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‘Impossible Whopper’ Shouldn’t Replace Your Hamburger

The meat industry is destructive, yes, but getting rid of animal husbandry altogether would kill the land.

Americans eat a lot of meat. 

The average consumer was expected to eat over 220 pounds of meat in 2018, compared to the 120 pounds he or she would’ve eaten in the 1970s. In 2017, Americans consumed a combined 42.2 billion pounds of chicken, 26.3 billion pounds of beef, and 25.6 billion pounds of pork. 

Up until this point, agribusinesses have kept up with America’s craving for cheap, plentiful meat through factory farming: conventionally raised steers, chickens, and pigs end up at large concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, where they are fattened for market. CAFOs have enabled us to produce a lot of meat with a small price tag, making our $5 rotisserie chickens and $3.80/lb ground beef possible.

But the CAFO model has also been severely critiqued for its inhumane impact on animals, as well as for its impact on greenhouse gas emissions. In December 2019, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) proposed legislation to phase out the nation’s largest CAFOs by 2040, arguing that they “are harmful to rural communities, public health, and the environment.” But meat production’s impact on the environment and rural America does not begin or end with the CAFO: roughly 36 percent of the corn we grow in the United States goes to cattle, pig, and chicken feed. Which means that our continuous monocropping of corn—tied to soil erosion and degradation, harmful emissions, water pollution, and loss of plant diversity—is also at least partly owed to our meat consumption practices. 

For all these reasons, many environmental activists have decried meat consumption in its various forms, and have heralded the rise of Impossible Foods—a “plant-based meat company” that wants to replace animals as a source of food by 2035. You’ve probably seen their Burger King commercials in recent months, if you watch television: ads which depict people eating the new “Impossible Whopper,” then laughing in disbelief when they realize they aren’t eating beef. 

Many see the Impossible Foods mission as a vital way to combat climate change. Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown, for his part, has lambasted the meat industry as “the most destructive technology on Earth by far.”

And he’s not entirely wrong. Not only is meat production harmful for the reasons described above—it’s also had a deleterious impact on farmers themselves. Big processing companies have immense power to manipulate and exploit chicken farmers, and many farmers’ debt-to-income ratios are the highest they’ve been in three decades. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has called factory farming “the epitome of capitalist excess, an inferno of needless suffering and environmental degradation for the pursuit of profit.” But the profit gained via factory farming doesn’t even make it back to farmers themselves, a lot of the time—flowing instead to the agribusinesses that monopolize the industry. 

It’s a bad system, ripe for change and reform. But are plant-based meats, like Impossible Foods’ concoctions, the answer?

They definitely could be part of the answer. Americans need to eat less meat, but as consumers used to getting whatever we want (no matter the cost), it seems unlikely that we’ll change all our habits and embrace constraint overnight. That said, the hidden costs of meat production are not so hidden anymore—and as we realize the impact these practices have had on our health, land, and climate, there will (or at least should) be increasing pressure to enact change.

As Emily Atkin wrote for The New Republic, “The way we eat, the way we get places, and the way we live are all going to change. It will be much more than just an annoying inconvenience.” Companies like Impossible Foods could help satisfy Americans’ love of meat, while replacing some of the worst practices that once made widespread meat consumption possible and affordable. 

But we cannot and should not leave animal husbandry out of the equation as we consider more regenerative, humane systems of agricultural production in an era of climate change. To do so suggests a faulty understanding of the role herbivores play in cultivating soil health, as well as a deep ignorance of the way various planted crops can fail to do the same. 

One could easily argue that loss of health in the Great Plains started when we decimated the region’s bison population. A team of scientists at Yellowstone National Park found that where bison graze, “plants contain 50 to 90 percent more nutrients by the end of the summer. This not only provides extra nourishment for other grazers, but prolongs the growing season of the plants themselves. And by trimming back the plant cover in one year, bison allow more sunlight to fall on the next year’s greenery, accelerating its growth.”

Across the world, scientists, ranchers, and farmers have started mimicking the intense, rotational grazing methods of animals like bison to cultivate soil health—with marked results. Not only do these methodologies help propagate seeds and fertilize the soil, they also help store more carbon: once the land has been grazed, plant roots “die back” to the degree their vegetation has been pruned above-ground. This leaves organic matter—carbon—stored within the earth. Then—and this is key—the paddock must rest until the grass has grown high again (at least a foot tall), which allows its roots to sink deep into the earth. 

As Ben Falk put it for Mother Earth News, “You only build soil as deeply as you can get plant roots to penetrate (what comes up must go down), so the taller you let your yard or pasture grow before it’s cut or grazed, the more soil you’re making (and CO2 you’re sequestering).”

This method of grazing helps boost mycorrhizal networks within the soil, adding health and life that our chemical fertilizers have never been able to imitate. Farmers who’ve used rotational grazing methods alongside regular crop rotation have grown their soil, as well as the microbes and earth worms and other creatures that live within it.

If all ranchers and farmers were to embrace these sorts of rotational methods, we’d have to eat less meat. That is still true. The land cannot and should not sustain the same degree of meat consumption that CAFOs have allowed up to this point. But the meat it does produce is far healthier for the land and the human body than the sort you generally get from the grocery store. And so, despite Impossible Foods’ aspirations to destroy all meat production, we should not take animal grazing entirely out of the picture. Booker’s anti-CAFO legislation acknowledges the importance of regenerative methods of grazing for the future of agriculture, rather than dismissing meat production altogether.

The other aspect of regenerative farming that is important for our future has to do with the aforementioned root growth, and its impact on soil health. Wes Jackson and The Land Institute have noted for years the importance of perennials for soil health—and have worked to develop “polycultures” which result from crossing annual grains with their wild perennial relatives. These perennials would grow back every season without farmers ever having to till or plow the soil—thus resulting in deep-rooted, soil-nourishing crops. Our current system, by contrast, only invests 20 percent of global farm acreage in the growth of perennials.  

“We must turn our attention to the water and soil and ask, ‘How do we insure that the bread we eat does not come from grains that are grown in eroding soil and that load our soil with nitrogen and pesticides?’” Jackson told The Sun in a 2010 interview. “Soon people will realize that annuals are poor managers of nutrients and water, and that agriculture will need to turn to perennials to better manage those resources.”

More farmers growing fruit, vegetables, hemp, or even “vegan cheese” could vastly improve our agricultural landscape and health. But no solution will be sufficient that overlooks the dire need for diversification, soil-building, and regeneration—all of which animals and perennials help create and sustain. 

So enjoy an Impossible Whopper or two—but also, if you can, seek out grass-fed and finished beef from a farmer in your area. Consider ways you can support forms of agriculture that cultivate humane animal husbandry, and send roots down deep into the soil. You may have to eat less meat—but you may, in fact, be happier and healthier for it.