My position on the Impossible 'processed GMO Slop' Burger
Updated: Nov 4, 2019
I promote a whole foods, plant-based lifestyle that should contain fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts & seeds. I listened to and shared the recent conversation with Impossible Food CEO Pat Brown, featured on Episode 474 of the Rich Roll Podcast. Then someone on Twitter exclaimed "it’s ironic to me that you promote “whole food” PB (plant based) while impossible, beyond, etc represent the epitome of processed GMO slop. He even admitted as such in the podcast". A fair point. Here is an explanation about why I promote whole plants on the one hand and a GMO processed slop burger on the other.
The University of Michigan was commissioned by Beyond Meat, a competitor to Impossible Foods, to perform a lifecycle assessment and comparison to a traditional beef burger. The article can be found here. The result of the assessment is as follows:
The Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions Requires 46% less energy, Has >99% less impact on water scarcity 93% less impact on land use than a ¼ pound of U.S. beef
Despite what you believe about global climate change or what you think about how much of a role animal agriculture has on total climate change, the above numbers are impressive and should at least warrant pause.
Stephen Chu, former US Secretary of Energy and former Nobel Prize winner said in a Forbes article, "If cattle and dairy cows were a country, they would have more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire EU 28...He weighted the resulting greenhouse gases for lifetime and potency, showing that emissions from agriculture are a bigger problem than emissions from energy." A Food and Agriculture Organization report took data from a 2007 IPCC report and calculated that green house gas emissions from the livestock sector represent 14.5% of all human-induced emissions, globally. This number is lower for the United States, with estimates at 3% of total GHG emissions. Despite there being such a wide disparity between global animal agriculture emissions and emissions in the US, it doesn't mean we shouldn't care and it doesn't mean we shouldn't do or couldn't do anything. To someone who may say 'the contribution of animal agriculture to GHG emissions in the US is relatively small, therefore there's no need change our diets or meat consumption', I would say 'What threshold would you have to see in order to make a change in your meat/beef consumption?". This number, I argue, is arbitrary and varies for each person. As a human race, we're all part of the same planet and we all have a role to play in reducing our carbon footprint, whether that's changing our diet, driving a car that emits less pollution, or using more green energy for our homes. Of global GHG emissions, the energy sector makes up 72% of that. But in the US, energy only contributes to 28% of our total GHG emissions. Does that mean we have permission to burn more coal because our contribution is less than that of the world? Of course not. Why is it the case for the environmental impacts of our diet? Additionally, I argue that changing diet is the easiest switch one can make to reduce carbon emissions, when compared to changing power sources or transportation options. We eat food every day and probably shop at the grocery store weekly. The food we eat is highly modifiable on a very short time scale with minimal barriers to change.
I won't even get into the deforestation, water pollution, biodiversity loss and ocean deadzones that are attributed to animal agriculture. But let this plant the seed that animal agriculture is an industry that externalizes its costs onto the people and the planet, and should be held more accountable for their impact.
In the grander scheme, we should certainly be identifying and addressing more significant contributors to GHG emission, like alternative zero-carbon energy and transportation. Changing your diet and eliminating animal foods is not the panacea. Despite GHG emissions from animal ag. being considerably lower in the US relative to the world, does that mean we should do nothing? Does that mean we should be promoting more meat consumption or going along status quo? These data warrant consideration to at least reduce beef consumption when looking through an environmental lens.
Some may argue, as Pat Brown did in the podcast, that the Impossible burger is healthier than a traditional beef burger. I won't go too deeply into this argument because this could make for a terrific master's thesis. Suffice it to say, there are arguments for and against this motion. Those arguing in favor of the Impossible burger would argue that saturated fat, cholesterol, heme iron, heterocyclic amines, advanced glycated end products, endotoxins, the carcinogenicity of animal protein and red meat itself and the corroborating mechanistic and epidemiological data would be enough to ditch red meat in favor of alternative options or plant-based proteins. Those opposed to the Impossible 'slop' burger have cited a laundry list of ingredients and the processed nature of the burgers as being unhealthy. Those ingredients being: 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 Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12. I am in favor of less ingredients rather than more, and I am in favor of whole foods versus refined, which the Impossible burger is. So do I feel there is merit to this argument? Some. I am open to arguments.
