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It’s a crazy idea… but can’t we just eat real food?

  • A Greener World

You might have heard about Veganuary recently, a relatively new campaign held in January and beyond to encourage people to take up a vegan diet. As the Veganuary website states, the ultimate aim is to achieve “a fully vegan world.” 

Veganuary appears to be piggy-backing on the growing public interest in the links between our dietary choices and climate change, born from years of critical media headlines that “all meat is bad for the environment,” as well as controversial global dietary initiatives like the EAT Lancet Commission and media fascination with hi-tech ‘silver-bullet solutions’ like lab-grown meat. 

In response, the major food corporations are launching new plant-based ‘meat alternatives’ on an almost daily basis. From the Impossible Burger ™ and dairy-free ‘pea milk’ to chicken-free ‘chicken nuggets’ and McDonald’s new McPlant burger, these plant-based food products are often marketed as a healthier, ‘planet friendly’ alternative to beef and other meat and dairy products. 

But is this apparent ‘plant-based’ revolution really the answer to all our health and environmental problems? 

A recent article by chef and food writer, Xanthe Clay, in a leading UK newspaper says that “it’s possible to eat a healthy vegan diet, but many of the meat substitutes aren’t healthy at all.” She’s right. The list of ingredients of common processed ‘fake meat’ products like the popular Impossible Burger TM look more like something created in a hi-tech chemistry lab. Because that’s exactly what it is: a factory produced, ultra-processed food product with an array of added synthetic ingredients that you wouldn’t find in your kitchen cupboards — emulsifiers, stabilizers, humectants, preservatives, bulking agents, flavorings and more. 

Recent research shows that ultra-processed food (UPF) now make up at least 60% of the total calorie intake in the U.S., and concern is mounting among public health officials across the world about the potential links between the dramatic rise in obesity (particularly among children) and the increasing consumption of UPF products.  

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist (or a food nutritionist, for that matter) to understand that a diet high in UPF products won’t make you healthier – even if those processed foods are plant based. As Xanthe Clay writes, “while health experts exhort us to eat more vegetables, this isn’t what they mean.”  

Are these ultra-processed meat alternatives more environmentally friendly than, say, beef? That depends on what beef you’re talking about. While industrial food animal production is unquestionably harmful to the environment, not all beef is the same. Grassfed and pasture-based livestock systems, like those of A Greener World certified farmers and ranchers, can help mitigate the impacts of climate change through storing carbon in the soil, all while providing nutritious food for people to eat, alongside many other benefits to communities and the wider environment. (Think biodiversity, water protection, local jobs and more.) 

As we’ve said before the green hype surrounding all these new plant-based UPF ‘meat alternatives’ is just the latest attempt by the food industry to mislead consumers into thinking they are making environmentally conscious ‘choices’ that are actually just boosting Big Food’s bottom line. The reality? Opportunistic global agribusinesses have discovered that plant-based product lines can generate vast profit margins by adding value through the ultra-processing of cheap commodity crop materials, such as protein extracts, starch and oil.  

Since its launch in early 2019, EAT Lancet Commission report, Food in the Anthropocene, and their notion of a “great food transition” has garnered significant media coverage. Its ‘healthy’ reference diet excludes all but a daily forkful of red meat and only marginally more poultry and fish, one quarter of an egg and no dairy products at all. Instead, it suggests we seek protein from legumes—a legitimate, healthy and sustainable option as part of a balanced and diverse diet, but no substitute for animal foods. Among its recommendations are alternative sources of protein such as lab-grown meat, insects and algae. It’s these proposed ‘solutions’, which mostly require vast factories rather than farms to produce, that hint at the corporate interests behind the report and, as environmental author Pat Thomas  warns, “the specter of bias, corporate agendas and science for sale.” 

Take lab-grown “meat” (also known as cultured “meat”) where animal muscle tissue is artificially created in laboratory-like conditions from animal stem cells bathed in nutrients and ‘growth factors.’ Companies have sprung up all over the world in the race to produce at scale cultured imitations of beef, chicken and fish. But despite all the media hype, there are huge uncertainties about the safe production of lab-grown “meat”, as well as the claimed environmental benefits, and whether it can even be produced at scale. 

The reality? It’s big, it’s processed, it’s expensive and it’s unproven—and it’s already making a lot of shareholders extremely rich at the expense of real solutions. 

And that’s our real beef with the food industry’s plant-based ‘revolution’ and the media frenzy over unproven hi-tech lab-grown meat substitutes and other silver-bullet solutions. It deflects media and public attention away from the many thousands of sustainable farmers across the world who are already producing healthy, nutritious food that doesn’t harm our health – or the health of the planet. 

It has long been accepted that we need a balanced diet of fresh fruit, vegetables and (if you’re not vegetarian or vegan) meat, eggs and dairy products for our health and wellbeing. While developed nations urgently need to reduce the production and consumption of unsustainable, low-welfare, intensively raised livestock products and highly processed foods (there’s a good chance many of us would feel a lot better for it), it’s clear from current science that pasture-based and grassfed livestock systems will not only continue to supply high-quality, nutritious food to global populations, but can help protect and enhance key ecosystem services and mitigate anthropocentric GHG emissions. 

So, yes, let’s continue to do all we can to encourage more people to cut out unsustainable, poor welfare, intensively farmed beef from their diets. But when it comes to shopping for ultra-processed plant-based ‘meat alternatives,’ you’d be much better off replacing industrial beef burgers with a home-made alternative of sustainably grown chopped up nuts and vegetables. Or you could always choose a sustainably produced, high welfare, AGW-certified beef patty instead. Just let us know if you need help finding one; our farmers are standing by ready to feed you real food.

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