If you’ve so much as flirted with vegetarianism recently, you’ll know about the Impossible Burger. A high-tech meat substitute patty, it aims to mimic the texture and flavor of beef so closely that they’ve even found a way to make it appear bloody, thanks to a vegetable-derived protein called lemhemoglobin—known by its sexier commercial name “heme.” It’s ostensibly a veggie burger, but the chemistry involved in producing it is so complex that it’s more like a pharmaceutical product than your beloved soy-and-black-bean burger.
The Impossible Burger’s not the only “plant-based” food substitute making the rounds these days. There’s a new egg substitute that’s been developed by the big brains at Just, Inc. Their new vegan “egg” is marketed as a sustainable alternative to chicken eggs—never mind that the ingredients for them have to be shipped from around the world. "The egg is the cheapest and most abundant form of animal protein on the planet,” admits this article, going on to say—unironically-- "and to Just, that signaled a problem.”
It suits the tech industry—and the appetite of financial markets—to develop proprietary foods that both appeal to folks with ample amounts of money and also can't be reproduced by regular people. It's the logic that's brought us such miracles of modern food as the Twinkie and Soylent. It’s a nice marketing angle to be able to say that your venture-funded food lab is going to reduce greenhouse gases and animal cruelty. Just, Inc. makes the case for their egg replacer in terms that will be familiar to any sustainability advocate: their product avoids all the byproducts of intensive animal agriculture and is therefore good for the climate, the water supply, for chickens themselves.
But there are thousands of farmers who have been working for decades to do that very same work in a way that’s ultimately better for all of us, and the fact that they don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars in cash reserves to make their case against these tech firms leaves us in a vulnerable position.
Industrial animal agriculture is—as you surely know—a horror. Feedlots and cages and waste lagoons and rainforest decimation are unmitigated disasters. But animal agriculture has been part of human existence since people first settled in villages, and it’s an essential part of how we feed ourselves—even if we don’t personally eat meat. Using animals to fertilize soil for vegetable production has kept us alive. Done right, it returns essential nutrients to the soil, where we want them, and reduces our dependence on other methods of extracting those nutrients (phosphorus mining in particular—phosphorus being an element so important to civilization that wars were fought for control of reserves of phosphorus-rich bat shit in South America). The landscape of the northeast, for example, and the existence of all kinds of species that depend on open grassland and pasture for their survival, depend on the conscientious practice of animal grazing.
What’s more, animal agriculture has been—and continues to be, as the very principles behind organizations like Heifer International make clear—an important way for people in poverty to feed themselves and stabilize their lives. Pretty much anyone with a backyard (and amenable zoning regulations) can get a chicken or two and feed a family; owning a single cow can help stabilize the lives and diets of people in poverty all over the world. The knowledge and resources necessary to run a small homestead of a couple chickens, a ruminant, and a vegetable plot, are available to rural people worldwide, just as recipes for beans and instructions for rice and vegetable cultivation have been shared freely among farmers and cooks since the beginning of recorded time. That knowledge passes through generations unencumbered by restrictions on “intellectual property” because it is our common wealth, the information that keeps us alive and autonomous.
When well-funded high-tech companies, whether they’re Impossible Foods or Monsanto--move into the food business, they inevitably end up working against the open flow of information. They block farmers’ abilities to save seeds; they secret knowledge in laboratories; they disparage folk wisdom and common products in order to market their own goods. A company with $450 million in capital to play with can steamroll a lot of small farmers doing good work, can hijack the good will of a lot of chefs and food activists, can wreak considerable havoc on our food landscape.
I think it’s important to remember that big companies shouldn’t get to write the script on what counts for sustainable food and agriculture. These companies market themselves as letting us have our cake and eat it too. If we want continue to wolf down hamburgers without feeling guilty about their carbon footprint, Impossible Foods is here to make us feel better. But it's our fundamental habits, our way of satiating our appetites, that need adjustment. There are lots of things to eat that are neither feedlot beef nor its lab-developed alternative. There are potatoes and squash and corn and kale; beans and rice and farro and oats. And there are milk and beef and chicken from small farms focused on living appropriately on the land they use, and those farms need our support to survive just as much as we need theirs.