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Fake Meat Alone Won’t Save the World

Not as long as factory farming is still a part of the food supply chain, anyway

Rebecca Flint Marx is the editor of Eater at Home. Her areas of expertise include home cooking and popular culture.

In the middle of July, Impossible: The Cookbook, a compendium of recipes designed to showcase the plant-based meat engineered by Impossible Foods, was launched with grimly impeccable timing: Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, meat shortages and revelations about the terrible conditions in meat processing facilities, where the virus had infected more than 25,000 workers nationwide, had cast an unforgiving light on the country’s industrial meat industry.

Impossible insists there is a better, highly versatile alternative to meat consumption, embodied in recipes like Kwame Onwuachi’s Ethiopian spiced meat with hummus and toasted cashews, where crumbled Impossible Burger takes the place of more traditional ground lamb. It is one of 40 recipes from a slew of well-respected chefs that demonstrate that the only limitation to what you can do with Impossible’s faux flesh is your own imagination.

The word “vegan” is conspicuously absent from the cookbook’s introduction, which instead proclaims that the book is “for people who love meat.” This is the kind of crafty messaging that has defined Impossible since July 2016, when the company launched its signature “bleeding” ersatz beef patty: This may be vegan meat, but it is designed to appeal to actual meat eaters. It’s clearly working: By early May of this year, sales of its products had shot up 264 percent since March.

The Impossible Foods story has been told many, many times since the company launched in 2011. It’s become a juggernaut with almost $1.5 billion in funding, a grocery store footprint that is 30 times larger than it was six months ago, and like any good tech unicorn, a proper direct-to-consumer website. Given Impossible’s projected growth, expanding product line (Impossible sausage was introduced in June), and compelling pitch (“We’re making meat,” the cookbook reads, “mouthwatering, craveable, nutritious meat — from plants” that “requires 87 percent less water and 96 percent less land to produce” than a conventional burger), it is tempting to think that plant-based meat is the way of the future. Impossible: The Cookbook suggests that it is not merely a possibility, but an inevitability, the only direction in which progress points. Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown implied as much in an interview last year. “We are dead serious,” he said, “about our mission to eliminate the need for animals in the food chain by 2035.”

With a subtitle proclaiming “How to Save Our Planet, One Delicious Meal at a Time,” the cookbook — and, by extension, Impossible Foods — is promising no less than a brighter tomorrow that will be built upon patties wrought of soy and potato protein, disgorged on an endless assembly line monitored by contented, fairly compensated workers as happy cows roam on distant fields, free to live out their natural lives.

The strongest case for the vegan supply chain can be made by considering not what it is, but what it isn’t. The vegan supply chain isn’t factory farms, industrial livestock operations that house thousands of animals under one roof, often in miserable conditions that are not only inhumane but also terrible for the environment. Among other things, these farms generate about 70 percent of the country’s ammonia emissions and 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, contribute to deforestation, and create lagoons of animal waste that pollute the environment and sicken people in surrounding communities. The vegan supply chain also isn’t slaughterhouses or meat processing plants, where low-paid, often immigrant workers toil shoulder-to-shoulder in physically grueling conditions ripe for spreading COVID-19. And, although this should be obvious, the vegan supply chain is not one built upon abject animal suffering and exploitation.

Compared to that, the vegan supply chain looks pretty good, and Impossible Foods is hardly the only voice arguing that going vegan can save the planet. In 2018, the journal Science published the results of a comprehensive analysis of the environmental impact of 40,000 farms in 119 countries. It found that while meat and dairy supplied just 18 percent of food calories and 37 percent of protein, they used 83 percent of farmland — and produced 60 percent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. The upshot, as the study’s lead researcher told the Guardian, was that a “vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use.” And last year, a report by the United Nations body on climate science concluded that reducing meat consumption in favor of plant-based diets could have a significant positive impact on our ability to fight climate change.

But while there is very little doubt that eating less meat and dairy is better for humanity’s chances of long-term survival in our current home, the vegan supply chain on its own is not necessarily the One Weird Trick for solving all of our environmental and moral problems. Like any agricultural supply chain, it is not automatically virtuous, much less neutral in its environmental impact. To examine some of the issues surrounding the vegan supply chain is to understand why a truly sustainable and ethical food supply chain is defined by more than simply what it is not. It is also to acknowledge that reforming the way we grow our food requires a truly systemic approach.

