Food is changing, and not in ways that most people will understand. Ever since I watched a Youtube doc about New Wave foods making seafood from algae I realized that food is about to get really weird. Two companies at the forefront have stepped up to make beef a thing of the past. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are both making a vegan version of a patty that looks and tastes like real meat. Impossible foods debuted their bleeding vegan burger at CNET in January and it grew quite a following. It has taken since then for one of Beyond Meat’s burgers to land in Austin and I went to give it a try.
The burger I tasted is available at the Whole foods downtown on their plant based burger bar. They supply a variety of vegan options on the menu so you have to specifically select the Beyond Meat burger from the list. The burger by itself was 9.00$ with tax, which is higher priced than I expected but about normal for lunch at whole foods. Overall the burger is really good, it tastes like meat, looks like it, and most importantly the texture is spot on. The only thing lacking is the layer of dripping cow fat the comes off a fried patty of ground beef. Also lacking was that sickly full feeling you get after eating a big juicy burger. I have not had the opportunity to taste the Impossible burger but I have read that it is very similar. However, we need to take a look at the sustainability of this new food option. It has the possibility to be one of those things that appears to be good for the environment but really isn’t. Its made in a factory, dyed, processed and flavored. Lets break it down and see how it stands up to regular beef.
To many, the idea of making something in a lab to look and appear like meat is rather disheartening. One of the reasons I struggle with grocery store vegetarian options is that they are mostly made from soy and they mostly suck. Fake chicken-esque burgers are not my idea of a good meal and its hard to find some really good protein options that people can cook at home. Soy itself is not the greatest, and is notoriously bad for the environment. Both USA and Brazil are the leading producers of soy in the world, and both countries are dealing with habitat loss from increased demand. However, if we could transition completely from a meat based diet to a plant based protein diet, instead of adding soy, we might be able to end up with a net win. There is no doubt that eating down the food chain is more beneficial to the environment, but really how much?
The following information is for the Beyond Meat burger only, not the Impossible burger, which has different ingredients. The BB burger is made primarily of Pea protein, Canola oil, and Coconut oil. The color comes from Beet juice, the texture and structure is made from plant cellulose and there are flavors added to the burger.
Figure legend: GHGE: greenhouse gas emissions Kg CO2, Energy use MJ, Land use Meters squared, Water represented in Liters. All units are Equivalent units. Source of data Heller and Keoleian, 2018.
Above is a graphical representation of a life cycle analysis done by the center of sustainable systems at Michigan State University. It is abundantly clear that at all levels of resource use the BB burger uses considerably less than its equivalent in beef. The most striking difference is in water use. Beef cattle require about 1750 liters (450 gallons) per quarter pound of beef produced (USGS). Results from the Michigan state study describe that 1/4 lb of BB burger requires just 1 liter of water whereas 1/4 of beef requires a whopping 218 liters. You don’t need to care about the environment to understand the economics of using less raw materials to make the same amount of product.
So is beef on its way out? Well it would be a really good thing for the environment if the world transitioned off of a primary beef diet. As countries become wealthier they tend to eat more beef. It is a more expensive food and is seen as a status symbol all over the world. Americans and Argentinians eat the most beef and we have dedicated an enormous amount of land to the production of beef cattle. We have to have pasture for them to graze, corn for fattening, transportation to and from slaughter, and more transportation to your table. It is estimated that 59% of the land in the world is used either for grazing or growing animal feed for cattle. That is about the size of Asia and Africa combined just to make cows to eat!
If capitalism has taught us anything it is that the one that costs less will always win. So the answer is yes, beef is probably on its way out, and good riddance to it as well. We may look back on this time as the years earth was infatuated with cows. There are far better animals to cultivate that use less land, and there are now far better technologies to create food that looks, tastes and even feels like beef, with 90% less impact.
Heller and Keolian 2018, Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger Life Cycle Assessment, Center for Sustainable Systems University of Michigan, http://css.umich.edu/sites/default/files/publication/CSS18-10.pdf
USGS water use for agriculture, https://water.usgs.gov/edu/activity-watercontent.php
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, Land use for cattle, http://www.fao.org/3/ar591e/ar591e.pdf