Like a fleet of alien spacecraft that just crashed landed on Earth, plant-based meats haven’t just destabilized the status quo, they’ve practically invaded our beloved fast food chains and family restaurants. Not surprisingly, the burgeoning meatless meat industry has met fierce resistance from traditional industries, as have all disruptive changes throughout human history. Will the trend crash and burn like a 90’s one hit wonder? Or will the seeds of change permanently alter the landscape?
I would personally bet on the latter.
But what exactly makes recent innovations in plant-based meats, like Beyond Meat, so special?
The answer is comfortably hidden beneath superficial factors like taste, trendiness, and individual health. Sure, the World Health Organization has red meat on the list of Group 2A carcinogens. Processed meats, meanwhile, get the luxury of joining Group 1 carcinogens, right there with cigarettes. These are the active ingredients inside “real” hamburgers, which are also linked to colorectal cancer.
But there’s so much more to the story. For one, we’re currently in what scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction, quite possibly the worst extinction event since the dinosaurs had their farewell party 66 million years ago. You may be thinking, that’s terrible, but what does that have to do with my meaty cheeseburger?
Well, for one, livestock systems are the leading cause of species extinction on the entire planet, taking up between 30% and 45% of the Earth’s total land surface. People like to argue that plant-eaters kill plants, and that the demand for soy is destroying the rainforest. But cattle ranching is actually the number one cause of Amazon deforestation (and of most deforestation worldwide). That’s because it requires so much land to grow food for the 70 billion land animals that are bred and killed for food each year, processes which are also extremely cruel.
Meanwhile, most of the soy grown on Earth is not for picky tofu eaters, it’s mostly used to feed livestock.
Then there’s water. Animal agriculture consumes 55 trillion gallons of freshwater annually, 520 times more than hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The average hamburger requires 460 gallons of water. The average American uses 17.2 gallons of water per shower (lasting about 8.2 minutes each time). Eating just one real meat hamburger is like standing in the shower with the water running for over three and a half hours.
Sure, plant-based hamburgers also require water and, well, plants. But the impact is minimal compared to your traditional burger. At a time when parts of the world are experiencing their worst droughts in history, and as the Amazon rainforest is set ablaze to make room for cattle ranching, I’ll take my chances with a plant-based burger over meat any day.