Even if we do accept that fake meat is the way of the more enlightened future, we still have to ask where, how, and by whom each of its ingredients is being grown and then processed, how the factory where it’s being mass-produced is being powered and how much greenhouse gas emissions it produces, and how much greenhouse gas is in turn produced by the different operations that supply the fake meat’s various ingredients, and packaging, and on and on forever more. Every step of the industrial supply chain — vegan or not — is fraught with these considerations, as well as more vexing questions than encouraging answers.

Take, for example, the soybean, a crop whose byproducts are ubiquitous ingredients in processed foods, both vegan and otherwise. The vast majority of the world’s soy — over 70 percent — is grown for livestock feed, which is why the growing demand for meat, particularly in China, has helped to double global soy production in the past two decades. It is soy grown for livestock feed, not vegan foods, that is a driver of deforestation in South America and its concomitant displacement of Indigenous communities and small farmers.

While only a tiny percentage of soy grown worldwide is for human consumption, the presence of soy in many vegan processed foods means that it is still necessary to ask where that soy comes from, and to question the practices used to grow it. Impossible Foods itself has been criticized for its use of soy, specifically the genetically modified soy in its burger. A host of controversies surrounds GMO soy, but Impossible Foods has defended its GMO ingredients by pointing out that its use of genetically modified soy is more environmentally sustainable than harvesting non-GMO soy, and, moreover, is safe for human consumption.

Along with soy, palm oil and cashews are ingredients that regularly appear in many vegan foods. Increasing demand for both presents a conundrum for anyone concerned about sustainable eating. Palm oil shows up in about 50 percent of consumer goods, including processed vegan foods like margarine, cookies, and ice cream. Palm oil plantations have been linked to numerous environmental and human rights issues, such as biodiversity loss and deforestation, and human rights abuses in Thailand and Indonesia.

The cashew, a foundational ingredient in many vegan dairy products, has been linked to human rights violations in Vietnam, the world’s leading cashew exporter. While some of the more egregious practices, such as the use of forced labor at processing facilities, have been curbed, the difficulties of tracking the cashew supply chain (cashews are often grown in one country, processed in another) mean that it’s possible for worker abuses, such as poverty-line wages and the use of child labor, to go undetected. And the cashew isn’t the only nut with issues: Almond production, for example, requires huge amounts of water, a problem exacerbated by the surging market for almond milk products.

In other words, no matter the crop being grown, there is the persistent issue of how farm laborers and the land they work are mistreated: Whether it is agricultural slavery on Florida tomato farms or illegal deforestation driven by Mexico’s growing avocado trade — which has also attracted the involvement and attendant violence of organized crime — the produce industry is rife with its own exploitative and abusive practices. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the greenhouse gas emissions produced by plant-based agriculture, whether from artificial fertilizers or practices such as tilling the fields or the transport of produce around the globe.

To look at an Impossible Burger, or any industrial food, is to see a myriad of potentially troublesome links in the supply chain. Which is not to say that it’s impossible, so to speak, to have an ethical and sustainable supply chain. But the demands of capitalism — specifically that for food produced cheaply and at great volume in order to yield a profit — frequently undermine that goal. It’s a challenge that is further compounded by the imperative to feed a growing global population, and the varying standards for what it actually means to be ethical and sustainable at every level of the supply chain, vegan or not. Although switching to plant-based meat offers numerous environmental benefits, the companies that make it must find a way to reconcile the need to scale and make money with the practice of how to do so responsibly.

Even if the Impossible promise turns out to be true, that we can indeed have a perfectly virtuous vegan supply chain engineered by a hegemonic tech company, there is still one inconvenient fact: For any number of reasons — whether cultural or economic — the majority of people on the planet prefer to eat meat and will not give it up willingly, and that will remain the case perhaps even after plant-based meat is a truly perfect simulacrum of the real thing.

