The End of Beef: Truth or a Whopper?

August 20, 2019

I went to Burger King to try the new “Impossible Whopper”. Gotta say, it’s actually good, delivers the real whopper experience, whatever that is.
I think they’re going to sell a buttload of these.

That’s good, right?

Rowan Jacobsen in Outside:
This Is the Beginning of the End of the Beef Industry
Alt meat isn’t going to stay alt for long, and cattle are looking more and more like stranded assets

There’s a famous Gandhi aphorism about how movements progress: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” That was actually written by the Workshop on Nonviolence Instituteas a summary of Gandhi’s philosophy, but regardless, it’s remarkable how often it accurately describes the evolution of causes, fromlegal cannabis to gay marriage. I’ve been thinking about that quote since I wrote my first piece about plant-based meat (or alt meat, as I like to call it) for Outside in 2014. Back then, we were firmly in the “laugh at you” stage. Beyond Meat, the first of the Silicon Valley startups to use advanced technology to produce extremely meat-like burgers, had been ignored for its first few years, but in 2014, it released its Beast Burger, which was treated by the press and public as a slightly off-putting curiosity. What was this stuff? Would anyone actually eat it? Ewwww.

That product wasn’t very good—I compared it to Salisbury steak—and when Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat’s founder, announced his intention to end livestock production, you could almost hear the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association laughing in the background.
But I didn’t laugh. I knew it would keep getting better and beef wouldn’t. And I thought the bar was pretty low. Sure, steak is great, but ground beef makes up 60 percent of beef sales, and most of it is more Salisbury than salutary, a greasy vehicle for the yummy stuff: ketchup, mushrooms, pickles, bacon, sriracha mayo. I knew I wouldn’t object if my central puck came from a plant, as long as it chewed right and tasted right. I suspected others might feel the same.

Anna Lappe in Medium:

Impossible Foods — maker of the veggie “burger that bleeds” — is the latest darling of the food-tech world. Its stardom is driven largely by its claims that the burger is better for the planet than the real thing: But what’s actually in its signature patty raises big questions. Despite these questions, Forbes has given it glowing coverage; The New York Times has served up front-page column inches. Katy Perry, Questlove, and Jay-Z are all investors. And the company is already shorthand for a dot-com wunderkind. At a recent tech conference I attended more than one pitch led with “We are the Impossible Foods of…” This status comes from a PR arsenal, of course, a novel product, yes, but also from the company’s explicit courtship of the ethical foodie, tapping a new generation of eaters who want to ensure the food on their plate helps the planet. In its very mission statement, Impossible Foods claims it will “drastically reduce humanity’s destructive impact on the global environment” by using plant-based proteins. But just because it’s not meat, doesn’t mean it’s a planetary panacea.

Just because it’s not meat, doesn’t mean it’s a planetary panacea.
To be clear, I’m all for Impossible Foods top execs calling out the environmental impacts of industrial livestock production. My mother, Frances Moore Lappé has been ringing these alarm bells for nearly fifty years, starting with her 1971 Diet for a Small Planet. And ten years ago, I wrote a book about the food sector’s impact on climate change and the significant role of industrial livestock. But while others have raised health concerns over Impossible Foods’ genetically engineered heme protein or environmental concerns over its energy-saving estimates, I’m alarmed about the company going all in on genetically engineered soy. Impossible Foods CEO claims its sourcing of genetically engineered soy is a reflection of the company’s “commitment to consumers and our planet,” but the troubling track record of just such soy is at odds with that commitment.
This is no small quibble: This is about fact-checking a company raising millions of investor dollars on its eco-claims, but ultimately, this is about being clear about what food we should be producing, and eating, to the save the planet.
New evidence is revealing we are teetering on the edge of an era of massive extinction, propelled in large part by the very pesticides and practices used with genetically engineered crops like that soy destined for Impossible Burgers. In a groundbreaking new study, researchers estimate that 40 percent of insect species face extinction — and we could be looking down the barrel of total insect population collapse by century’s end, primarily as the result of the agricultural pesticides and mega-monocultures of industrial agriculture. Designed specifically for intensive chemical use, genetically engineered crops are key drivers of this impact.

The introduction of genetically engineered crops has led to a massive increase in the use of pesticides globally. Planted for the first time in the mid-1990s, nearly all of these crops to date have been engineered to either express an insecticide, resist an herbicide, or both. Today, 94 percent of soy is genetically engineered, mostly to be resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup. Prior to the introduction of these “Roundup-Ready” crops, farmers had to be judicious about using weed-killer; but Roundup-resistant crops meant farmers could spray more and more often — and they did. From 1990 to 2014, the amount of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, jumped from 7.7 million pounds to 250 million — a 1,347 percent increase with most of that used on genetically engineered crops like the soy in those Impossible Foods burgers. Today, glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world.There is mounting evidence about the ecological impact of this boom.

