The savior may be fake, but the money is real

By Joel McNair

The headline above Timothy Egan’s column in the June 21 edition of The New York Times assured that “Fake Meat Will Save Us”. I was very relieved, as it seems that we do need saving, and the idea of a fake savior is appropriate for the age, I guess.

Seriously, this was just another example of a well-known intellectual — Egan is an award-winning environmental and political writer — falling into the trap of employing trendy, but bad, information and faulty logic in reaching a popular “big picture” technological solution that makes absolutely no sense.

This kind of nonsense permeates a culture that sees Silicon Valley as saving us from ourselves by disrupting everything for the sake of a better tomorrow, plus a lot of money.

Here we have an all-too-common modern situation in which brilliant people with limited practical knowledge offer shallow technological solutions to complex and poorly understood biological problems in the name of improving the well-being of humanity, all with the idea of getting rich.

Here we go again
We have been here before with food, of course. For decades margarine benefited from the false proposition propelled by one egotistical scientist (Ancel Keys) that saturated fats are always bad for us.

Today the milk markets are being challenged by almond, flax and other “milk” products that proclaim their righteousness to a public unaware of the water-sucking demands of almond trees and the nutritional deficiencies of these fakes. And for years soy burgers and other sans-meat offerings have provided relatively taste-free alternatives to the real thing.

While livestock producers have been dinged around the edges by these ersatz offerings, none of it ever promised to revolutionize the food industry. No one said these products were good enough to eliminate the need for real meat and dairy.

That is no longer the case. In engineering plants to taste like meat and function like dairy solids, the people creating our new fake foods say that their offerings will become so popular that animal agriculture can be virtually eliminated.

When this happens, the planet will be saved from burning up, its people will have healthier diets, and its animals will be freed from cruel and unusual punishment. This is the lab food science fiction that has been with us for decades, and a modern techno-hip vegan’s fantasy if ever there was one.

All of it is at best a half-truth, and at worst a total lie. Dieticians note that a couple of the leading fake meat offerings are higher in sodium content than the real thing while offering no significant nutritional advantages.

One fake hamburger from Beyond Meat lists 18 ingredients, while Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger lists 21. As the dieticians note, these are highly processed foods, and they are being introduced at a time when dietary experts — and many consumers — are growing wary of ingredients that are difficult to pronounce.

GMO saviors
And then there is the genetic engineering part of this. Both Impossible Foods and fake dairy purveyor Perfect Day are employing genetically altered yeast to brew their concoctions into something that is supposed to taste like the real stuff.

Perfect Day is particularly amusing in comparing its processes to brewing beer and pledging not to put GMOs into the actual “milk”.

We are told that “genetic modification is part of our process, but it is not present in the final product.”

Meanwhile, Impossible Foods failed to receive Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA said the soy leghemoglobin (say that fast four times in a row!) the company engineered in trying to mimic meat was not proven safe, to say nothing about the other 40 yeast proteins found in this “meat”.

While food companies have strong-armed past such FDA pronouncements, it’s hard to see the health food crowd buying into the GMO processes — at least if they can ever manage to get past the “save the world” rhetoric currently serving as marketing cover. The fit just doesn’t seem right.

(Impossible Foods competitor Beyond Meat says it employs “pea isolate” and beet juice rather than soy in its burgers, adding that the process does not employ genetic engineering.)

If, as food industry executives are saying, the initial growth of this new sector is being driven by consumer health concerns, then a reckoning may well be coming.

The rush to invest
But my goodness do the venture capitalists and stock investors love the idea! Various reports indicate that hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in these efforts. Archer Daniels Midland purchased a piece of Perfect Day to help develop a vegan whey for an ice cream that was being test-marketed this summer.

Meanwhile, the stock price of Beyond Meat soared after its initial public offering in early May, placing the company’s valuation solidly into the Fortune 500 listing. Beyond Meat predicts its revenues will reach $210 million for the current calendar year.

Impossible Meats just announced a big expansion to its manufacturing capacity. Tyson Foods is jumping into the game, too.

Some fast food and casual dining chains have the new fake meats on their menus, among them Applebees, TGI Fridays, Carl’s Jr. and White Castle. Burger King recently launched the “Impossible Whopper” which, amusingly, is topped by traditional egg-based mayonnaise.