There are emerging alternatives. While they aren’t vegan, they do have the potential to accomplish the same goals as plant-based meat, perhaps some even more successfully. The need to create more sustainable alternatives to meat, combined with the preference of many people to continue eating it, has created a potentially lucrative opening for the cell-based, or cultured meat industry, whose inherent promise is meat without all of its accompanying demons. The industry began to get attention in 2013, when a Maastricht University professor named Mark Post successfully made a burger from cow stem cells he had grown into strips of muscle fiber. Since then, a number of cultured meat startups have popped up around the world, growing everything from meatballs to gelatin to seafood. Some observers are bullish about the industry’s potential: Last year, the consulting firm Kearney released a report predicting that by 2040, 60 percent of the world’s meat will be lab-grown or plant-based.

Cultured meat offers many potential advantages over both conventional and vegan meat, sustainability-wise: Whereas similar ingredients are used to produce both conventional and vegan meat (i.e. soy, potatoes, wheat, and water), cultured meat needs only a diet consisting predominantly of amino acids and glucose — ingredients grown in labs, rather than in resource-intensive fields.

The challenge, though, is producing it at scale, and doing so affordably; according to the Kearney report, the cost of cultured meat was $80 per 100 grams in 2018, versus conventional beef’s 80 cents per 100 grams (a number that reflects the way the industrial meat industry benefits from cheap grain, cheap labor, and direct and indirect government subsidies). While industry experts forecast that cost will be cut to less than $4 per 100 grams in the next 12 years, there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome, such as regulatory approvals and consumer acceptance.

Cultured meat may indeed be one way toward a more environmentally sustainable future, but that future remains relatively distant and highly speculative. For now, perhaps the least terrible option for recalcitrant meat eaters who care about the environment and have the privilege of choice is to support the small, independent farms that raise animals using sustainable and humane practices. Nearly 100 percent of most livestock raised for consumption lives on factory farms. There’s little doubt that small farms can be a more sustainable alternative — one that should be combined with an even more sustainable alternative, which is just to eat less meat. Decreased consumption leads to decreased demand and, in turn, to decreased production. But given that global meat production is projected to be 16 percent higher in 2025 than it was a decade prior, this seems as unrealistic as the likelihood of McDonald’s rolling out cell-cultured Big Macs in time for Christmas.

Rather than looking at the sustainable food supply chain of the future as an all-or-nothing scenario — one that either involves animal products or doesn’t — it’s perhaps more practical to take a holistic view, one that acknowledges the dizzying complexities of food production, as well as the varying definitions and measures of “sustainability.” Put another way, there is no single correct approach to fixing our problems, something illustrated by a 2017 study about the potential of organic agriculture to create a more sustainable food system. A 100 percent conversion to organic agriculture wouldn’t do it, the study found — among other problems, organic farming would require more farmland than its conventional counterpart. A more sustainable scenario, the study concluded, would combine organic agriculture with reductions in food waste and the amount of food used for livestock, along with a corresponding reduction in the production and consumption of meat.

Even supposing there is no magic bullet, there does seem to be one obvious thing we could do to build a more sustainable supply chain: stop factory farming. Because while livestock farming can be sustainable and even ethical, particularly if it’s done on a smaller scale and using practices that favor the environment and human and animal welfare, there is nothing sustainable about the industrial livestock industry. And if climate change, environmental degradation, and worker and animal abuses haven’t given us reasons enough to find a better way forward, then the COVID-19 pandemic has provided yet another compelling reason by highlighting the ways that factory farms, with their overcrowded, unsanitary conditions ripe for spreading disease and promoting antibiotic resistance, may put us at risk for future pandemics.

The call to end factory farming is gaining momentum: Last December, Sen. Cory Booker introduced legislation that would place a moratorium on large industrial animal operations and phase out the biggest ones by 2040. Crucially, the proposed bill also calls for strengthening protections for the family farmers and ranchers who cannot compete with these large-scale operations and are often forced into exploitative contracts with the corporations that control the meat industry.

This kind of support for small, independent farmers is at the heart of what the ethical and sustainable supply chain of the future entails: It is not so much about vegan eating as it is about creating systems that enable farming that is humane for the environment, people, and animals. Plant-based meat can be part of that, and should be — provided that the companies that manufacture it are actively invested in creating a system whose concept of ethics and sustainability goes beyond being simply the lesser of two evils.

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