Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions
Last week, in one of the stranger Valentine’s Day promotions ever, alternative egg manufacturer Just Egg ran full-page ads in the New York Times claiming that “Plant lovers do it better.” This was just the latest, if not one of the more egregious bits of misinformation on behalf of an “alternative meat” industry that has placed U.S. livestock producers squarely in their gunsights.
Even stalwart agricultural companies are getting into the game of alternative meats, eggs, and “dairy-free” dairy products. Pork giant Smithfield Foods offers plant-based burgers, sausage patties, and links under its pure Farmland brand; Tyson foods now offers plant-based chicken nuggets as well as bratwurst and sausages; Perdue sells blended meat-and-vegetable chicken nuggets and patties. Meanwhile, more than a hundred new startups are fighting to see who will be the first to market cultured meat, which is made from cultivated cells rather than plants.
Those of us who work in and around agriculture must accept that alternative or fake meats and milks are now part of the mainstream. We should also note that many of these companies are taking a page from the anti-GMO and anti-pesticide crowds that came before them, painting a picture where farmers and ranchers are evils that must be overcome – an argument that’s spread by sympathetic media and trade organizations.
I may have to live with this, but I don’t like it. Fortunately, thanks to high-quality farm products backed by strong regulatory programs, U.S. consumers enjoy the world’s cheapest and most abundant food supply. In fact, meat is available in such affordable abundance in the U.S. that most Americans who choose not to eat it do so as a matter of choice or conviction, rather than necessity, even as the rest of the world is eating more meat, not less. This may be the reason U.S. consumers have largely tuned out the negative and often fabricated messaging delivered by plant-based meat labs.
Still, I am struggling with how companies are marketing their products – and my issues go beyond the ultra-asinine claims of companies like Just Egg. Fake-meat purveyors claim their products are more nutritious than meat. Better for the environment than meat. And, that they’re meat. None of these are true, and it’s time for those of us who farm, have clients who farm, or are advocates of farmers to set the record straight.
Fake meat isn’t necessarily more nutritious. Many consumers believe that eating plant-based meat is a healthy decision. And it might be, depending on which meat substitute you’ve chosen. The problem is there’s a huge variety of products available, ranging from simple mushroom or bean patties to highly processed laboratory concoctions like the Impossible Burger, which features 21 ingredients including methylcellulose, which is a chemical laxative, and propylene, a chemical used in antifreeze. Many of the synthetic meats contain fillers and added sodium and may be high in saturated fats. I find it ironic that many of the folks who scream “Frankenfood!” any time they encounter a GMO are also the ones driving the synthetic meats bandwagon, where you need a chemistry degree to read the ingredients list.
Fake meat isn’t necessarily better for the environment. “I want to put the animal agriculture industry out of business,” says Patrick Brown, Impossible Foods CEO. “Not because I have any ill toward the people who work in that industry, but because it’s the most destructive industry on Earth.” Global luminary Bill Gates agrees, calling on rich countries to switch to synthetic beef options like Impossible Foods – a company in which he’s personally invested $50 million – to lower greenhouse-gas emissions.
Fake meat providers are always quick to tout their environmental chops. Beyond Meat, for instance, claims that its products can “positively affect the planet, the environment, the climate, and even ourselves.” However, few if any of these companies are transparent about the effect of emissions from their operations or disclose the effects their manufacturing processes have on forests or water sources.
Meanwhile, livestock producers continue to refine their processes to improve stewardship. In fact, while livestock production in the U.S. has doubled since 1961, greenhouse-gas emissions directly attributable to livestock has dropped 11 percent. Moreover, millions of acres around the world are sustainably producing food because of the amazing ability of animals to turn plant energy into protein for people. Much of the land these animals graze cannot be farmed conventionally without unacceptable soil loss and water quality issues. The loss of livestock would destroy the food supply, as well as the livelihood of billions of subsistence farmers.
Fake meat isn’t meat. Period. Here’s my biggest beef. Fake beef isn’t beef. It might look like beef, thanks to ingredients like beet juice and apple extract that mimic “bleeding.” But if it didn’t come from a cow, we shouldn’t call it beef. Or chicken. Or sausage, or bacon, or pork. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. More than 30 states have proposed bills to prohibit companies from using words like burger, sausage, or even hot dog unless the product was derived from an animal that was born and raised in a traditional manner. Some, like Missouri’s law, includes fines up to $1,000 and prison time. Mississippi’s new law clearly states, “Any food product containing cell-cultured animal tissue, or plant-based or insect-based food, shall not be labeled meat or as a meat product.”
I think that’s fair. People should be allowed to choose what they want for dinner, and if they opt for pea protein patties with potato starch and pomegranate powder, so be it. Just don’t call it a burger.
Meanwhile, farmers and farm advocates should take warning: This issue is not going away. And experience tells us that the plant-based meat lobby isn’t going to let a little things like facts get in the way of telling their story.