It was no April Fool’s joke. Burger King announced April 1 that it is testing the “Impossible Whopper” in certain markets. Impossible Foods is a company that makes substances that have the look, texture and taste of hamburger, but are made from plant-based materials. Feed your burger craving and save the planet—Impossible Foods promises.
We’ve tested the Impossible burger and it lives up to the hype, at least as far as taste and texture goes. If farmers and ranchers think they can ignore “fake-meat” by dismissing it as another bad-tasting veggie burger, they are mistaken. Instead, I think the Impossible Whopper is a wake-up call for farmers, ranchers, and the meat industry. It is not enough to sell a product that tastes better. For beef to compete in the future, it is going to have to be better for the planet than plant-based alternatives.
Let me explain.
One of the key selling points from Impossible Foods is that its product is better for the planet. Its website claims, when compared to an equivalent beef burger, an Impossible Burger uses 87% less water, 96% less land, 89% fewer greenhouse-gas-emissions, and 92% fewer aquatic pollutants. Most of these reductions come from the “raw material production stage” according to Impossible Foods. These are pretty remarkable claims, and you can read them in the study commissioned by Impossible Foods on its website.
I am skeptical, of course. Aquatic eutrophication potential assumes raising cattle will always cause a certain level of water pollution. That is not true. “Land occupation” suggests that any use of land for raising animals is an unsustainable choice. This ignores that much of the world’s land is only suitable for food production by allowing pasture-grazing animals to convert grass to protein, fiber, materials etc. And decreasing “water consumption” is an issue, but only in parts of the world where there is a water shortage. Much of US cropland and ranchland has plenty of water, even without irrigation.
Impossible Foods’ biggest selling point is that it is a climate-friendly alternative to beef. It claims a 60% decrease in global warming potential. Its research is somewhat old (in climate science years) based upon studies from 2006 and 2008, and Impossible Foods does not show how it arrived at its calculations. But in any event, I am not a climate scientist and will not pretend to be one. There are qualified scientists who would disagree. For example, read the recent work by the UN’s FAO and Frank Mitlohner, a UC Davis researcher who focuses on this area. Some of the FAO’s more recent conclusions: 86% of livestock feed is not suitable for humans; and cattle need only 0.6 kg of protein in feed to make 1 kg of protein in milk or meat.
Likewise, a recent USDA ARS report asked what the world would look like if we replaced all meat, eggs, and dairy with plant-based protein sources? It is not as simple as erasing livestock’s carbon footprint from the calculation, because that overlooks the environmental impact to produce alternatives. USDA concluded ending animal agriculture would reduce GHG emissions by 2.6%, but we would need a lot more crop land, a lot more synthetic fertilizer, and we would face nutritional deficiencies we do not have now. Likewise, replacing every hamburger patty with an Impossible patty would not have an insignificant impact on the environment.
Beef has a lot going for it on the sustainability front that plant-based protein alternatives do not. A cow converts forages into protein, leather, and other products. The main byproduct, manure, is returned to the earth as fertilizer for more forage. We use the entire animal. Plant-based meats lack this closed loop life-cycle and are essentially converting raw materials into a processed food.
But that does not mean cattle ranchers, farmers, and feedlot owners should dismiss the Impossible Burger. It tastes pretty good. Some of its reduced environmental impact claims might have merit. And the product’s main ingredient, soy, is grown by farmers who have a stake in the food supply chain too.
If nothing else, the arrival of the Impossible Whopper should leave the beef industry with this takeaway: many consumers will choose a protein source based not on pure taste, but on the food’s environmental impact—whether real or perceived. I think this trend will continue. For that reason, in the future it will not be enough for beef to better tasting, it must be better produced than its plant-based alternatives. The beef industry must recognize this or risk becoming a luxury product.
Update: For a good follow up to this post, please read Lauren Manning’s article at AgFunder: Alternative Proteins: Let’s Set the Record Straight about Livestock’s Carbon Footprint