Fake Meat Is All the Rage—And It Can Help Us Fight Climate Change

A case for the Impossible: the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Dayton Martindale April 22, 2020

One quarter of greenhouse gas emissions comes from food production. Is the solution a meat-free quarter-pounder? (Photo via Impossible Burger)

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.

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is a free­lance writer and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Jour­nal, Har­bin­ger and The Next Sys­tem Project. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @DaytonRMartind.

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