I think a lot about eating, but heck, I do consider myself That Food Guy. In previous posts, I’ve talked about red meat – particularly eliminating it from my diet. Since the first of the year I’ve eaten beef only a couple of times; a few more times for pork – but overall a significant change to my former diet.
It’s mid-way through the summer now and I have missed enjoying a hamburger. What’s making it tougher is that we have some truly outstanding hamburger places nearby and I think about burgers every time I drive near one. Until recently, the closest thing I’d found to substituting for a good burger has been the “Beyond Meat” burger that I talked about in A Climate Friendly Cookout. I grilled these at home and they were pretty good, with a nice char and density. Not quite as juicy as those “nasty” ones I’ve enjoyed at some restaurants or that I had previously grilled using 85% ground meat, but good enough to satisfy my craving.
A recent article written by Rowan Jacobsen in Outside caught my eye. The title: This Is the Beginning of the End of the Beef Industry. The article began with an observation about how causes often progress: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” This evolution of a cause has been characterized as a summary of Gandhi’s philosophy and it reminds me of the uphill battle to save the planet from global warming, but I digress. The cause Jacobsen is referencing is the replacement of beef with plant-based substitutes that taste like beef. Specifically referenced are the new plant-based products coming on the market by “Beyond Meat” and “Impossible Foods”.
The Jacobsen article outlines how inefficient cows are in making food (beef) for us – perhaps the most wasteful food product on the planet. Cows require 3,600 calories of feed to produce 1,000 calories of beef. Cows require a lot of water (430 gallons), land (1,500 square feet) and generate 10 kg of greenhouse gas emissions. By comparison, the new “Impossible Burger” uses 87% less water, 96% less land, and produces 89% fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. Beyond Meat posts similar favorable characteristics when compared to beef.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are both plant-based alternative meats (alt-meat) designed to look and taste just like beef but their core formulas are different. For protein, Beyond uses peas while Impossible uses soy. Beyond uses beet juice for its color and juiciness while Impossible uses hemp –- primarily for color and flavor. Jacobsen concludes that it’s the hemp – an iron containing compound found in all living organisms – that gives the Impossible burger the better taste.
The beef industry is taking notice of the growing popularity of alt-meat, successfully lobbying for new labeling laws in Mississippi which ban products from labeling themselves as “meat” unless they are “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry”. Similar labeling laws have passed or are pending in a dozen more states. Using this standard, the current packaging for “Beyond Meat” burgers might not be allowed. The beef industry is beyond ignoring and laughing, and is now fighting.
Wondering what ingredients are in these new alt-meats, and are they safe? I found an interesting CNET article that addresses these and other questions. Regarding the Impossible Burger, unless you’re allergic to soy, it’s safe. Further, the FDA has approved the soy-based hemp as safe to eat. Other issues including the use of genetically modified soybeans, are identified and addressed in this article, leading me (a non-scientist) to conclude they are very safe. (For more details, check the linked article.) In fact, I’d argue they are better for us because the Impossible burger has less cholesterol, less sodium, less fat, more fiber, more vitamins and minerals than beef.
So where is all this headed? As alt-meat becomes increasingly more popular, its availability will grow and the price advantage that traditional beef has – due largely to scale – will decline. It is inherently cheaper to make a burger out of plants than to feed plants to an animal first.
If beef production declines, pasture land can be converted to more efficient food production and fewer green-house gas emissions – all good for the environment. In addition to the positive environmental effect of reducing red meat production, plant-based foods address another world issue: the world’s food supply. An international group of scientists convened by the United Nations released a report this month summarizing how climate change is threatening the world’s food supply. The scientists estimate that 10% of the world’s population (that’s 750 million people) is now suffering from food shortages. Those levels will only increase as climate change affects weather patterns, droughts, floods, and temperature increases – all of which affect food supply. And while these effects will initially be seen by poorer countries, all countries will be impacted as food shortages trigger more migration. To quote the study: “People will not stay and die; they will migrate.”
The U.N. report concludes with some aspects of hope. It recommends changes in land use and consumer behavior which will make substantial differences. For example, encouraging more people to shift their diets away from cattle and other types of meat reduces the need for more forested land to be cleared for cattle pastures. Currently each year, the amount of forested land that is cleared, much for cattle pastures, releases the greenhouse emissions equivalent of driving 600 million cars!
From an environment perspective, these plant-based burgers make tremendous sense. But do they taste good enough to win over loyal carnivores? Rowan Jacobsen concludes that while the “Beyond Meat” burger is good, the taste and texture of the “Impossible Burger” is superior to traditional beef. In my opinion, the taste and texture of the Impossible Burger is on par with beef and I encourage you to find an Impossible Burger and try it yourself. We enjoyed some at Red Robin, Gourmet Burgers and Brews, a Seattle based chain. On a scale of 0-100 (where 100 is the absolute best burger I’ve ever eaten) I’d give the Red Robin Impossible Burger a 90.
So, Is this The Beginning of the End of the Beef Industry? Impossible you say? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see, and maybe we’ll win.