The Fake Backlash to Fake Meat
Food activists angry about the processed nature of new plant-based meats are missing the point
Earlier this month, Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol explained that his company’s restaurants won’t offer plant-based meat like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods “because of the processing.”
It’s a strange position for Chipotle to take. First, it is not obvious to me why mixing and manipulating plants, as Impossible and Beyond do, make fake meat any more processed than the other ingredients served at Chipotle. I enjoy Chipotle from time to time. I have enjoyed their white flour tortillas. I have enjoyed their cheese, made using genetically modified enzymes and refilled throughout the day from bulk packages of a pre-shredded mixture. I have enjoyed their offerings of Coca-Cola, made from corn syrup, and Diet Coke, flavored with aspartame. I have enjoyed their sous vide beef. I have enjoyed their gypsum-infused soy tofu sofritas, which you could also call plant-based meat.
You get the idea.
Second, it is odd that a company that has long wrapped itself in the mantle of sustainability would refuse to serve plant-based meat but continue serving animal-based meat. Livestock production accounts for the bulk of the agricultural sector’s environmental impacts. Beef, which Impossible and Beyond aim principally to replace, is by far the worst offender, with order of magnitude higher water, land, and climate footprints than most foods, including other kinds of animal meat. Chipotle is, of course, free to serve whatever food it wants, but if Niccol has chosen to prioritize arbitrary food processing preferences over empirical environmental concerns, he should be honest about that.
Chipotle isn’t the half of it. That plant-based meat is “ultra-processed” or “hyper-processed” is a criticism I’ve heard more and more frequently over the past year or so, as fake meat has migrated from the high-end kitchens of San Francisco and New York to fast casual and fast food locations like Red Robin and Burger King. Just a few years ago, fake meat was a luxury, the signature ingredient of a $20 hamburger at San Francisco’s Jardiniere, something reserved for conspicuous eco-consumption. Now, somehow, the $6 Impossible Whopper offends a different sensibility. Fake meat is no longer an elitist extravagance. It is now, we are told, a hyper-processed threat to healthy, natural cuisine.
Years earlier, Bittman had actually heralded the coming of fake meat. “Isn’t it preferable,” he wrote at the time, “to eat plant products mixed with water that have been put through a thingamajiggy that spews out meatlike stuff, instead of eating those same plant products put into a chicken that does its biomechanical thing for the six weeks of its miserable existence, only to have its throat cut in the service of yielding barely distinguishable meat?”
I believe that the problem with fake meat isn’t so much that it is ultra-processed as that it is mass-produced.
I can’t help but notice that when fake meat was the purview of food utopians and visionary chefs, thought leaders were enthusiastically in favor of it. But as soon as fake meat hit the plastic trays at Burger King, they were fretting about how over-processed it was.
So what’s going on here?
I believe that the problem with fake meat isn’t so much that it is ultra-processed as that it is mass produced. The conflation of exclusivity and goodness is actually endemic to large swaths of food culture. “Myths about superior taste and nutrition,” food scholar S. Margot Finn observed in a recent essay in the Breakthrough Journal, “mostly help the middle classes distance themselves from the poor.” (My research organization, the Breakthrough Institute, publishes the journal.)
This distaste for mass production may be classist, but that’s not all it is. The new complaints about fake meat seem based on the notion that it doesn’t go far enough to fix what ails modern food systems. But I have a feeling the problem here isn’t that plant-based meats aren’t good enough; it’s that they’re too good. If we can simply replace livestock production and its heavy environmental footprint with a technological alternative, we don’t need to completely overhaul the agro-industrial complex. If the food system can more-or-less keep humming along as it’s been doing, just without the emissions, then all sorts of critiques of the system collapse.
This exposes another wellspring of the antipathy towards mass-produced foods. In his book The Wizard and the Prophet, historian Charles Mann identifies the size and scale of a technological systems, not the technology itself, as the root of a certain kind of environmental opposition. As Mann told me last year, the fundamental objection is “the scale and the sort of centralization and the representation of big institutions in which you don’t have very much local control.” The complaint is with the very core of how we produce most of our food: large-scale, centralized, and with modern technology.
It all falls apart rather quickly. Obviously base classism doesn’t sell, and any food systems capable of feeding over seven billion people are going to be large-scale in some degree. That’s why critics of fake meat and other food reformers rely on vague epithets like “processed.” Food processing, after all, is a category so wide as to defy useful definition. As Finn puts it: “While it’s true that some of the ways we process food reduce the content or availability of some nutrients or add carcinogens or other toxins, much food processing reduces the risk of contamination, enables people to extract more nutrients, or concentrates and preserves nutrients that would otherwise degrade.” What Bittman and his ilk always seem to talk about when they talk about processed food is fast food, store-bought food, packaged food — which is the food that most people in rich countries eat most of the time.
