If you’re a member of the urban middle class in loosely “Western” countries, it’s vegan versus omnivore everywhere you look. Plant-based versus animal. There has become little space for nuance or complexity within this nonsensical conflict.
If anything represents the weirdness of the reductionist lens through which many people see the “save the world through what you eat” issue, it’s the phenomenon of the plant-based burger. And, in particular, the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, which are taking a slice of the privileged non-meat-eating world by storm.
These burgers (well, okay, the patties) are vegan, right? So if you choose them over a beef burger, you must be saving the planet, yes? Sadly, though Instagram would lead you to believe otherwise, the world is just not that simple.
I tried a Beyond Burger the other day. After all the hype, I couldn’t resist. The information on the product, put out by the company, is full of impressive data on emissions saving and general pathway to heaven instructions. But, as is so often the case, if you do the most feather-light research, or in fact even some primary-school maths, the information is spurious, to put it kindly. But it’s vegan, so it has a halo around it. And that’s the problem. To think in terms of vegan versus meat is to create an ideological division not based in facts around nutrition, farming, or anything else that actually counts.
Why not make categories based on production methods, for instance? Plant-based means a universe of things so different that it’s laughable to throw them into one category simply because they don’t come from an animal (which, by the way, is not to say that animals are not harmed or killed in their production, just that they aren’t eaten).
Why not worry about which plant-based items are used? Certain coconut milk brands employ monkeys as harvesters – is that plant-based goodness?
The water use and methane emissions for rice – just one example - are more than 10-fold those of many other crops (and some animal products). So, why not worry about which plant-based items are used? Certain coconut milk brands employ monkeys as harvesters – is that plant-based goodness?
Plant-based agriculture which employs no-till, no-chemical, regenerative methods is responsible for less animal death and biome destruction than large-scale, industrial plant farming, where combine harvesters, pesticides and poisons are built into the system. So, why not worry about how these items are farmed? Rarely does that enter the conversation.
And it’s just as ludicrous to make a category called “meat”. Industrial feedlot farming is indeed an abomination on every front and you’d have to be wilfully ignorant or a sociopath to contest that. But, environmentally speaking, good rotational grass-fed live-stock farming is a massively different thing.
And what about the X factor – deliciousness - which makes any ingredient or dish worthy of consideration? Sadly, this small cardboardy (and very pricey) patty was a bitter disappointment. “Not quite as awful as other faux meats”, should be their tagline. A vast amount of processing and air kilometres went into this product. Just tracking the story behind the peas for the pea-protein isolate makes your head spin.
If anyone has an explanation for how this anonymous disc is better for the planet than a free-range egg from a local farm, I’d love to hear it. That is, if I can hear anything over the noise of a group of rich corporates laughing all the way to the bank.