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Fake meat, false promises, & real consequences
The impact of fake meat on people and the planet could be more damaging than that of well-raised livestock.
Last year, Bill Gates proclaimed that “all rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef” and advocated for the use of “regulation to totally shift the demand" in order to combat climate change.
Ultra-processed food companies tout artfully obfuscated health and environmental benefits of their fake meat alternatives to convince consumers that “meat doesn’t have to come from animals.”
However, upending meat and the livestock industry will not resolve our climate, health, or justice crises.
Learn how food is truly produced, and learn that meat-free does not mean death- or destruction-free.
Plant-based meats aren’t as green as they appear and cherry-pick metrics to make a marketing cause.
“They focus on the CO2,” says Frédéric Leroy, a professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, “but that’s a very limited view.” Sustainability metrics like soil health and biodiversity should be part of the calculation, he says, and no one addresses the biogenic effects of well-raised livestock.
Most fake-meat manufacturers use proteins from soy or peas, grown in large fields where only one plant is allowed to grow, leaving any other plant, animal, or insect ousted from the ecosystem.
“Monocultures will have impacts on soil erosion, they depend heavily on fossil fuels because of the fertilizers, and they’re a nightmare for biodiversity,” says Leroy.
Furthermore, contrary to what meat substitute shoppers want to believe, not all livestock grazing systems are created equal. Rather than halting the appetite for real meat by demonizing its consumption, a better way to catalyze systemic change would be to focus on where animals add the most value.
In fact, a 2019 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) determined that:
86% of the forages, crop residues, and other by-products that comprise livestock feed are not suitable for human consumption.
Animal products account for 18% of global calories and 34% of global protein consumption. And in Latin American countries, low-carbon grazing systems contribute to food security, as they produce more valuable nutrients for humans (such as proteins) than they consume.
Of the 2.5 billion hectares needed for livestock production, 77 percent are grasslands- areas where the vegetation is dominated by grasses. And a large share of existing pastures could only be used for grazing animals because they are too degraded for cropland.
The health halo of plants does NOT make these substitutes healthy either.
For example, here’s a snapshot of the fake meat darling, Impossible Foods:
The company’s secret weapon is soy leghemoglobin (heme for short) - a genetically modified organism that enables its patties to “bleed” like beef. In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration deemed heme unsafe for human consumption after uncovering that a quarter of Impossible’s “magic” molecule was composed of 46 unexpected proteins. The verdict was not reversed until July 2018, more than a year after the product was commercially available.
In yet another stroke of irony, a 2018 life-cycle analysis conducted by Quantis concluded that a rancher would have to produce one “regeneratively” raised burger to offset the 3.5 kilograms of CO2 emissions emitted into the atmosphere by one Impossible Burger.
Perhaps the truth is this: fake meat is more about intellectual property and profits than about health, ethics, or the environment.
When those intolerant of nuance assert “meat is bad” and end it there, we miss the chance to inform consumers about how to source protein that can nourish them and breathe new life into degraded land.
Proponents of an animal-free food system fail to recognize that ruminants, when deployed in a planned grazing system, can help to sequester carbon back into topsoil.
Instead of propagating risky food technologies that are problems disguised as desirable solutions, consumers should consider a more responsible method of livestock production - one based on eliminating chemical inputs and increasing ecosystem biodiversity.
Meat isn’t the villain; engineering ourselves away from nature is.
We must acknowledge that over 820 million people suffer from hunger or malnutrition. And more than 383 million people living below the international poverty line are pastoralists or smallholders relying on livestock for food security and income. Therefore, we should invest in the regenerative grazing sector to increase food security, restore marginal land, and expand the demand for regenerative graziers who serve as ecological service providers.
Podcast I’m listening to:
“Strongly based on various research, Nicolette wishes to rethink the idea that the key to regeneration is less and better meat. For Nicolette, it is absolutely unnecessary to lessen our meat consumption as studies show that there hasn’t been a significant increase in meat consumption in the U.S. from a hundred years ago. Instead, what she pointed out is that if we could reassess industrialized meat production, where animals can be treated fairly and not be considered as ‘mine’, then we can shift to a high-quality meat production that is safe, healthy, and regenerative.”
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