We need a framework to better understand how marketing of the alt-meat category has created public perceptions about its environmental and dietary impact. Here’s how: think biofuels.
For starters, whether we’re talking about shamburgers or gasohol, let’s specify that there are two different subcategories that are (unfortunately) lumped together in most media coverage.
Within the alt-meat category, there are products now on the market that are simply sophisticated versions of vegetarian analogs that have been on the market for decades, glorified veggie patties using genetically engineered heme molecules and isolated plant protein ingredients to mimic the mouthfeel and flavor of real beef, pork or chicken.
Think a kitchen bowl with all the ingredients needed to form a palatable patty that eats somewhat like a hamburger or chicken nuggets — only manufactured on a commercial scale.
But there are also entrepreneurs developing “cultured meat,” faux foods using so-called cellular technology to replicate actual cells from animal tissue in a nutrient substrate to produce a proteinaceous substance with the molecular, if not the sensory, properties of animal flesh.
Think laboratory test tubes — only tanks the size of swimming pools.
With both types of products, the market positioning is similar: consumers can now purchase nutritious, meat-like protein foods without the ecological impact required to grow feed crops and minus the (alleged) animal suffering associated with slaughtering livestock, all while using significantly less energy to produce the same volume of caloric value.
In other words, consumers can have their “meat” and eat it, too.
Two distinct subcategories
Now apply those same distinctions to the biofuel category.
Like veggie analogs, ethanol produced from corn, sugar cane or other plant-based substrates has long been on the market as an alternative fuel. It’s isn’t exactly the same as petroleum-derived gasoline, but it’s similar — the way veggie burgers are similar to hamburgers — and in fact, plenty of vehicles have been converted to run on ethanol. In fact, most cars and trucks these days are fueled by a blend of ethanol and gasoline, in much the same manner as ground beef can be blended with plant proteins.
In both cases, a strong argument can be made that the blended products are less costly, more efficiently formulated and actually provides ancillary benefits, if not superior performance. Ethanol blends reduce smog caused by burning “regular” gasoline, and soy- or plant protein-enhanced meatloaf, taco meat or other blended formulations offer consumers a lower fat option, for those so inclined.
But there is also the promise of biofuels derived from such substrates as algae that would be developed in high-tech systems paralleling the engineering sophistication of cellular agriculture. Full commercialization of such a fuel is still down the road, but the potential to leverage such technology to alter the energy production equation is tantalizing.
All that said, we’ve learned the hard way that cultivating edible crops to manufacture biofuel isn’t a comprehensive solution to our nation’s energy needs. Yes, motor fuels blended with ethanol (or biodiesel) positively impact air quality and support energy independence. But there’s no monumental savings, no significant reduction in the carbon footprint and by some calculations, no net gain in energy.
Likewise, with the plant-based veggie products masquerading as beef, pork and chicken, while they theoretically mitigate air and water pollution associated with conventional meat production, by the time the energy inputs required to process the necessary ingredients, manufacture the ingredients and package and distribute the finished products are calculated, like ethanol, the net carbon footprint isn’t much better.
However, here’s the question advocates always pose: Even if we’re simply substituting the energy inputs needed to grow corn for food or feed and instead turn those crops into ethanol, aren’t we better off if that allows the country to wean itself off of foreign oil imported in most cases from autocratic states or tyrannical oligarchs?
Hard to argue with that.
And even if all the formulated vegetarian foods made from plant-based sources don’t actually improve people’s diets, nor revolutionize the energy footprint of existing food production systems, isn’t the benefit of mitigating the eco-impact of feedlots, CAFOs and packing plants a net positive?
Again, one can certainly make that argument.
But in the end, whether we’re talking conventional biofuels or alt-meat products, the promises of the entrepreneurs planning to get rich from marketing alternative products are overblown. In effect, either category represents an industrial scale switch from one relatively efficient system to another, slightly more efficient system.
And with both “alternative” categories, there are other consequences that can be as confounding as the problems they’re meant to solve. For all the boasting about its energy independence, Brazil, for example, has so severely decimated the Amazon rainforest to cultivate sugar cane and soybeans that the result may yet obliterate whatever environmental (or political) benefits are touted from domestically producing “cleaner” biofuels.
And with plant-based shamburgers, whatever savings in energy use and resource inputs might be obtained if such products were to become wholesale replacements for animal foods will likely be offset by the need to significantly increase crop production, with all the consequent eco-effects that would entail.
Will we someday benefit from biofuels that are exponentially more efficient to produce and significantly less harmful in terms of greenhouse gas emissions?
We can certainly hold out hope.
And will the future of food production be one in which high-tech factories churn out faux foods via cellular technology that require less energy, produce less pollution and yet deliver comparable, if not superior, nutritional value?
Please refer to the response noted above.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.