Artificial Animals – Part 1
The Rise of Plant-Based Meats and the Mission to Eliminate Animal Agriculture
Sara Keough MS, CNS, LDN- Integrative Eco-Nutritionist - Understanding Ag, LLC Technical Advisor
“Plant-based products are going to completely replace the animal-based products in the food world within the next 15 years. That’s our mission. The transformation is inevitable.”
– Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods
It’s a phrase likely to evoke controversy and contention among a wide array of consumers depending on their dietary preferences, environmental concerns, ethical issues with meat consumption and knowledge of the food industry. Enthusiastic proponents of plant-based meats insist that they’re a more nutritious option than meat and reduce the environmental impacts driven by animal agriculture. Some consumers are on the fence, feeling conflicted about the ostensible health benefits of meat substitutes, yet accepting them as an eco-friendlier alternative. Still others remain indifferent, carrying on with their consumption of conventional factory-farmed animal proteins with little understanding of their negative impacts.
Those of us keyed in to the extraordinary outcomes of regenerative agriculture see these ultra-processed artificial animal products as a serious threat to our planet. Properly managed grazing of livestock provides nutrient-dense food, robust and thriving soils and ecosystems, increased biodiversity, and has even shown to aid in carbon sequestration that positively impacts climate change. While the plant-based meat industry attempts to dazzle taste buds and fool consumers with their synthetic products, they do not utilize and embrace any regenerative farming practices and only support destructive industrialized agricultural systems.
Mother Nature has already provided us the solutions to many of the planetary challenges we face today, yet, perhaps blinded by ideology and profits, the plant-based meat industry assumes it can outwit nature with technology. And with consumers’ fears and worries at an all-time high over climate change, the COVID-19 crisis, and the unrelenting myths of meat’s detrimental health effects, it has seized a golden opportunity to take its products to new heights.
The sudden popularity of artificial animal products has been challenged by some conscientious organizations. Friends of the Earth raised concerns over the safety of genetically engineered ingredients in these “food-tech” products. Dana Perls, food & technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, warns, “We should be wary of unleashing a wave of new genetically engineered foods without due diligence in conducting a rigorous, independent and transparent pre-market safety assessment.” The Center for Food Safety (CSF) filed a lawsuit in March of this year against the FDA for allowing one of the leading plant-based meat products, Impossible Burger, to be sold to the public without adequate safety testing. Jaydee Hanson, policy director of the CSF, stated, “The FDA should have required additional independent testing to make sure that this new substance does not cause allergic reaction or other health problems in people.” Other leading professionals and researchers have also expressed apprehensions about the processed plant proteins, agrichemical contaminants, processed polyunsaturated plant oils and synthetic fortification of nutrients found in these artificial animal products.
Environmental claims made by leading plant-based meat companies have also come under fire. Environmental researcher at the University of Oxford, Marco Springmann, says “Beyond and Impossible need to better assess their carbon footprint … these companies make claims about sustainability that they do not sufficiently back with data.” Eco Watch called out Impossible Foods CEO, Pat Brown, for his claims about the healthfulness and sustainability of his company’s products, linking industrial genetically modified ingredients to the environmental issues, pesticide contamination and biodiversity loss integral to the production of some plant-based meats.
Despite this backlash and criticism, the powerful persuasion of the plant-based meat industry has prevailed. Once a niche market of $14 billion in 2019, it is now projected to grow to a stunning $140 billion by 2029. That equates to an average annual growth rate just over 12.6% rivaling what was once seen at the dawn of the dot-com boom and a good reason for Wall Street to be salivating. In light of increasing investor interest in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing it’s almost a perfect recipe for profits.
Although animal meat has undergone a decades-long barrage of attacks for its purported negative effects on human health, plant-based meats have not faced the same scrutiny by most mainstream media sources and organizations. The New York Times routinely shines a spotlight on alternative animal proteins, ranking Impossible Burger as the best tasting of all the plant-based burgers. Impossible Foods was hailed as one of Time Magazine’s “50 Genius Companies” in 2018 and the following year was named “Company of the Year” by Inc. Magazine. The United Nation’s highest environmental honor, the 2018 Champions of the Earth Award, was bestowed upon Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, a sign of the growing global acceptance of plant-based meats. With so many glowing appraisals from these highly respected organizations, it’s no wonder consumers are confused, particularly as these accolades gloss over the potential health and environmental concerns broached by other organizations.
The mission for these companies is quite clear. They intend not only to create an additional protein source for consumers, but to effectively end animal agriculture altogether. Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, affirmed in an interview with MarketWatch, “We want to make the existing product on the shelves obsolete.” Brown proclaims that the primary reasons consumers are switching to plant-based meats involve health, climate concerns, sustainability and animal welfare. Impossible Food’s Pat Brown made a bolder proclamation for his company’s intentions, even offering a specified timeline. At the EAT Stockholm Food Forum in 2019 Brown declared, “Our mission is to completely replace animals in the food system by 2035. You laugh but we are absolutely serious about it and it’s doable.” In an interview with MIT Technology Review, he went on to say, “Our goal, to be honest, is to as quickly as possible make it economically unsustainable to continue to raise cows…. It’s not that we have to replace every single thing that people value from a cow. We have to replace enough of the profitable components of a cow to make it unprofitable to grow more cows.”
While there’s no question that conventional, factory farming of livestock has destructive consequences on human and ecological health, the industrially-derived, genetically engineered ingredients of plant-based meats will not resolve these issues. Instead, we must work to transform our farming systems to ecosystem-building, soil-enriching processes that go far beyond a merely “sustainable” system to one that is truly regenerative.
And what do we make of the health claims made by these artificial animal proteins? Are they in fact a nutritious replacement for meat? What safety testing has been done on the newest genetically modified soy leghemoglobin in Impossible Food’s products? The next blog in this series will review some of the health concerns with these products and why it’s critically important for consumers to demand further investigation into their health and safety.