McDonald’s is said to be considering one of the new fake burgers even though the company is aiming to simplify its menu. Almost all of these “Beyond” and “Impossible” items are selling for around a dollar above the real stuff.

“I have high expectations that it’s going to be big business, not just a niche product,” Fernando Machado, Burger King’s chief marketing officer, told the Times.

Skepticism, but ….
What to make of all this? Food industry veterans appear to be skeptical, saying that it will be years — if ever — before the fake stuff is good and cost-effective enough to make a substantial dent to conventional meat and dairy sales. Most farmers I talk with tend to shrug the concept off as being no big deal.

In reality, it seems almost impossible that the lab geniuses will be able to duplicate foods that even today we do not fully understand. I don’t know if a comparison between baby formula and breast milk is valid, but you get the idea.

… other realities are in play
Yet there are other realities here that require our attention. If our history with margarine and plant-based “milk” tells us anything, the new versions of fake meats and milks don’t have to be perfect to have an impact upon traditional agriculture.

After all, what would the genetic makeup of our nation’s dairy herd be today if not for margarine suppressing butter sales for so many years?

It’s easy enough to see where “Impossible” burgers and “Perfect” dairy solids could pilfer a noticeable percentage of our markets, even if they are not impossibly perfect.

Next, the reality is that from a strictly mechanistic standpoint, our methods for producing meat and milk are quite inefficient.

Supposedly a fake meat factory can churn out its product in the space of a couple of weeks, thus putting the shame even to modern broiler houses. No doubt a lot of this manufacturing process is automated, which of course only makes it more attractive to our corporate titans.

And the fact that the nutritional attributes of this stuff are decidedly poor is not necessarily a deal breaker for sales. Vegetarians buy all sorts of highly processed crap.

What’s more, the growing worry over climate change makes animal agriculture a handy whipping boy due to ruminants supposedly creating more than their share of greenhouse gases (stated amounts may vary depending on the study being cited).

“Planet-killing culprits”
According to Egan, “At a moment when animal-based agriculture is near the top of planet-killing culprits, ditching meat for substitutes, faux or otherwise, is the most effective thing an individual can do to fight climate change, according to a study in the journal Science.”

Beware: terms like “planet-killing culprits” are going to be part of the lexicon going forward.

Of course there is the animal welfare role in this, as an increasing number of food consumers are becoming turned off by feedlots, confinement barns and huge slaughterhouses.

Finally, we face the momentum of money here. With millions and potentially billions being invested in the sector, modern fake livestock foods ultimately could become too big to fail.

Expect some impact
So where does that leave you and me? I have a little theory here, one that is pretty much matched by a few others.

Large-scale commodity livestock agriculture will bear the brunt of any market losses caused by the lab meats and milks. Mainstream livestock agriculture is now essentially a factory system beyond the ruminant youngstock sector.

If the meat and milk labs can produce a decent product in a more efficient factory, then the feedlots and the mega-slaughterhouses will suffer.

I believe that this is going to happen. Within a decade or two, conventional animal protein sectors — including conventional organic and pseudo-grassfed entries — may well take a pounding from the lab stuff.

If you look at the historical evolution of food, including how it is processed and marketed, it’s not easy to dispute that view with any great confidence.

Your place in a fake future
And then there will be the niches to which true grassfed producers must gravitate.

As was noted earlier, one of the major weaknesses of the lab foods is that they are highly processed, genetically engineered fakes with subpar nutritional profiles.

A good-sized share of the consuming public will be wise to this reality and be willing to pay for your alternative.

Plus there is the reality that these fakes will not solve any climate change problems as long as they are dependent upon large-scale, row-crop agriculture for their existence. Tillage releases soil carbon to atmosphere; properly managed grazing removes carbon and stores it in the soil.

Properly managed grazing also keeps nutrients where they belong, which is out of drinking and recreational water supplies.

I hold little hope that policymakers and any major share of the general public will recognize these realities anytime soon. The primary political battles will be between conventional modern agriculture and the Silicon Valley interests.

But it does seem likely that you will have a market with a fairly decent percentage of consumers who recognize the problems, and reject the fake foods.

In the end, it is simply impossible for even brilliant Silicon Valley minds to mimic the complex soil, plant and livesock biological processes that nature provides and grass farmers aim to honor. At least some people are going to understand that reality.

Joel McNair is editor and publisher of Graze and has a small farm in southern Wisconsin.