Industrial agriculture is one of the most unsustainable practices of modern civilization. Like water running down an open drain, the earth’s natural resources are rapidly dissipating as industrialized farming drives air pollution, water pollution, aquifer depletion, deforestation, rising carbon emissions and the depletion, erosion and poisoning of soils.1
The long-term answer, however, lies in the transition to sustainable, regenerative, chemical-free farming practices — not in the creation of food manufacturing techniques that replace farms with chemistry labs, which is the “environmentally friendly” alternative envisioned by biotech startups and its chemists.
The conventional meat industry in particular has been shown to have a deleterious influence on our environment and climate, giving rise to a number of efforts to bring animal replacement products to market — not just fake beef but also poultry and fish.2
The Price of Fake Food Goes Beyond Dollars and Cents
The Good Food Institute is described as “a nonprofit organization that supports cell-cultured meat startups and sometimes lobbies on their behalf.”3 During the first session of TED2019 Fellows talks,4 the institute’s executive director, Bruce Friedrich, spoke about the future of cultured meat “grown from cells in bioreactors,” noting that the estimated price for these “sustainable meats” will likely be around $50 for a single burger.
In an April 16, 2019, article for The Atlantic,5 Olga Khazan talks about the Silicon Valley startup Just (previously Hampton Creek), and its lab-grown chicken nuggets, which at present has a price tag of $100 per nugget.
Granted, the price of new technology always comes down in time (as noted by QZ.com, the price of cell-cultured meat has come down from a would-be $1.2 million per pound in 2013 to $100 per pound as of this year6), but you really need to question the rationale for creating extraordinarily expensive lab-grown meat when a far less expensive and more reasonable answer is readily available.
What’s worse, fake meats may ultimately create more problems than they solve, as laboratory derived meat substitutes are not part of the ecological cycle and health hazards are as of yet entirely unknown. This basic lack of understanding affects regulatory efforts as well.
As noted by Al Almanza, former acting deputy under secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we still do not know “what’s normal or abnormal, and thus potentially unsafe, in a cultured-chicken plant.”7
Without this knowledge, food inspectors have no idea what to look for, companies cannot devise and implement proper safety protocols and regulators cannot make regulations to ensure safety. As noted by The Atlantic, “while Just argues that its process is better, from a food-safety standpoint, than animal slaughter, we only have the company’s word to go on at this point.”
What’s more, while livestock are accused of being a significant contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change, what detractors fail to recognize is that this problem is restricted to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) only. Organic grass fed beef production is actually a crucial remedy for our environmental problems, and addresses the animal cruelty issue as well.
Growing meat cells in a lab does absolutely nothing to actually improve the environment, and therefore cannot be said to promote environmental sustainability and regeneration. More importantly, there is absolutely no proof that it’s actually a healthier alternative to eating real grass fed meat or pastured chicken.
What Is Cell-Cultured Meat and How Is It Made?
As one would expect with a man-made product, scientists have developed a number of different proprietary ways to grow meat without the actual raising of a live animal. In The Atlantic, Khazan describes her surprise at Just’s chicken nugget tasting very much like chicken, albeit without the hallmark “gaminess,” and explains the process used to create it:8
“This chicken began life as a primordial mush in a bioreactor whose dimensions and brand I’m not allowed to describe to you, for intellectual-property reasons.
Before that, it was a collection of cells swirling calmly in a red-hued, nutrient-rich ‘media,’ with a glass flask for an eggshell. The chicken is definitely real, and technically animal flesh, but it left the world as it entered it — a mass of meat, ready for human consumption, with no brain or wings or feet.”
If this sounds like mad science to you, you’re not alone. Should we really recreate nature without the prerequisite “life” of nature? Fake meat companies argue that “almost all the food we eat, at some point, crosses a laboratory, whether in the course of researching flavors or perfecting packaging,” Khazan writes.
Essentially, they’re comparing their lab-created meat with processed and ultraprocessed food, which is hardly a healthy comparison if you’re claiming to produce something of significant nutritional value that will have a beneficial impact on health! Again and again, researchers have shown that a processed diet promotes disease and cuts life short.9,10,11,12 Can we expect anything different from “meat” that is processed from start to finish?
In 2015, Business Insider13 reported that more than half a dozen former employees of Just (then Hampton Creek) accused the company of using “shoddy science,” ignoring science and “stretching the truth.” At the time, Hampton Creek was primarily working on egg replacements. Business Insider wrote:14
“Several former employees told us Hampton Creek is not employing nearly as much science as it says it does. Many Silicon Valley startups exaggerate about how advanced their technology is, the properties of their products, and other metrics.
But many former Hampton Creek employees say the company pushed them beyond their ethical comfort levels … One went as far as to describe it as a ‘cult of delusion’ …
The first version of Hampton Creek’s flagship product, the Just Mayo mayonnaise substitute, was not initially developed in house. Hampton Creek outsourced early development to Mattson, a food-tech company in Silicon Valley, according to several former employees.