Certainly, food products loaded with excess sugar, sodium, preservatives, saturated fat, and exotic ingredients could more easily be labelled “ultra-processed” than foods that contain, well, lower portions of those ingredients. But that’s exactly the problem. It’s not clear to me, nor, seemingly, anyone else, where to draw the line between unprocessed and processed foods. As food historian Rachel Laudan put it: “Absent such a criterion, it is easy for ultra-processed to mean ‘industrially processed,’ ‘low class,’ or ‘not to my taste.’ Soft drinks are ultra-processed, wine not. Snack cakes are ultra-processed, home made cakes not.”
From Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet to Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma to the booming popularity of the Food Network, I would argue we are seeing a reaction to an alienation from food production. By shopping at farmers markets and going wine tasting and picking apples, we imagine food that is more beautiful and less processed than what most of us eat on a typical day. The archetypes take a stubborn form. Anything that is local, slow, and unprocessed is good. Anything that is remote, made in a lab, and hyper-abundant is bad.
We’ve already seen this play out with fake meat in a different form. When Impossible Burgers were just starting to catch the public’s attention, Friends of the Earth and other environmental organizations made hay of their opposition to Impossible Foods’ use of genetically modified yeast to produce their key ingredient, soy leghemoglobin, which gives the meat its juicy, “bloody” texture. As Breakthrough’s executive director, Ted Nordhaus, wrote at the time:
“There is no actual evidence that heme produced in this way might have negative effects. But for Friends of the Earth and other GMO opponents, the absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence. Nor must the wildly speculative risks they invoke be considered in the context of the well established environmental and health risks associated with beef production and consumption.”
Representatives from both the factory farming and organic beef sectors also oppose plant-based meat. All fall back in some way on the naturalistic fallacy: the idea that unprocessed, or unmodified, or pasture-raised (or not) are the more natural form of beef production and therefore the superior one. (That and, presumably, because it stands to eat away at their market share over time.)
For these reasons, I fear that even attempts to market plant-based products as more “natural” will backfire. Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown seems to think differently. In a recent podcast interview, he said that their plant-based formulas “kept GMOs out, kept artificial flavors out, kept anything that’s not natural out of our products.” But as we’ve seen, that has done nothing to vaccinate against anti-processed food sentiments from Niccol, Bittman, and the rest. If the plant-based meat industry accepts the natural-versus-processed premise, it is likely setting itself up to fail.
It is a frustrating arrangement, one seemingly designed keep radical food reformers occupied with their critique in perpetuity. In a world in which mass production and scale are going to dominate, these sorts of misguided ideas and obfuscations make it much harder to shape that system in ways that are more sustainable, healthier, and more humane. And the choice, ultimately, isn’t between large-scale mass-produced and small-scale non-mass-produced. It is between mass production that is more sustainable, healthier, and more humane — and mass production that is less so.
Is there a future in which plant-based meat and other innovations fit into a vision the food reformers would support? On this question, I find Fordham University’s Garrett Broad more compelling than most. In a recent essay on the politics of fake meat, published in the journal Geoforum, Broad writes:
“… animal product alternatives are most likely to be incorporated as food security reforms within the dominant corporate food regime and are generally incompatible with food sovereignty perspectives. However, active efforts to use these alternatives as a force to promote environmental sustainability, nutritional health, and economic equity could offer a model for a future of ‘food tech justice.’”
Broad proposes that food system reformers find a way to adopt technological innovations, specifically meat alternatives. In Broad’s specific advocacy for things like more open patenting systems and publicly funded agricultural research, I find little to disagree with.
But when we find fault with a clearly beneficial innovation slotting neatly into modern food systems, perhaps the problem isn’t with the system, but with our own idealized vision for what an equitable, healthy, appealing food system should look like. Surely there are excesses and failures with the status quo, in the arenas of nutrition, corporate governance, worker rights, treatment of animals, and more. But while we work to actively address those issues, we might consider whether the systems we have designed over generations to feed billions of humans aren’t doing a relatively good job at that task already. After all, global hunger and undernourishment have been trending downward for decades, an achievement we should surely take into account.
In the meantime, I would ask that we at least reclaim the concept of food processing as a feature, not a bug, of modern food systems. Doing so would prevent pointless squabbles over vague, value-laden categories and allow for honest, outcome-based efforts to produce healthy, affordable food that leaves behind as small an environmental footprint as possible. In a free society it is fine if some people still wish to differentiate themselves by eschewing these efforts. But the rest of us don’t have to take their tastes seriously.
Disclosures: Medium CEO Ev Williams is a partner at Obvious Ventures, which is an investor in Beyond Meat. For a complete list of Obvious’s portfolio visit here. All original Medium publications have editorial independence.