaining forests, wiping out thousands more species, and releasing enough GHG emissions to exceed 1.5°C and 2°C warming targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement — even if emissions from all other human activities were entirely eliminated.”

“The majority of the pasture land in the world is either too dry or too cold to grow trees or crops,” says Waite. “So if we’re looking at a 100 percent vegan scenario, that’s a lot of land that’s going to waste that’s producing food. The issue is today, the expansion of beef production is the number one driver of tropical deforestation. The next biggest driver is the expansion of soy production. It’s going to vegetable oil for cooking, but it’s also going to feed for chickens and pigs and farmed fish, and cows, to a smaller extent.”

Plant-based meat looks and tastes like the real thing. Photo: Impossible Foods.

Only about 6 percent of the world’s soy is produced directly for human consumption, says Waite, citing industry statistics, and 85 percent goes to animal feed.

Just as the Anthropocene, an era characterized by humans’ ability to impact the climate through greenhouse gas emissions, has meant a new geological epoch for our planet, the extinction of meat from our diets might signal another stage of human evolution. When a cooler climate at the dawn of the Pleistocene epoch began to put foragable fodder in short supply, our hominid ancestors turned to meat at least 2.6 million years ago. That’s when the first stone-tool butchery marks begin appearing on excavated animal bones.

At first we were scavengers, then we became hunters. We see evidence of the first human-controlled fires one to two million years ago. Barbecuing made the flesh go down easier. Homo erectus developed a shorter digestive tract, enabling her to process energy much quicker. This likely led to the increased brain capacity modern humans make use of today.

Our future might just depend on us using these bigger brains to undo the damage we are doing to the climate, a major part of which will be changing the way we eat.

Meat is a very small portion of diets in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where goats and cows are largely used in rural communities as a form of savings and for dowries. In the United States, we’ve followed a different trajectory. The meat industry grew with America’s genocidal path west. Hunter-gatherer communities on the Great Plains were eviscerated to make way for ranchers who shipped their cattle east to the new industrialized meat-processing plants in cities like Chicago.

Poet Carl Sandburg famously described the city as the “Hog Butcher for the World.” In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair took a less romantic view, depicting the stomach-churning cruelty the slaughterhouses visited on worker and animal alike in vivid detail. The book inspired more than a few to go vegetarian (and socialist) when it first appeared in 1905. But it did little to stem the tide of cheap protein by then flooding American gullets.

Today we ingest far more meat than our early ancestors ever did, and it is killing us. Researchers have linked red and processed meats to a whole host of illnesses, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, colorectal cancer, dyslipidemia and Type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, nutritionists generally recommend diets that are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and high in complex carbohydrates and fiber.

What do you know, as the folks at the Good Food Institute (GFI) point out in a not-yet-published report provided to The Indypendent, that Impossible Whopper I ate the other day checks all those boxes when compared to the real thing? Were I to ask that they hold the mayo, it would have contained no cholesterol at all.

While this new generation of meat alternatives may contain veggies, they are still processed foods. Both Beyond and Impossible’s burgers consist of multiple ingredients, including benign additives with scary-sounding names.

Yet think about what goes into the meat most Americans eat. The packaging on that chicken or beef or pork tenderloin you are purchasing may just list the meat itself, but it also contains antibiotics and growth hormones, which are commonly used in the industrial animal-rearing process. Data Consumer Reports obtained last year showed that the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service found traces in meat of the anesthetic ketamine and phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory deemed too risky for humans. In a 2015 study, the publication also found evidence of fecal matter in all 300 samples of ground beef it tested.

By all accounts, plant-based meats are healthier for both the planet and our bodies. But don’t hang your head in shame if you aren’t ready to forsake turkey this Thanksgiving, says Waite.

“It’s more about a rebalancing of what’s on the plate, at least in higher-income countries where we are consuming a lot more meat than we used to,” says Waite. “There’s environmental reasons to do that. There’s health reasons to do that. The world’s a big place: seven, eight, nine, 10 billion people. That’s a lot of people, and there’s all these different cultures. We need to be realistic that not every solution is going to work in every place. There’s always going to be this diversity, and that’s great. But we need to be producing meat as sustainably as possible and, in places where we eat a lot of it, it’s about moderating our consumption. Plant-based meats could have a potentially significant role to play in that.”

Though he suspects meatless meat could just be a fad, Magdoff essentially agrees. However, he does not see a way of fundamentally addressing the climate crisis without sweeping change to our current socioeconomic system.

“You have a system that has to grow and produce more,” he says, “and in the process, it has to convince people to consume more, and what we are consuming and convinced to consume takes fossil fuels to produce.”

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