One surprising result of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a spike in consumer demand for imitation meats. According to a Nielsen report, during the first nine weeks of the crisis in the United States, grocery store sales of faux meat products increased 264 percent. The reasons included concerns about illness at meatpacking plants, the possible spread of disease from industrial livestock operations, and even fears about the animal origins of Covid-19 itself.
This new boom in plant-based imitation meats is doubly surprising, since it came without any support at all from the leaders of America’s progressive “food movement.” Well before Covid-19, this movement had taken a stance against the new imitation meats. The reasoning behind this stance deserves a closer look.
Robert Paarlberg is an associate in the Sustainability Science Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the author of Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat (Alfred A. Knopf, October 2020)
Innovations always force new choices, and sometimes rearrange the political landscape. Getting into bed with a former adversary is fine, as long as both partners are getting an equal benefit; but the food movement’s opposition to imitation plant-based meat has put them in bed with the livestock industry—the producers of real meat, and a traditional food movement foe. Particularly in the Covid era, is this such a wise choice?
Progressives in the food movement have long been among the harshest critics of the livestock industry, mostly due to its reliance on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), commonly referred to as “factory farms.” These facilities are highly productive, but too often at the expense of animal welfare, and they place human medicine at risk through an excessive use of antibiotics. This is also the same livestock industry that supplies the red meats and processed meats Americans consume to excess, increasing the rates of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.
On the environmental side, runoff from livestock farms in the United States pollutes rivers and streams, degrading large bodies of water like Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay. The livestock industry is also a significant emitter of climate-warming greenhouse gases, contributing nearly 15 percent of such emissions around the world.
If imitation meat products from plant materials could begin replacing some of the real meat in our diets, all of these problems might be diminished. The fashion industry has learned to substitute imitation fur for the real thing; the shoe industry has learned to use imitation leather; imitation ivory has helped save elephants; and some imitation egg and dairy products are already a commercial success. Plant-based milks (made from almonds, oats, soy or coconuts, for example) now account for 14 percent of retail milk sales in the United States. If plant-based burgers could replace this much real ground beef in the coming decade, the needle could begin to move on a number of valuable goals.
Despite this important opportunity, most food movement leaders have rejected plant-based meat imitations. Burgers assembled from plant materials, with chemicals added, do not conform to their preference for traditional “whole foods” with minimum processing and no added ingredients. Mark Bittman, previously a food columnist at the New York Times and a prominent food movement spokesperson, faults imitation meats on these grounds: “If you’re combining a bunch of powders and turning it into something that looks like meat, I’m not sure you’re doing anybody any good. I don’t think it moves people in the direction of real food—which is the ultimate goal.”
Progressive food service companies and retailers join in criticizing the processed nature of plant-based imitation meats. Brian Niccoil, CEO of Chipotle, says he won’t serve plant-based meats “because of the processing.” Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, despite being a vegan himself, has a similar reaction: “If you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods.”
The livestock industry is now borrowing these food movement complaints about processing and additives to slow the uptake of plant-based imitations. The Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization that fronts for the meat, restaurant, and alcohol industries, put a full page ad in the New York Times in October 2019, warning readers that “fake meats are ultra-processed imitations with dozens of ingredients including methylcellulose, titanium dioxide, tertiary butylhydroquinone, disodium inosinate.” They said it was fake meat, but with “real chemicals.” The CCF then paid for a 2020 Superbowl ad that featured a young spelling bee contestant having trouble with the word “methylcellulose,” which the moderator identified as “a chemical laxative that’s also used in synthetic meat.”
Some food movement leaders complain about plant-based imitation meats because they are new and not yet time-tested. Food movement leader Michael Pollan tells us, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” a standard that rules out much more than the Impossible Burger. Others appear to be rejecting the new imitation meat products because they come from profit-making companies and are protected by patents. Seth Itzkan, who created an environmental organization named Soil4Climate that defends real beef, says the Impossible Foods company should rename itself “Impossible Patents.” And for still others, fake meat products are objectionable because they contain an ingredient derived from genetically engineered soybeans, and propagated using genetically modified yeast. In 2017 two anti-GMO organizations, the ETC Group and Friends of the Earth, called on Impossible Foods to stop selling their burger, pending further safety testing and stronger regulation from the FDA. They accused Impossible Foods of trying to capitalize on animal welfare concerns to sell something that might be dangerous.
The environmental case for plant-based imitation meats is too strong to dismiss. Conventional feedlot beef in the United States emits twenty times more greenhouse gas—mostly methane when the cows belch—per pound of edible protein, compared to plant-based sources. Grass-fed beef is even worse for the climate, since it takes longer for these animals to reach a market weight, ensuring even more methane emissions per pound of production. This makes the carbon footprint of an Impossible Burger almost 90 percent smaller than that of a real beef burger, according to its manufacturer. It is also 87 percent less dependent on water and 96 percent less dependent on land. A life-cycle analysis of the Beyond Burger shows similar gains, with 90 percent less greenhouse gas emitted and 46 percent less energy required, along with 99 percent less water and 93 percent less land, compared to real burgers from American beef.
Some food movement progressives deny these advantages by arguing that beef cattle, if carefully grazed, can actually sequester more greenhouse gas in the soil than they belch out, thus slowing climate change. These advocates promote something called “holistic grazing” to sequester carbon, as part of “regenerative agriculture.”
This claim is hard to prove, but also hard to disprove, since changes in the carbon content of pasture soils over wide areas are difficult to measure with confidence. Scientists must compare soil samples from many different kinds of pasture, at different locations and at multiple depths, both throughout the year and then over many years. The sequestration process can slow if soils become saturated with carbon, and it can be completely reversed if the ground is later plowed.
Though there is little convincing scientific evidence that any method of grazing cattle could slow climate change, the livestock industry has nonetheless begun to repeat the claim, as another way to defend real meat from plant-based imitations. In January 2020, a spokesman for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association asserted, “Year-round, grasslands grazed by cattle absorb the greenhouse gasses released by cattle, cars, and everything else.” So livestock advocates are once again using food movement arguments to defend real meat and oppose plant-based imitations.
Particularly in the current Covid moment, food movement leaders should reconsider their excessive focus on the processing issue and revive the priority they once gave to pathogens, working conditions in meatpacking, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, antibiotic use, habitat protection, and animal suffering. When advocates allow a single principle to push other concerns aside, they create opportunities for their enemies.
Economists have warned against this “Baptists and bootleggers” phenomenon, so-named because the extreme case was seen a century ago, when well-meaning prohibitionists led by Southern Baptists managed to push through a constitutional amendment banning the sale of alcohol. When the 18th Amendment was ratified, the Southern Baptist Convention called it “the greatest victory for moral reform in America since the Declaration of Independence.” The illusion of moral victory was short-lived. The legal sale of liquor was simply replaced by illegal sales from bootleggers. Armed gangs then gained control of these illegal sales, used the profits to corrupt law enforcement, and turned city streets into battle zones. The principled stance taken by the Baptists had mostly helped the unprincipled bootleggers.
In today’s struggle over plant-based imitation meats, too many food movement leaders are behaving like the Baptists.
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