|One thing might keep the Impossible Burger from saving the planet: Steak|
It was a veggie-burger tasting, sometime in the late 1990s, that made me swear off veggie burgers. In the Clinton era, they were enough to shake anyone’s confidence in the category, and mine was shaken to the tune of two decades of abstinence.
But it’s a new day in plant-based meat substitutes. The two versions making headlines — in both food and business news — are the Beyond Burger, made mostly from pea protein, and the Impossible Burger, mostly soy. The news is pretty good. They’re very convincing impostors, and people who have given up meat — or want to eat less of it — are flocking to such chains as Umami Burger and Red Robin to give the Impossible a try. And once Burger King rolls out the Impossible Whopper countrywide, I think it’s safe to use the word “mainstream.”
But the companies behind these products are looking to do more than offer a meaty experience without the meat. They’re out to save the planet. Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes meat substitutes, doesn’t foresee the complete replacement of meat, but he predicts transformation on the order of cellphones replacing landlines. Sure, some dinosaurs still have landlines, but the way we communicate has changed.
Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, which makes the Impossible Burger, aims higher. “We’re dead serious about completely replacing beef,” he told me. The company plans to do it “by completely eliminating the economic incentive for animal farming and fishing,” and it plans to do it by 2035.
Is that possible? Is it desirable? Even though I’d answer both questions with a resounding “probably not,” I’m a big fan of the category, and I believe it will change the market for meat — a market that could use some changing.
Some of the wins are unequivocal. Although people certainly disagree about the extent to which animals suffer in our system — on farms and in slaughterhouses — all those problems go away. So does risk for food-borne illnesses from fecal contamination. Eating plants, rather than feeding them to animals and eating the animals, is inherently more efficient. No antibiotics are required. I still think cattle play an important role turning grass that’s grown on unfarmable land into high-quality protein and providing milk, farm labor and transportation to some of the world’s poorest farmers, but we need to cut back on beef in the developed world and try to flatten the curve on increasing demand as more people worldwide are brought into the middle class.
The biggest issue, though, and the one that seems to motivate a lot of the people working in the sector, is climate change. Replacing beef is a big carbon win.
How big is, of course, hotly debated. Richard Waite is a researcher at the World Resources Institute, and it’s his job to do the math on greenhouse gases. According to him, beef is responsible for about 6 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions (add dairy, and cattle’s total comes to 10 percent). Methane from their digestive systems, gases from their manure breaking down, and deforestation either to create pasture or grow feed are the biggest factors. As we talk about beef, it’s important to remember that it’s a much smaller factor than fossil fuels, but it’s the biggest of dietary factors.
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