In China, researchers found that glyphosate exposure led to honeybee larvae deaths. In the United States, studies have connected Monarch butterfly decline with glyphosate use, particularly as milkweed on which the butterfly depends has been decimated. Another study found Roundup use resulted in a 70 percent decline in the “species richness of tadpoles.” And yet another found that the herbicide adversely affects “soil and intestinal microflora and plant disease resistance” and is “toxic to a range of aquatic organisms.”

There’s more. You get the idea.

Outside again:

In the following years, Beyond Meat was joined by Impossible Foods, a more sophisticated startup with even more venture capital. Its Impossible Burger was way better than Salisbury steak. All the cool cats started serving it, from David Chang in New York to Traci Des Jardins in San Francisco. My conviction grew.
Part of the appeal of the new burgers is their smaller environmental footprint. Beef is the most wasteful food on the planet. Cows are not optimized to make meat; they’re optimized to be cows. It takes 36,000 calories of feed to produce 1,000 calories of beef. In the process, it uses more than 430 gallons of water and 1,500 square feet of land, and it generates nearly ten kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions. In comparison, an Impossible Burger uses 87 percent less water, 96 percent less land, and produces 89 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. Beyond Meat’s footprint is similarly svelte.
Yes, a good argument can be made that small-farm, grass-fed beef production (in places that can grow abundant grass) has a very different ethical and environmental landscape, but unfortunately, that’s just not a significant factor. America gets 97 percent of its beef from feedlots. And feedlots are irredeemable.

And then there’s Burger King. The second-largest fast-food chain in the world rattled big beef’s cage by testing an Impossible Whopper in St. Louis in April. Resultingfoot traffic was so strong that Burger King decided to serve the Impossible Whopper in all 7,200 restaurants, marking the moment when alt meat stopped being alt. 
That was enough to get the meat industry to snap to attention. “About a year and a half ago, this wasn’t on my radar whatsoever,” said Mark Dopp, head of regulatory affairs for the North American Meat Association, to The New York Times.“All of a sudden, this is getting closer.” 
The strategy, predictably yet pathetically, was to engage in an ontological battle over the term meat itself. Big beef successfully lobbied for a labeling law in Missouri banning any products from identifying themselves as meat unless they are “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” (But this is wrong; the word simply meant sustenance for the first thousand years of its existence.) Similar labeling laws have passed or are pending in a dozen more states, most of them big ranching ones.
Obviously, none of this has stemmed the rise of alt meat. But it did make me think again of Gandhi (a staunch vegetarian, FYI). They ignored, they laughed, and now they werefighting. 
This stuff, I thought, just might win.
This year is shaping up to be the inflection point when this becomes obvious to everybody else. Beyond Meat’s products are in 15,000 grocery stores in the U.S., and its sales have more than doubled each year. On May 2, it held its IPO, offering stock at $25, which turned out to be a wild underestimation of what investors thought the company was worth. It immediately leaped to $46 and closed the day at $65.75. That one-day pop of 163 percent was one of the best in decades, putting to shame such 2019 IPOs as Lyft (21 percent) and Pinterest (25 percent), to say nothing of Uber (negative 3 percent). In the following days, it kept ripping, climbing above $150, where it has stayed. The market currently estimates Beyond Meat’s worth at close to $10 billion.
Not to be outdone, that same month, Impossible Foods raised an additional $300 million dollars from private investors (for a running total of $740 million and a valuation of $2 billion) and announced it would be joining Beyond Meat in America’s grocery stores later this year. These companies are no longer little mammals scurrying around the feet of the big-beef dinosaurs. And they are gearing up for an epic head-to-head battle.

Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods recently released new, improved versions of their meat. For the past week, I’ve subsisted on little else. It feels great. Both have the same amount of protein as ground beef (about 20 grams per quarter-pound serving) and less fat. Being plant-based, they also provide a healthy shot of fiber. Both get their unctuousness from coconut oil. 
But the core of each formula is very different. Beyond uses pea protein, while Impossible uses soy. Beyond gets its bloody color from beet juice; Impossible uses heme—the same molecule that makes our blood red—to achieve its meaty color and flavor. This is its killer app. Beef gets its beefiness from heme. When you cook heme, it produces the distinctive savory, metallic flavor of meat. Since heme is normally found in blood, no veggie concoction has ever used it. Soy plants do make microscopic amounts of it, but not enough to ever use. Impossible Foods’ breakthrough was to genetically engineer yeast to produce soy heme in a tank, like beer. This GMO process is a deal breaker for some people, but it makes all the difference. The Impossible Burger is incredible, the Beyond Burger merely passable. 