I would like to add that among experts within the plant-based space who you may assume are in favor of these meat substitutes, the Impossible burger does not constitute a health food. There have been a few that have written off the Impossible burger or other meat analogues as 'never in a million years' but in my experience, I would say most experts on lifestyle medicine and nutrition say that meat analogues should be thought of as a treat, not a staple. To define treat is, again, nuanced and individual. I liken it to defining 'moderation'. Personally, I've had half a dozen impossible burgers in the past 2-3 years. And I would even say that someone who wanted to have a couple per month would most likely not see a detrimental impact on their health.
I know this paragraph seems a bit gray, but that's on purpose. I think the jury is out on the health 'benefits' of the Impossible burger vs. a traditional beef burger and, come to think of it, would make for a great discussion on my podcast. I would question whether there has been any research on the Impossible burger or it's individual ingredients with regards to health impacts. There certainly has been for red meat, and the literature suggests reducing intake.
Although I abstain from eating meat, dairy and animal products, I am not one to picket on the street corner raising awareness for animal rights and cruelty. I certainly recognize that the animal agriculture industry is rife with cruelty, inhumane treatment and suffering. I have heard many die-hard meat eaters agree that CAFO's or "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations" are inhumane and should be abolished in favor of more 'humane' treatment of these animals. Although I pride myself on hearing both sides of an argument, you cannot make a reasonable argument against the 'cruelty aspect' of raising an animal with the sole intent to kill them. In addition, because many leading pro-meat figures agree that CAFO's are inhumane, they understand and accept, to a degree, that these animals have feelings, they have emotions, they are sentient and they have a strong desire to live. With this in mind, how can you not say that the Impossible burger eliminates cruelty from the chain of production? No animals are killed for the production of the product.
To these individuals who acknowledge the inherent cruelty of CAFO's, why does that empathy for these animals end when they are no longer confined to a cage or pen? What they're saying is it's now OK to kill these animals as long as they didn't live in knee-deep feces or were confined to a shoe-box sized cage. That doesn't seem right to me. But I digress.
Unlike the above paragraph highlighting the health implications of traditional red meat versus an Impossible burger, there is little gray area when addressing the topic of ethics. I am not making the argument that zero animals or life forms were harmed or killed in the making of an Impossible burger. But what matters is 'intent'. The intent of raising cows, pigs or chickens is to kill them and eat them. The intent of an Impossible burger is to offer an alternative to the intentional killing of these animals. If an animal does die in the process of making an impossible burger, it was an accident and was not intended. The definition of 'vegan' is "A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food...". So by this definition, we can do a lot to avoid cruelty, suffering and the killing of animals but stepping on a bug or having a combine kill a mouse in a field when harvesting a crop does not mean that a food or a person is no longer vegan or is intentionally killing animals. Vegans, like any other human, are not perfect. But we can all make more intentional decisions to avoid killing animals by eating an impossible burger. The Impossible burgers are more ethical choices when compared to beef burgers, period.
I am excited about the market for meat analogs. It's a step in the right direction. But this doesn't absolve us from eating better, as a whole. We still have a lot of work to do to educate and empower people to make smarter choices with each meal. The meat analogs are not the panacea, they are a small solution, not THE solution to many problems. In total, Meat analogs beat beef or other traditional meats on the environmental aspect and the ethical aspect. On health, I feel that there is a lack of research on the health implications of the meat analogs, but no shortage of research on the health implications of meat. To me, meat analogs are a no brainer for those who have access to them. Have an impossible burger once in a while as a treat or at a bar-b-Que, reduce your meat consumption, especially coming from red meat because it is by far the most resource intensive meat to produce, reduce refined sugars, flours and junk food, and focus on unrefined plants in your diet.