The average American eats nearly 60 pounds of beef (27 kg) a year — roughly equal to a couple of hundred burgers.
But for how much longer will the beef burger remain king?
A new generation of burgers made with, “plant meat” is vying to topple the beef burger from its throne, transforming the beef industry and the way we eat in the process. One industry pioneer foresees a not-too-distant future where we get the bulk, if not all, of our protein from plants, not animals.
“Our mission is very simple,” says Dr. Pat Brown, a physician and former biochemist who founded Impossible Foods in 2011. “It’s to completely replace animals as a food technology by 2035.”
Brown’s Impossible Foods, along with rival Beyond Meat, are two companies at the forefront of the plant meat revolution.
Their signature products, the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, made with soy and pea protein respectively, are marketed as being more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Their mimicry of the beef burger includes making their patties “bleed” like beef burgers. Beyond uses beet juice to achieve that effect and Impossible uses the additive heme.
Impossible Foods says its products are available at more than 10,000 outlets, such as Burger King in the United States, and multiple locations in Asia. Brown is firmly committed to eliminating animal meat from our diets. His vision isn’t too far fetched. A recent report from consultants A.T. Kearney predicted that by 2040 most of our meat won’t come from slaughtered animals, with plant-based and lab-grown alternatives taking up the slack.
“People are not wedded to the idea that meat has to come from animals. They’re very wired (to) the idea that they got to have meat,” Brown says.
‘Same sensory experience’
When Beyond Meat went public in New York on May 2, it marked another major turning point in food and health culture in the US.
The stock debuted on NASDAQ, for $25 per share. It’s now trading at more than $160 per share, a sign that the public has bought in to the concept of meat made out of plants.
This followed more than a decade of research and development by the company into burgers made from plants. The goal was to develop a product that would have the protein, nutrients, taste and mouthfeel of animal meat.
“I think of meat in terms of being amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, place vitamins, and predominantly water, just like you and me. All of those are available outside of the animal,” says Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat founder and CEO, and no relation to his counterpart at Impossible Foods.
“We’re using … thermodynamics with heating, cooling, and pressure to organize those proteins in the same structure to your sensory experience as they would present an animal muscle,” he adds.
“Then it becomes a question, do you have to have it from a cow or pig or are you comfortable with it coming from a plant?”
Beyond’s Brown says that he believes consumers will accept that meat can come from sources other than animals.
The beef with beef
The beef with beef — especially factory farming — is partly because research shows it’s severely damaging to the environment.
According to the United Nations, beef alone is responsible for 41% of livestock greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide. Those livestock emissions make up 14.5% of total global emissions.
“We have to solve this protein issue, if we’re going to have a sustainable planet, if we’re going to have a healthy population,” says Beyond’s Brown.
Jan Dutkiewicz, a Johns Hopkins University fellow and author of an upcoming book about the US meat industry called “Capitalist Pigs: The Making of the Corporate Meat Animal,” believes these plant-based meat products have come to the scene at the right time.
“There’s a shift change and change of opinion with everything from animal ethics and animal welfare to (the) acknowledgment that we’re facing a number of major environmental crisis, including the climate change crisis,” he says.
“I think Impossible and Beyond, they’re the tip of the spear that’s going to open the food market to more … meat alternative products, perhaps to agriculture and just new ways of imagining how eat.”
However Dutkiewicz cautions that while many people are willing to perhaps try plant-based meat, these products aren’t necessarily converting a mass of people into vegans or vegetarians.
Imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
Farmer Will Harris, who rears 3,000 head of cattle on his 3,500-acre organic farm in Bluffton, Georgia, says that he doesn’t feel threatened by the nascent popularity of plant-based meat.
He doesn’t think it’s a binary choice: You either eat animal meat or plant meat. Whichever a consumer chooses, he sees it as a personal lifestyle and nutritional choice.
“I have eaten plant-based protein. I’m not sure if it was Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger, I don’t know. I thought it was fine. I mean my personal preference is I’d rather have a beef hamburger.”
He thinks people who eat his organic beef feel the same way.
“My customers … understand the difference between meat done well, and meat not done well,” he said.
Harris’ family has farmed their land for more than 150 years. He makes a clear distinction between how he runs his operation and the kind of mass-meat production that’s been found to damage the environment. He thinks the focus should be on addressing the environmental cost of industrial farming, not turning plants into meat.
“We slaughter 35 head of cattle in a day. A big industrial plant will slaughter 400 head per hour. It’s different industries,” says Harris.
“We seek to emulate nature,” says Harris, sitting on the front porch of his office, the air still damp from the morning rain. The family farm used to use more industrial farming methods but switched to smaller scale, organic farming more than 20 years ago.
“I’m one of the few good ol’ boys that used to farm industrially and came to regenerative, humane production practices. We say it’s not the cow, it’s the how.”
Harris believes meat is the flesh of an animal, but isn’t dogmatic about it.
“I guess I’ve always been told that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery,” he said. “So, if they want to call it meat, that’s fine.”
However, it’s not just a matter of semantics. Last year, Missouri became the first state in the United States to pass a law banning meat substitutes from calling the products meat.
Viewed as a win for beef growers, it’s a battle that will likely be waged throughout the country.
Brown of Beyond Meat is forging ahead undeterred.
“We’re not perfectly building meat today. We’re probably 70% of the way there. We have a lot of work to do, but we have a lot of great scientists that are doing it.”