Why is Plant-Based Meat So Important?
It’s not a question of whether meat remains a part of our future; it’s a question of whether it remains animal-based meat or plant-based meat - Ethan Brown
Recently, Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat, and Patrick O’Reilly Brown, founder of Impossible Foods, jointly won the 2018 United Nation’s Champions of the Earth Award in the Science and Innovation category.
Although animal-based agriculture is now increasingly recognised as our world’s biggest environmental challenge, the fact that these guys won the UN Champions of the Earth Award in the Science and Innovation category for producing plant-based meat, really stuck out to me.
Although I’m plant-based, I haven’t really felt a need to track down the plant-based meats just yet. If anything, the thought that I can have a burger or some mince or even a steak, that looks like meat and tastes meat but isn’t meat, actually has seemed a bit like trickery to me. As if I might get confused, and start wanting to eat animal-based meat, and I didn’t want that. And I was fine with other options, mostly.
But the thing is, as humans, food has meaning to us beyond its necessity to our physical survival and development.
Food accompanies our cultural and religious rituals of celebration, of grief, and of seasons, whether sociological, psychological or meteorological. Particular foods can draw us to meaningful moments that we’d otherwise not thought of in years. Particular foods can bring us comfort. New foods can stretch us out of our comfort zone in psychological ways that go beyond our taste bud palate being expanded. Meat can hold significant meanings for us that are as individualised as our unique backgrounds, experiences and identity markers.
Meanwhile, for some foods, we really enjoy the overall sensory experience – the smell of it, the look of it, the way it feels in our hands or the texture as we bite into it and chew it, the sound it makes sizzling in a pan, and the taste of it. We may just really like the taste of a particular dish or meal that is animal-based. And we may still hold desires for those sensory experiences that come through meat-based dishes or meals, even after changing to eating plant-based or vegan.
So what can we do?
For some of us, we are opting to go vegan or plant-based in our diets. For others, we are choosing to have meatless days on a regular basis, to lessen our animal-based meat intake and our environmental footprint overall.
So, we may be happy to abstain from animal-based foods altogether, and from anything attempting to resemble what has conventionally been animal-based meat in dishes or meals.
We may be happy to not relive those sensory experiences, and may instead begin to discover new sensory experiences with plant-based dishes or meals.
We may be happy abstaining from dishes and meals that held significant meanings to us, and even be okay with not passing those dishes and meals onto our children and loved ones. Instead, we may begin to intentionally create new connections between plant-based dishes or meals to our cultural or psychological rituals and moments.
We may do these things, and that’s enough, we don’t miss the meat.
Or we may do these things, and it’s enough – sometimes, whether because of the sensory experience or the significant meaning attached it – we miss the meat.
But worse, and more common, we may do none of these things, because we do not want to abstain from the sensory experiences of animal-based ingredients, dishes or meals, or the significant meanings we have attached to them. And so as a result, we do nothing, we keep eating animal-based meats.
As Ethan Brown notes, it’s not a question of whether meat remains a part of our future, it’s a question of whether it remains as animal-based meat or plant-based meat.
Ethan Brown & the Beyond Meat Team
Ethan and his team at Beyond Meat take the same core components of animal-based meat – amino acids, water, lipids, minerals, etc. – and extract those same core components from plant sources. Using plant sources like peas, beetroot, coconut oil and potato starch, the team extract the core components to build meat directly. The result is plant-based meat, with no animals involved. The team aims to be able to produce meat, which is indistinguishable from meat as we have previously known it, but which is grown from plants.
Ethan and the Beyond Meat team note that their plant-based meat is more sustainable than animal-based meat. A recent study on Beyond Meat showed that it used 99% less water, 93% less land, generated 90% less greenhouse gas emissions and used 46% less energy to produce one plant-based quarter-pound burger than the beef equivalent. The team add that switching out animal-based meat for plant-based meat improves both human health and animal welfare.
Dr Patrick O. Brown & the Impossible Foods Team
Meanwhile, Dr Patrick O. Brown, founder of Impossible Foods, took a sabbatical in 2009 to assess the most urgent global problems that he could help solve. As a member of the National Academic of Medicine, a professor in biochemistry at Stanford, and a disruptor of the scientific publishing system through the establishment of the Public Library of Science (PLOS), he examined animal agriculture. He reasoned that unless we reduce or eliminate animals as technology within our food system, we would very soon find ourselves in an ecological disaster.
Dr Brown and his team discovered ‘heme’, an iron-containing molecule that naturally occurs in every cell of every animal, and in every plant. This molecule ‘heme’ is responsible for the unique smells and tastes of meat. By adding a plant gene to yeast cells, the team can produce unlimited amounts of heme. And what is the point of having unlimited amounts of heme? The Impossible Foods team can create plant-based burgers, which taste like meat, that are far more sustainable than their animal-based alternatives. Specifically, their plant-based burgers use approximately 75% less water, 95% less land, and generate about 87% less greenhouse gas emissions than beef burgers.
Dr Brown is convinced that swaying omnivores onto tofu and beans instead of meat and fish will not cut it – instead, omnivores need to be given meat, the very best meat. He and his team at Impossible Foods are working to produce the best meat in the world, with the goal that by 2035 animals will not be used as a food production technology. Consumers will drive this change because they’ll want the very best meat on the planet, which will happen to be plant-based.
This is not a movement of abstinence.
To see these two founders and their teams win the UN’s Champions of the Earth Award in Science and Innovation shows the recognition now given to the unsustainability of animal agriculture. It also shows the opportunity moving forward.
Interestingly, both Ethan Brown and Beyond Meat, and Dr Patrick O. Brown and Impossible Foods, advocate for consumers to be able to eat and enjoy meat, with all the sensory experiences and significant meanings attached to it.
This is not a movement of abstinence.
You can eat meat, the very best meat, which happens to be plant-based meat, AND you can eat healthier, AND promote animal welfare, AND you can make the sustainable choice for our planet.
As a vegan or plant-based eater, you may choose to eat plant-based or vegan ingredients, dishes and meals that bear no resemblance to conventional animal-based meats. Or you may decide to mix it up a little and also eat some plant-based meats that do resemble conventional animal-based meats.
But this isn’t just about those who are already plant-based or vegan.
This is about all those who are omnivores – who can’t quite see themselves, or who have no desire to see themselves, switching away from animal-based foods to ‘tofu and beans’. Plant-based meat helps to show that eating plant-based does not restrict your sensory experiences of food, or you being able to eat the foods that hold significant meanings to you.
This is about being able to have your cake and eat it too. And despite all the other ethical and sustainable arguments that we have, plant-based meats like this might just be the gear that helps shift the world away from animal-based foods to plant-based foods, for good.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods - 2018 Champions of the Earth. UN Environment, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nojssOPE-Mk&feature=youtu.be.
UN Environment. “Tackling the World’s Most Urgent Problem: Meat.” UN Environment - News and Stories, September 26, 2018. https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/tackling-worlds-most-urgent-problem-meat.
“Mission.” Impossible Foods, 2018. https://impossiblefoods.com/mission.
“About – Our Mission.” Beyond Meat, 2018. http://beyondmeat.com/about.