Beef: ‘A Destructive And Unnecessary Technology’

Impossible Foods' stated mission is to put beef out of business by 2035.
Impossible Foods' stated mission is to put beef out of business by 2035.

“Animal agriculture is finally being recognized for what it is: a destructive and unnecessary technology.” Those are the words of Pat Brown, CEO and founder of Impossible Foods.

One might forgive professor Brown for making such an outrageous statement. After all, he’s peddling his concoction of plant-based ingredients he calls a burger.

But my objection is not with Brown or his products. I admire the entrepreneurial spirit that led Brown to leave his post as a professor of biochemistry at Stanford to launch Impossible Foods in 2011. The company is now reportedly worth $2 billion. 

As a fake meat huckster, however, Brown has crossed a line. Oh, his product is not snake oil. His plant burger is what he says it is – processed plants and other ingredients. Let’s see, Impossible Foods lists water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, 2% or less of: potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch modified, soy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, mixed tocopherols (Vitamin E), zinc gluconate, thiamine hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), sodium.

That list is certainly one that would require the talents of a biochemist. Is it just me, or does the fact that “natural flavors” is listed as an ingredient draw a red flag for you? Seriously, it either has a flavor or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, and you have to add flavor, how the hell is that natural?

But I digress. My anger centers on professor Brown’s arrogance and defamation of beef – specifically Impossible Foods’ reliance on misrepresentation of beef’s carbon footprint to sell plant-based burgers.

“We have a simple mission,” Brown states in the company’s Impact Report 2019, “to replace the use of animals as a food-production technology, globally, by 2035.”

Wow. An aggressive, if unrealistic goal. Even by Brown’s estimates, “we still need to scale up more than 100,000-fold. That means that on average, we need to double our production, sales and impact every year for the next 16 years.”

While Impossible Foods and other alternative protein manufacturers may be able to ramp up production fast enough to reach those goals, their business model still depends on creating demand by convincing consumers beef is killing the planet.

“Cows aren’t getting any better at making meat. We are,” Brown claims.

An arrogant statement proving Brown needs to do more research on his competition.

Indeed, cows are getting much better at turning sunshine and green grass into steaks. In fact, the efficiency of the U.S. beef industry has improved rapidly over the last generation. You’re producing the same amount of beef in 2019 as you did in 1977, with one-third fewer cows. Those improvements were made via better animal genetics, better animal nutrition and better animal health and welfare.

Environmental footprint? Significant gains there, too.

Several researchers have looked at beef’s carbon footprint, and one of the first was Jude Capper, a sustainability consultant. Her work found that between 1977 and 2007, improvements in beef production reduced feed consumption by 19%, land use by 33%, water use by 12% and GHG emissions by 16% per pound of beef produced in America.

More recently, Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist at UC Davis, says that livestock production in the U.S. accounts for about 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation? 26%.

“The developed world’s efforts should focus not on reducing meat and milk consumption,” says Mitloehner, “but rather on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries, where growing populations need more nutritious food.”

Mitloehner says the facts about methane and livestock production are “the cornerstone of debunking all of this hype around why we should eat less animal-based protein. The people who are selling plant-based alternatives are using hype, particularly around methane, and they need to stop.”

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