Recent projections suggest that 60 percent of the meat eaten in 2040 will be alt, a figure I think may actually be too conservative. An estimated 95 percent of the people buying alt burgers are meat-eaters. This is not about making vegetarians happy. It’s not even about climate change. This is a battle for America’s flame-broiled soul. Meat is about to break free from its animal past. As traditional meat companies embrace alt meat with the fervor of the just converted, making it cheap and ubiquitious, it’s unclear if Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods can survive the feeding frenzy (though Impossible’s patents on its core IP may help), but at least they’ll be able to comfort themselves with a modern take on Gandhi’s wisdom:

First they ignore you.
Then they laugh at you.
Then they sue you.
Then they try to buy you.
Then they copy you.
Then they steal your shelf space.
Then they put you out of business.
Then you’ve won.

24 Responses to “The End of Beef: Truth or a Whopper?”

  1. rsmurf Says:

    Not sure if this is really gonna flip anyone, but it will help the “I can’t eat there they don’t have any vegetarian options” people.

    • rsmurf Says:

      The down side is it uses GMO ingredients, so its off the table for me.

      • greenman3610 Says:

        got it, but predict non-gmo options will keep getting better. because markets.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        The down side is it uses GMO ingredients, so its off the table for me.

        If you’re still eating beef in lieu of GM soybeans, that’s a poor ecological tradeoff.

        BTW, it sounds as if you’re lumping all GMO together. There should be no reason to avoid the heme produced by GM yeast.

        • rsmurf Says:

          Not sure there is a choice between beef and GM soybeans. But I don’t eat a significant amount of beef. And yes I lump all GM together. Do I necessarily think GM is dangerous, no, but we still don’t understand the consequences of the things we do, mostly because we would rather not know the consequences. But the major purpose of GM is protecting crops from being doused with dangerous poisons. The biggest being roundup. So I refuse to eat GM if I can identify that its in my food.

  2. Frank Johnston Says:

    But we, grasslands and the planet need grazing animals.

  3. Fred Cunningham Says:

    I’ve tried both and one factor is how they are cooked. I liked the Beyond Burger better because it was juicier but someone else had one that was overcooked and hated it. I don’t think that I can tell the impossible Whopper from the regular Whopper but I’m sure that some people can. I’ve had super premium burgers in another taste category but these new products are acceptical, unlike a veggie burger I had years ago. I would like to see the price come down.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I think the meatless whopper is still imperfect but a pretty great option when you are on the road and only fast food is available, which for me is way too much of the time.

  4. Dana Nuccitelli Says:

    I like it too – also the Beyond Famous Star at Carl’s Jr.! And Del Taco has Beyond burritos. Love seeing the expansion of meatless options to these fast food joints that serve so many customers.

  5. jimbills Says:

    I’ve had three. Two were in the St. Louis test market when I was there for a family wedding and one was in a small town outside Dallas on the August 8 release. The St. Louis ones were good – I’d say 90% close to beef. It has a slightly drier taste to it. On a Whopper with all the fixings it’s hard to tell the difference.

    I swear the third one was actually beef, which wouldn’t surprise me. The restaurant was stupid disorganized that day. My order was completely wrong when they handed it to me. It’s made me nervous about going back there again, though. I never order beef these days due to the environmental concerns.

    I wasn’t the only person ordering an Impossible Whopper those times.

    My guess is that the faux meat thing is here to stay, especially if it can provide a close facsimile to real meat. They’ll account for decent sales numbers. That’s largely a good thing – it generally means less resource use per calorie and fewer emissions. Unless real meat rises in price far above the faux, though, I don’t think we’ll see it become an enormous thing (meaning, a serious threat to the meat industry or the ‘end of beef’) any time soon. Burger King has the Impossible Whopper as a special now – they haven’t committed to it permanently.

    That could happen in the future, however – meat is too cheap right now and society is paying for the externalities of the industry. Environmental degradation and water shortages will likely cause higher prices as well.

    For now, though, this will be for a certain market. Hard core vegetarians will probably avoid it, as it tastes too much like meat. Hard core meat eaters will stick with meat. The more health or environmentally minded might choose the faux, though, when or if they can.

    I’ve been fascinated about this since hearing about it here. I’ll order it once in a while, but I’ve mostly gotten used to going without beef – or beef-like.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I’d like to know if Impossible “meat” has the same inspection and storage costs as butchered and processed cow meat.

  6. rabiddoomsayer Says:

    Cows on the ranges, where the land is too poor to do anything else with, are a positive in the environment. Their waste goes back into the soil and builds it up and the grass munched down grows back all by itself. In many ways cows are an environmental replacement replacement for the missing buffalo.

    Feedlots are bad for the environment and bad for the consumer that eats too much fat.

    The meat good/ meat bad argument needs to get much more nuanced.