‘We just threw money at them, and they came back in the first week with a formulation. It’s just food starch with pea protein,’ a former employee said. ‘Josh [Tetrick] got this, and he promoted it like it was an amazing invention’ …
‘The entire time I was there we weren’t aware of how it emulsified,’ a former employee said, referring to the eggless mayonnaise. ‘We weren’t able to prove how it works. Josh liked to convey this notion that we had a great understanding of the science’ …
Former employees said the company also debated how to label ingredients and knowingly used more general terms so the products appeared more natural.”
Burger King Introduces Fake Meat Burger
Another now-leading meat substitute company is Impossible Foods, which boasts a meatless “bleeding” burger.15,16,17,18 April 1, 2019, The Verge reported19 Burger King is now trialing the Impossible Whopper at 59 locations in the St. Louis area. If customer demand turns out to be sufficient, the fake burger will be launched at all 7,200 U.S. locations.
Contrary to lab grown meat made from cell cultures,20 the meat substitute created by Impossible Foods contains a mix of wheat, coconut oil, potatoes and “heme” derived from genetically engineered (GE) yeast. A primary ingredient in the Impossible Burger is GE soy leghemoglobin, which releases a heme-like protein when broken down.
This protein is what gives the plant-based patty its meatlike look, taste and texture, and makes the patty “bleed” when cooked. While the company refers to it as “heme,” technically, plants produce non-heme iron.21 Heme iron only occurs in meat and seafood. A main difference between heme and non-heme iron has to do with their absorbability.
Plant-based non-heme iron is less readily absorbed. This is one of the reasons why vegans are at higher risk of iron deficiency anemia than meat eaters. Moreover, while soy leghemoglobin is found in the roots of soybean plants, the company is recreating it using GE yeast. As explained on the company website:22
“Heme is exceptionally abundant in animal muscle — and it’s a basic building block of life in all organisms, including plants. We discovered how to take heme from plants and produce it using fermentation … We genetically engineer yeast to make a key ingredient: heme. The process allows us to produce the Impossible Burger at scale with the lowest achievable environmental impact.
We start with the gene for a protein called leghemoglobin, a heme protein that is naturally found in the root nodules of soy plants … We add the soy leghemoglobin gene to a yeast strain, and grow the yeast via fermentation. Then we isolate the leghemoglobin, or heme, from the yeast. We add heme to the Impossible Burger to give it the intense, meaty flavor, aroma and cooking properties of animal meat.”
Possible Risks of the Impossible Burger
While the meatless patties are now sold in thousands of restaurants across the U.S., questions remain about its long-term safety for human health. Friends of the Earth, an environmental activism group with an international following, has pointed out that we do not yet know enough about the health effects of eating this kind of fake meat, and that its speedy market release is foolhardy at best.
In its report “From Lab to Fork: Critical Questions on Laboratory-Created Animal Product Alternatives,”23 released in June 2018, Friends of the Earth calls for more stringent safety assessments, regulations and labeling requirements.
Dana Perls, a Friends of the Earth food and agriculture campaigner, told Bloomberg,24 “We need real data. People have been clear that they want real, truly sustainable organic food, as opposed to venture capitalist hype which could lead us down the wrong path.”
The report highlights a number of health and safety concerns and environmental impacts hidden beneath “climate-friendly” claims. It also points out the lack of substantiation for “clean meat,” “animal-free,” “plant-based” and “sustainable” claims. As reported by Bloomberg:25
“Friends of the Earth has raised concerns about ‘heme,’ the protein derived from genetically engineered yeast that Impossible Foods said gives the burger its faux meatiness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] has asked for more ‘direct’ evidence of safety as well as more testing on allergens, as reported by The New York Times26 last summer.
‘It needs to be done by a third party,’ Perls said of testing heme, with research ‘on long-term health implications.’ Impossible Foods said a panel of experts it hired has twice determined the substance to be safe, in 2014 and 2017.”
To those familiar with how the system works, however, the hiring of “a panel of experts” to confirm safety brings little to no comfort.
As explained in my 2015 article, “Flawed GRAS System Lets Novel Chemicals Into Food Supply Without FDA Safety Review,” a company can simply hire an industry insider to evaluate a brand-new ingredient, and if that individual determines that the ingredient in question meets federal safety standards, it can be deemed “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS, with no further independent third party evaluation being required.
That’s what happened here.27 The fact that Impossible Foods hired and paid for the panel members to do the GRAS evaluation of its key ingredient (soy leghemoglobin made from GE yeast) is reason enough to take the safety claim with a grain of salt.28
According to the FDA, the research included in the company’s GRAS notification (which is voluntary) was actually inadequate and could not, in fact, establish safety. Importantly, the company’s assessment of allergenicity was lacking. However, as permitted by GRAS rules, Impossible Foods simply withdrew its voluntary GRAS notification to the FDA and began marketing its meatless burger without the agency’s official blessing.
