In the Ancient Greek Skeptics tradition, one should constantly question and investigate their beliefs. The only way to true knowledge, if such a thing does exist, is to work to prove oneself wrong continually. It is not a comfortable endeavor, and it is not easy.
As a butcher, I am intimately familiar with a process of death and food that is a mystery to most people, and I am constantly questioning the role I play in that process. How are the animals that we slaughter raised, and who raised them? Whose plate will the meat end up on, why do we eat it, and how does it affect our bodies, economy, society, and planet? To answer those questions, I've had to examine counterarguments that challenge my assumptions about one aspect of the food system that often runs contrary to my tenets: fake meat.
The original plant-based "veggie" burgers were amalgamations of beans, grains, tofu, mushrooms, seeds, cheese, spices, and binders such as guar or xanthan gum, squished into a patty shape. They didn't pretend to be meat, and no one thought they were trying; you could see the individual seeds and beans with each bite. But hydrated bulgur wheat and yeast extract could only satiate the plant-based palate for so long. It was NASA, whose astronauts were forced to spend extended space tours eating what essentially amounted to tinned cat food and nutrition pellets, that first engineered cell-based meat with the intent to grow "in-vitro" burgers in outer space. NASA soon gave up, but the project was taken on by a private company—and so the lab-based meat industry was born.
There are currently two types of lab-based meat being produced. One is symbolized by the Impossible, Beyond, Quorn, and other vegetable protein imitation meats, alternatives to beef or chicken, comprised of anything from highly processed soy and pea protein isolates, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and methylcellulose to egg whites, palm oil, canola oil, milk protein concentrate, "natural flavors," and a laundry list of added vitamins and binders. The other, not yet on the market, is cell-based meat made from cells taken directly from an animal's muscle tissue that are then cultivated in a lab into the desired meat shape and texture.
If you imagine buying faux meat products removes you from the industrial food system, I have bad news. Kellogg's owns Morning Star Farms, Conagra owns Gardein, and Nestle owns Sweet Earth. DuPont, a chemical company, owns Ralston Purina, which produces over a third of all GMO soybean crops, the main ingredient in many fake meat products.
Industrial meat producers have been quick to the fake meat game as well. Tyson Foods was once invested in Beyond Meat and now supports two other lab-based meat companies. JBS, one of the global feedlot and slaughterhouse giants, has launched one vegan meat product in Brazil with plans for another, and it holds a stake in a Spanish fake meat firm. Cargill backs cultured-meat company Memphis Meats, and Smithfield Foods sells eight different soy-meat products under the Pure Farmland brand. Burger King and Carl's Jr., two of the leading sellers of industrial meat products, now offer burgers from Impossible Meats and Beyond Foods, respectively. Every dime spent on fake meat products goes back into the pockets of global agri-food corporations, several of which are giants in the industrial meat production system that those products are meant to curtail.
One of the main talking points in the argument against meat-eating is methane production. Methane is a greenhouse gas, but unlike carbon dioxide, it is short-lived. Methane remains in the atmosphere for around 10 years, whereas carbon dioxide lasts centuries. The primary source of methane is not cow farts but the burps that ruminant animals emit as their multiple stomachs ferment and digest grass (researchers are working on dietary supplements for cattle, such as algae and hemp, that reduce methane production during digestion).
The methane argument is problematic because it disregards the fact that ruminant animals have existed on the earth for nearly 50 million years. There is skepticism about the conflicting data equating livestock production with increased atmospheric methane levels. An article published in early July outlined how new satellites track methane leaks. So far, those satellites have found that all significant methane leaks come from oil and gas infrastructure.
If greenhouse gases are a concern for those choosing the faux-meat path, then we must consider the carbon footprint of not only soy, pea, and canola mono-crops (chemical fertilizer inputs, soil tillage, deforestation, etc.), but the energy requirements and greenhouse gas outputs of Silicon Valley. One Google search, for example, uses the same amount of energy as a 60W lightbulb turned on for 17 seconds. Bitcoin uses 91-terawatt hours of energy each year, that’s more than the entire country of Finland. Advances in technology are not without an environmental cost. While it may take 23 calories of feed to create one calorie of beef, we have not yet seen the data on how much energy is needed to produce a calorie of soy-heme "meat."
What about water? It’s estimated that one pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water. That water includes irrigation for grain and grass, the water the animal consumes, and the water used during meat processing. Impossible Burger, on the other hand, estimates that each burger uses only 4.17 gallons, though it is unclear whether that water usage includes crop irrigation, harvest, and processing.
Global water usage is divided into three categories: blue, green, and grey. Blue water originates from groundwater or surface water, while green water is water transpired by plants and originates as rain. Gray water is used in manufacturing or processing but is still clean or diluted enough to remain usable without treatment. While we do not know the details of how Impossible Burger's water usage was calculated or what type of water it is referring to, we do know that about 90% of the water used in beef production is green water and originates from rainfall. That means that the amount of blue and grey water used in beef production is less than required to produce an equal weight of walnuts, sugar, or avocados.
When it comes to the effects of fake meat on human health, the jury is still way out. If calories are your primary concern, cell- and plant-based meat alternatives tend to have fewer calories when compared with their animal-based equivalents. But the rest of the fake-meat nutrition picture is foggy, at best. Critics of fake-meat question the effects of extreme food processing on the body's ability to recognize and utilize nutrients. Impossible Burger currently falls under the category of ultra-processed foods, along with soda, ice cream, and instant soup. Imagine a beef burger as the equivalent of a loaf of sourdough, which takes time and patience to produce and contains a complex network of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbs, and fat that our bodies know how to recognize. On the other hand, a fake-meat burger is more akin to a loaf of vitamin-fortified grocery store wheat bread, with all its constituent parts pieced back together using additives and fillers our bodies may not recognize.
Cell-based meat also has the potential to contain fewer calories than meat straight from an animal because it can be manipulated to control the exact amount of fat, protein, cholesterol, and amino acids it contains. But it begs the question of how our bodies process and use those nutrients. In recent years, fat has shed its label as the cause of heart disease, but we still do not know how much fat and cholesterol, or what types of fat and cholesterol, the body needs. And how will meat from a lab, rather than from an animal that ingested plants and soil microbes, imitate what our bodies have known for millennia?
What we choose to put in our bodies is a highly personal choice. I am constantly trying to check my biases about my diet (and my profession) and prove myself wrong about my beliefs. I want the best for the land, the animals, the food systems that sustain us, the people who raise that food, and the people who consume it.
I will admit to a level of bias because I am deeply in love with the animals, people, and land that comprise a segment of the food system which is oft-misunderstood, maligned, and shrouded in secrecy. But if we're going to make informed decisions for ourselves, our families, and our environment, it would behoove us all to be skeptical. As Carl Sagan said: "The truth may be puzzling…but our preferences do not determine what's true."