    Off topic, LNG powered ships are a big thing now. Not just new cruise liners

    • rsmurf Says:

      In texas they cut down trees to run cattle till the land is so worn out they have to cut more trees to run them, not a PLUS for the environment, in addition there are so many other things wrong with your statement it’s not worth bothering correcting you.

      • Keith Omelvena Says:

        Yeah, maybe, but that isn’t necessarily an analogy for how cattle farming can be done in an environmentally friendly way, though is it? It’s someones greedy management practice decision. The same could be said for trees cleared to grow soy!

        • leslie graham Says:

          In the Scottish Highlands free range cattle built up the fertility of the soil over centuries. Then the ruling class evicted all the surfs as they could make more money from sheep. The sheep turned the countryside into the barren ‘wet desert’ it is today.
          Just to illustrate that cattle CAN be good for the soil in the right areas and in the right numbers. No way that system could supply the US market though.

          But the comment I wanted to make is that I find it somewhat amusing that the human race still discuss issues such as beef raising and petrol usage as though we had some kind of choice about these things.
          We don’t. We have to stop burning fossil fuels and we have to stop wasting food by feeding it to cows. If we don’t we – and the cows – go extinct.

          • Keith Omelvena Says:

            I run a few cattle and food they eat is in no way palatable, or nutritious, to humans. The ground they graze doesn’t have competing food growing options. The calories they produce adds to the global food supply, not subtracts from it. Unfortunately, without some protection for smallholders, if the meat market crashes, it’ll be the industrial feed lots with huge economies of scale that survive. The opposite of what needs to happen!

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            “We have to stop burning fossil fuels and we have to stop wasting food by feeding it to cows.”

            90% of crop agriculture biomass is wastage. Much of animal feed comes from this.

            Globally, 86% of what a cow eats is not suitable for human consumption. The figure for the US is likely to be MUCH higher than 86%.

            In the US, beef accounts for under 2% of GHG emissions, and even that figure is likely too high. (trust me, we don’t need to get into it)

            Meanwhile, back not at the ranch, fossil fuels are responsible for roughly 90% of US GHG emissions.

            Since we do NOT have a food shortage or a grain shortage, and fossil fuels represent an emissions number at a minimum 45 times higher than cows, maybe we should worry less about beef and more about fossil fuels?

  7. mboli Says:

    Dang! I like veggie burgers. Some of them, anyway.

    My gut feeling is: why would anybody want them to look and taste like meat? If you move from Maine to San Diego, you wouldn’t complain that winter didn’t taste like snow. So why complain that veggie burgers don’t taste like meat?

    (I know the answer to why people want meat-tasting veggie burgers, but I don’t feel it in my gut.)

    It seems possible these ersatz-meat products may drive gluten-free veggie burgers out of the market. Unfortunate.

    • jimbills Says:

      They might cut their market share but they won’t kill all veggie burgers. Again, hardcore vegetarians don’t want to feel like they are eating meat. Additionally, veggie burgers are healthier than the current fake meat burgers. There will continue to be a strong market for veggie burgers to those two sectors.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      “I like veggie burgers. Some of them, anyway.

      My gut feeling is: why would anybody want them to look and taste like meat? ”

      I like veggie burgers too. (And falafel.) But they ain’t beef. Ain’t they ain’t like a real hamburger.

      If people want to eat Impossible burgers, more power to them. Just don’t think they are helping the planet by doing so. We have not yet seen a single cradle to grave analysis of the GHG emissions of an Impossible burger compared to a beef burger. And I would bet that it would not compare well, at least in the US.

      A beef burger has one component – ground beef. An Impossible burger probably has at least a dozen. All of which have to be produced by a manufacturing process using raw materials that have to be refined, transported etc.

      Replacing the calories and protein from meat with vegetable calories and protein is almost certainly going to result in an increase of GHG emissions, since vegetable agriculture produces more GHG-eq emissions than the entire livestock industry. And the livestock industry produces a lot more than meat, eggs, and dairy.

  8. jimbills Says:

    So, this is just an observation and not meant as being personal to any of the commenters here. But did anyone else notice how much pushback this is getting – here? We’re talking on a website devoted to climate change – not some right wing blog or news site.

    And we’re not talking about any sort of regulation or governmental policy. It’s market stuff – which is going to happen anyway.

    Additionally, were talking about reducing emissions, water use, and pollution by a fairly small amount. It’s not some radical thing, at least not until the fundamentals in the market shift. But it IS a step in the right direction, however small. And this seems like too much change. Here. It’s no wonder why even the slightest change towards environmental issues meets massive resistance at every step.

    • rsmurf Says:

      The only pushback I have is they use GMO ingredients! All bets are off if GMO is used.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      James William, INDEED! Not only on this post either.
      Also, automatic demonisation of GMOs is ideological approaching anti vaccination. Not all bad and probably necessary in the future. Unless one believes massive population drop is a good thing.

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