Bareburger Enters Into Transparency Initiative With Organic Consumers Association
In related news, the organic hamburger chain Bareburger is being sued for deceptive marketing, as it uses the term “organic” even though many of its foods are anything but. The chain actually sells the Impossible Burger, and makes no mention of the fact that it’s made with GE protein.29,30 Far from being organic, the Impossible Burger cannot even be said to be “natural.”
That said, on April 10, 2019, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) announced Bareburger had agreed to a transparency initiative31 “aimed at providing consumers with full transparency about the origin, nature and quality of the food they eat at Bareburger restaurants.”
According to the OCA, Bareburger will remove “ambiguous ‘organic’ statements form store signs and marketing materials” and start identifying organic products on its menu “at the ingredient level.”
Meat Substitutes Are Not an Environmentally Friendly Solution
In the podcast above, Sustainable Dish interviews Ronnie Cummins, executive director and cofounder of the OCA, about the importance of grass fed livestock farming for climate stability, environmental health, sustainability and regeneration. As explained in many previous articles, livestock are crucial components that make farming truly regenerative, as they help build healthy soils.
Lab-derived meat substitutes do not contribute to this healthy ecological cycle, which makes the industry’s claims on sustainability questionable at best. As noted by Friends of the Earth, sustainability claims really need to be backed up by a full environmental impact assessment, starting with the product’s creation and ending with its disposal.
Meat substitutes often require water, chemicals and fossil fuel inputs, and in that respect, differ little from conventional agriculture. For example, an Environmental Science and Technology study32 published in 2015 revealed that lab-grown meat, where the meat is cultured from stem cells, actually requires more energy than conventional agriculture! As explained in the study’s abstract:
“Cultured, or in vitro, meat consists of edible biomass grown from animal stem cells in a factory, or carnery. In the coming decades, in vitro biomass cultivation could enable the production of meat without the need to raise livestock.
Using an anticipatory life cycle analysis framework, the study described herein examines the environmental implications of this emerging technology and compares the results with published impacts of beef, pork, poultry, and another speculative analysis of cultured biomass.
While uncertainty ranges are large, the findings suggest that in vitro biomass cultivation could require smaller quantities of agricultural inputs and land than livestock; however, those benefits could come at the expense of more intensive energy use as biological functions such as digestion and nutrient circulation are replaced by industrial equivalents.
From this perspective, large-scale cultivation of in vitro meat and other bioengineered products could represent a new phase of industrialization with inherently complex and challenging trade-offs.”
As noted by Perls, “We’ve had the experience of watching the environmental impacts of some food products, and we really can’t afford to create more unsustainable food systems that take us in another wrong direction” — which is precisely what the fake meat industry is doing, and in more ways than one. Aside from the fact that it doesn’t appear to have any regenerative capabilities that would benefit the ecosystem, there’s also the issue of health effects.
Go Grass Fed, Not Lab Fed
Creating patented lab-grown meat products is not about feeding the world or eliminating animal suffering. It’s about dominating billionaires looking to put patents on the food system.
While many view lab-created meat substitutes as the lesser of two evils when comparing it CAFO meat that currently dominates the market, taking nature out of the equation altogether is clearly not the answer, especially since holistic herd management is an integral part that makes regenerative agriculture truly regenerative.
When animals are raised according to regenerative agriculture, a healthy ecosystem is maintained, one that is both healing for the land and productive for the farmers. Eating meat is not synonymous with harming the environment; it’s industrial farming practices — CAFOs — that inflict the damage.
Some also believe eating meat means ripping out more forests so animals can graze, but I’m certainly not advocating for that. U.S. cropland is currently dominated by a two-crop planting cycle of corn and soybeans, largely for animal feed.
Like CAFOs, these monocrops are devastating the environment, and even though they’re plant foods, are part of the problem, not the solution. Getting rid of these large swaths of corn and soy fields — which are laden with chemicals and largely devoid of life — is key, as is reverting them back to what they were before, namely grasslands for grazing animals.
Grasslands are key to fixing many environmental problems, and herbivores are a necessary part of this ecosystem. By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals — meaning allowing livestock to graze freely, and moving the herd around in specific patterns — farmers can support nature’s efforts to regenerate and thrive.
This kind of land management system promotes the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by sequestering it back into the soil where it can do a lot of good. Once in the earth, the CO2 can be safely stored for hundreds of years and adds to the soil’s fertility.
Lab-made meat substitutes, on the other hand, do nothing to contribute to the regeneration of our environment. In fact, by being more energy intensive, fake meats continue pushing environmental problems to the brink. If your main concerns are animal welfare and environmental sustainability, your best bet is to support and buy meats that are certified grass fed organic, raised and slaughtered under humane conditions.
The most dependable source is meat certified by the American Grassfed Association (AGA), which ensures animals were born and raised on American family farms, fed only grass and forage from weaning until harvest, have not been treated with hormones or antibiotics, and raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots.