Does the plant-based meat industry care about animals? Much of the narrative underlying their rise to prominence in recent years would imply that the answer to that question is “yes, of course!” But a closer examination of what it’s CEO actually believes, as well as the methodology by which the Impossible Burger itself is created, would put the lie to this idea.
In a 2018 interview with Quartz magazine, Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown outlined his general philosophy and worldview on animals: “ animals have just been the technology we have used up until now to produce meat… What consumers value about meat has nothing to do with how it’s made. They just live with the fact that it’s made from animals. If we’re producing a product that is delivering everything that is of value in meat for consumers, it’s filling that niche.”
Brown shows that he is not thinking in the context of someone who makes food designed for people to eat when he makes comments like this. He views the sources of food in the exact same way that the head of a manufacturing company might view a widget, or the way that Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer of Microsoft might view the latest version of the Windows OS. Animals are a purely technical product, a means by which to accomplish a mechanical end, to be discarded if a more “efficient” means of delivering that end is released.
However, Brown wants to have it both ways- hence the labeling of Impossible Foods’ products as “meat.” This is meant to evoke emotional responses and comfort in consumers about a product that is lab grown and highly artificial in nature, by associating it with the traditional meat they are accustomed to. If Brown’s views of what his food product is are in fact the moral alternative to real meat, as Impossible Foods’ marketing often professes, then why does his product labeling make a deliberate attempt to avoid consumers having the same image of Impossible “meat” as Brown does?
By contrast, it is much more common for the farmers and ranchers who ostensibly, according to the anti-meat narrative, are heartless “butchers” and murderers of innocent animals, to have a much more personalized relationship with the animals they are responsible for if they are raising their livestock in a sustainable, regenerative way.
The work that these ranchers and farmers in the regenerative agriculture movement are doing to bring their craft back to its roots of harmony with, rather than opposition to nature has often gone overlooked in mainstream discourse. Take, for example, Will Harris, founder of the Georgia-based White Oak Pastures, a successful regenerative ranch.
In one interview, Harris in fact speaks explicitly about the commodification of food as a negative development of the post-WII era, and causing a reversal of that pendulum swing through “rediscovering fundamental respect for the animals, the land and the people who are producing the food.” Harris is not a Luddite- in the interview he notes the benefits that modern technology can bring to his ranching work- but his ethos comes off as one where technology is merely a tool to serve the function of deepening the relationship between man and his environment, rather than food being a tool to serve a scientistic, technocratic end.
Chief among the emotional appeals behind the vegan movement is that the achievement of their aims would be to “liberate” animals from the “oppression” and cruelty they suffer from at the hands of the humans who eat them. However, what is the logical conclusion for what should become of livestock animals as a species, collectively, when one views them through the prism of primarily being a technological means of producing a product (meat)? The same fate in this worldview awaits cows as awaited the horse drawn carriage after the rise of the automobile; discarding and extinction.
By contrast, a regenerative rancher such as Will Harris will, yes, kill the animals on his ranch that he is raising to sell as meat. But, however, he has a very direct interest in ensuring the survival and even the increase in population of the species of livestock he raises as a whole.
Just as the owner of a family farm and ranch has an interest in ensuring that future generations of his family survive to inherit and steward the family land for future generations, the family farm also inherently is dependent on furthering the “family line” so to speak, of the animals that they breed, as doing so ensures the family’s livelihood in a relationship that, while it does include death of animals on an individual level, on a collective level ensures the survival of both, in broad terms.
I am not the first to advance these criticisms of the “plant-based” meat technology. Nutritionist Sara Keough has laid out the case for why this type of “meat” is not nearly as healthy as its marketing campaign portrays it to be. Regenerative agriculture activist Seth Itzkan has also advanced similar criticisms of the technocratic mentality behind the “plant-based” food movement, writing “Impossible Foods should really be called Impossible Patents. It’s not food; it’s software, intellectual property — 14 patents, in fact, in each bite of Impossible Burger with over 100 additional patents pending for animal proxies from chicken to fish. It’s iFood, the next killer app.”
When I was approaching the event that would mark my coming of age as an adult in Judaism, my Bar Mitzvah, I was faced with a decision of what charitable cause to encourage guests to donate to in my name in celebration. Although at that point in my life I had spent practically no time around farm animals, I was instinctively drawn to an organization called The Heifer Project, which is still around sixteen years later.
The Heifer Project, or Heifer International as it is now known, is dedicated to improving the lives of rural people throughout the Third World by providing for them farm animals that will enable them to build self-sustaining livelihoods. These can take the form of chickens, rabbits, cows, goats, and others. What resonated with me on a deep level was the idea that these animals were the means by which people would be able to build a self-sustaining life for themselves and their families. Looking back, I understood that these animals were not just a financial bailout to these families, but would become a fundamental part of their lives, even their families in a sense.
The mindset behind Impossible Foods seeks, even if not out of conscious malice, to automate this way of living out of existence. Much of its marketing will make a moral case for “plant based” meat on the grounds of it being better for animals, humans, or the planet, due to ostensibly combatting climate change. And yet even this third pillar of the Impossible narrative has been challenged by scientists such as Frank Mitleser of UC Davis.
However, the worldview underlying the Impossible mindset eliminates the possibility of any of these moral concerns being primary. It indicates that the pursuit of efficiency is the highest goal, not one of an actual relationship between either man and food, or man and the environment. This is not to say that this mentality is not shared by the largest industrial producers of even animal agriculture, such as Cargill, or restaurant chains such as Burger King.
This is why both of these mega-corporations have made partnerships with Impossible Foods, and why these are increasingly coming into opposition with the regenerative agriculture movement, to say nothing of the often overlooked but growing numbers of people who see eating meat, specifically animal-based diets, as supremely healthy in contrast to much of historical mainstream diet dogma. But even those who do not eat in such a way, and value their ancestral, whole plant foods should take heed of what is going on. This contest is about more than food- it is about worldview and ideology, one that sees food (whether animal or plant) as more than just a unit of production, and one that sees them as fundamental parts of the human experience in this world.