Could fake meat change the face of agriculture?

Justin Isherwood
Will fake meat technology have the ability to change the ag industry? Makers of the Impossible Burger think so.

It’s coming, as the cover of Farm Journal warns. Meatless meat, reads the caption over what appears to be a hamburger patty. Whether it is or isn’t hamburger is less the issue than will the consumer accept or demand meatless meat.

In September, White Castle restaurants began offering their classic slider made entirely from plant-based products. Called the Impossible Slider, it sells for $1.99. The pilot study of the veggie slider began the previous April in New York and Chicago, to identify the potential of a plant-based hamburger for this 98 year old franchise.

The burger was formulated by Impossible Foods of California, the end product smells, sizzles and cooks like a hamburger. Its ingredients are wheat, potato protein, coconut oil, soy sauce and potatoes, the flavor of the burger brought together with konjac and xantham, names that sound like super-heroes from Marvel Comics.

The holy grail of a burger is—as everybody knows—is its color. When we put the kinetic weight of that patty on the grill, it’s red—a good, soul-satisfying, cannibalistic red. For us criminal types, a good hamburger bleeds out a little as the grill burns in the famous brand marks of the meat-eater.

This distinctive Neanderthal moment is theatrically captured by the veggie burger as it bleeds red just like the savage continent version at medium rare. The color and texture come from a combination of proteins, the Impossible group calls heme. Heme as found in both plants and animals, the Impossible Burger sourced from soybeans.

There has been a steady rise of the vegetarian diet with multiple attempts to include the incessant research by advocates, families, mothers, college students, naturally occurring pacifists, foodies, food and cooking publishing and industry to find meat alternatives, some more successful than others. None as imitative, as detailed as the Impossible Foods/White Castle offering designed not merely to satisfy the vegetarian contingent but convince the meat eater. 

Why? Health at the first level, if underneath a cultural backlash against modern agriculture. An agriculture that has not heeded the warning signs of discontent. CAFOs, animal fairness, water issues, antibiotics, farm size, immigrant labor, landscape impact, animal waste. Where farms are corporate identities rather than family farms. 

A lot of the vegetarian drift isn’t about the morality of killing cows, pigs, chickens, but the ethic of those creatural lives. A sense of fair play. About cows who never know pasture, herd size that must have an antibiotic regimen to survive the crowding, in turn, a health risk of world consequence.

The combination of these multiple and diverse forces has created the fake meat market with the potential to redraft American agriculture to include its land ethic, its market value, its crops.

It takes 1 bushel of corn to produce 6.7 pounds of beef. Fifty-five pounds of corn equals about seven pounds of beef. Add 2500 gallons of water and one gallon of diesel per pound of beef. Fake meat negates 75-90% of these inputs.

Beyond vegetable beef is another new source, lab meat, this is real meat grown not on a skeleton but in a petri dish or its up-scale equivalent. These meats have yet to escape the lab.

Using the same technology as will allow us to grow surgical replacements—ears, hearts, kidneys—could also yield pork chops, rib eye and buffalo wings. A different kind of industrial CAFO. Big money; specifically ADM, Cargill and Tyson are behind these ventures, and expect they will prove viable. Only to imagine the marketing: “Lab meat avoids the CAFO.”

The downside for agriculture is these methods are radical shortcuts to the table. The general figure used for a plant-based diet is that the “Impossible burger” is 8 times the efficiency of on-the-hoof protein. Lab meat could be similarly efficient.

Current agriculture acreage will have an enormous surplus if/when the meat, the technology and the consumer shifts gears. A destiny that is maybe just a generation and a half away.

Unless the consumer is given an alternative reason of beef/pork/chicken raised as a craft in an ethical, humane way, to imagine such a steak or chicken dinner would command both appeal and a fair price. This paradigm already exists, it will only get bigger.

Yet, that methane issue. Cows produce methane and that methane is a major factor in climate aberration. It is not difficult to suppose a near term attempt at world-wide control of animal numbers to enforce the vegetable replacement of beef. Methane, momentarily, has 23 times the effect of CO2 on atmospheric warming. 

Cows, combined with land clearing, emit more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector. In most analyses, a major step in reducing the greenhouse effect is reducing animal numbers. An obvious task, but will not be much fun down on the farm.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.