Many vegans, myself included, started out skeptical of the new, high-tech fake meat trend. I did not trust the change we need to come from Burger King (now selling the Impossible Whopper at two for $6) and a suite of Silicon Valley start-ups. And besides, humans have had cheap, protein-rich vegan food for thousands of years. Why does it need to bleed? But I have since learned to stop worrying and believe in the impossible.
No, I don’t enjoy the new burgers: They taste like beef, sending my brain and palate haywire.
But I’m also not the target audience. Only 5% of plant-based burgers are consumed by vegetarians and vegans; the rest are eaten by curious omnivores. Taste testers can’t tell the difference between Impossible and cow-based burgers, and even Glenn Beck guessed wrong on his show. Sales of plant burgers are now growing at a faster rate than sales of the meaty kind (though beef burgers remain more popular in absolute terms). At White Castle, sales of the Impossible Slider are 30% higher than the fast food restaurant’s expectations.
Continued growth is, of course, not guaranteed. Cost is an obstacle — Beyond and Impossible burgers cost about a dollar more than cow-based ones — but Impossible hopes to reach price parity by 2022 and eventually be cheaper than beef. If it succeeds, these burgers could take a serious chunk out of global meat consumption.
That would be an unambiguously good thing.
You’ve heard the statistics on how the cattle industry spews greenhouse gases, pollutes air and water, and destroys forests and other ecosystems. If the industry were a country, it would be the third-biggest climate polluter. Even if the hype around climate-friendly grazing techniques pans out, land constraints mean a greener world is one with fewer hamburgers. The Impossible Burger transforms this calculus, using 87% less water and 96% less land than a conventional burger, and producing 89% less greenhouse gas. Beyond Burgers are nearly as efficient as Impossible in terms of land use and even better on water and greenhouse gases.
Such numbers don’t even address the more fundamental question: In parts of the world where humans can meet nutritional needs without the destruction of thinking, feeling creatures — shouldn’t we try to stop the slaughter?
Impossible Foods founder and CEO Pat Brown, a longtime vegan, claims he can do exactly that as soon as 2035 through true-to-taste plantbased burgers, steaks, chicken nuggets, fish, cheese and more. Yet he has received a frosty reception from some potential allies: Animal rights organizations, for instance, protested the killing of 188 rats used to test the company’s ingredients.
Skepticism is healthy, and one company can’t win such a fight alone. But perhaps the solution isn’t to turn away from Impossible; instead, we can help it. Under a Green New Deal, the federal government could buy out the Impossible Burger recipe, or even the whole company, and make it available for cheap at home and abroad — a public-domain plantbased meat. Brown has suggested he’s open to some sharing of his recipe eventually; this would just push him along.
We need other tactics, too: banning or regulating destructive farming and fishing practices; creating union jobs in the vegan food sector; subsidizing grocery stores that carry plant-based meat in poor and rural areas.
A major barrier to widespread veganism is access; fake meat would help. A cheap, proteindense burger available at a fastfood restaurant does wonders to normalize plant food in a way that gourmet vegan cookbooks and expensive farm-to-table restaurants never will.
The climate emergency will require significant changes in American everyday life in the years to come — we must fly less, drive less, consume less and reuse more. We may also have more leisure time, more intentionality and overall better lives. But some change may be experienced, at least at first, as sacrifice or inconvenience.
We shouldn’t try to hide this reality, but there is no need to ask for more sacrifice than required. If people find comfort in the taste of meat, and Impossible provides that comfort at a low cost, with minimal harm to animals and the climate, then fake meat could play an unlikely role in easing the decades of transition to come.
After all, no one needed sliced bread — we already had bread and knives. But it was convenient, and now idiom remembers it as the greatest invention of the past century.
The working class deserves bread — and convincing meat facsimiles, too.
Read a response to this piece, “Impossible Burgers Won’t Save the Environment — They’re Just a Greenwashing Trend,” by Alicia Kennedy.
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