Are Plant-Based Burgers Here to Stay?

Submitted by Mary Meade on
Photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash

First came vegan milk: almond, soy, and most recently, oat milk, can be found in the dairy aisle right next to their conventional milk counterparts. Now, vegan “meats” are stepping in as the next big substitute and suddenly there is a plant-based burger buffet.

Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods are currently the two most famous plant-based meat companies. These two businesses are bringing vegan meat to the mainstream through restaurants, fast food chains, and grocery stores. What does their rise in popularity mean for farmers, the meat industry, and the planet?

Is meatless going mainstream?

While people who follow plant-based diets are still rather uncommon—less than half of one percent of Americans are strictly vegan—meat alternatives are making the diet more accessible. For example, Burger King and Impossible Foods released the Impossible Whopper earlier this year in 7,000 stores across the US. Beyond Meat products are available in grocery stores throughout the US and restaurants like TGIFridays and Dunkin’, according to their website. Gardein and Morningstar Farms have been providing microwave meatless products for several decades and are the most abundant alternatives in the frozen aisle.

Tyson Foods is the most recent corporation to jump on the meatless bandwagon. As the biggest meat producer in the US, Tyson is a recognizable brand in grocery stores and may shape up to be a stiff competitor. Whether their meatless alternatives are healthy and kind to the planet is yet to be decided, but their poor track record on labor and animal abuse speaks for itself. They will be releasing meatless products from pea protein and then reduced meat products with a blend of meat and pea protein.

While meatless diets are not mainstream, evidence points to reduced meat diets as increasing, with 30 to 50 percent of people interested in cutting down consumption. Whether or not more plant-based alternatives will increase the number of vegetarians and vegans in the US is yet to be determined.

How does plant-based meat affect farmers?

In February, the National Milk Producers Federation petitioned the FDA to label non-dairy products that call themselves dairy—such as almond milk—as “alternative,” “imitation,” and/or “substitute” dairy. Their petition is currently in review with 13,000 public comments. Likewise, the North American Meat Association wants lab-grown and plant-based alternatives to be labeled accordingly as well. While such competition comprises only 1 percent of the industry, meat farmers want to avoid the years-long mislabeling that is happening in the dairy industry.

That competition is expected to grow rapidly considering that industrial agriculture is consistently criticized for its disastrous environmental impacts on the climate, resource consumption, and waste problems. Numerous studies, from Project Drawdown to a new study from The Lancet British medical journal, demand a radical transformation of the world’s agriculture production and significantly reducing global consumption of meat; however, the conflict between animal meat and plant-based meat manages to tangle current sustainable transformations in the agriculture industry.

Regenerative farming is a farming method that promotes healthy soil to sequester carbon from the air back into the ground. This practice is meant to imitate natural processes of photosynthesis and has the potential to store 23.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050, according to Project Drawdown estimates. In Impossible Foods’ 2019 Impact Report, however, the meat alternative company called regenerative agriculture the “clean coal of meat.”

Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, manages 2,500 acres of regenerative farmland. His farm operates as a carbon sink, producing a total net emissions of -3.5 kilograms of carbon for every kilogram of beef produced. In this Civil Eats article, Harris says that the production of the Impossible Burger follows the same troublesome patterns found in industrial agriculture; since Impossible Foods uses a monoculture GMO crop, it is just more of the same.

“White Oak Pastures will never be a multinational corporation,” Harris told Civil Eats. “There will never be a truly regenerative, humane, fair farm that will scale to a national level.”

Regardless, it seems unlikely that the meatless competition will push cattle ranchers out of business. The USDA predicts that in 2020, nearly 28 billion pounds of beef will be produced in the US. Additionally, Americans get 97 percent of its beef from feedlots, not regenerative farms or alternative meat ventures.

Is plant-based meat good for the planet?

Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, generated 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and requires 46 percent less energy than a beef burger, according to their website. Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger uses 87 percent less water, 96 percent less land, 89 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and 92 percent less dead-zone creating nutrient pollution than ground beef from cows, according to their website.

The prevailing criticism notes that both companies rely on established industrial agriculture norms to produce their key ingredients: pea protein for the Beyond Burger and GMO soy for the Impossible Burger. While Impossible Foods appears to be transparent with how they use GMOs, the problem with GMOs is how they’re produced. Perhaps Impossible Foods uproots less soy than conventional farming methods, but genetically-modified soy is notoriously harmful for the amount of pesticides used that damage the soil and leach into waterways.

Plant-based meats aren’t going away anytime soon. With successful launches like KFC’s test of plant-based nuggets in Atlanta selling out within hours, the demand for alternative meats is surging. The future of the meat industry is diversifying, and it will take all fronts—regenerative agriculture, plant-based alternatives, and likely more—to supply the world population with protein in the wake of the climate crisis. But have no doubt, plant-based burgers are just a piece of what is to come.

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