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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Does the impossible burger promise an impossible future?


Plant-based meat product may have better environmental, health impacts

In 2011, Patrick Brown founded Impossible Foods Inc., which is based in Silicon Valley. The company is dedicated to creating alternative forms of animal produce and released its first product four years ago. Composed of wheat protein, potato protein and soy, this alternative meat has been the subject of intense debate over the last few years.

In many developed countries, new food items must attain a government seal of approval before they go on sale. However, U.S. policy dictates that a company must simply self-certify as “generally recognized as safe,” and then they have permission to sell. Impossible Foods got its GRAS certification in 2014 and has been selling its flagship product ever since.

This food item is the Impossible Burger, a plant-based meat replacement.

“We’ve done all these tests and, as of 2014, we’re generally recognized as safe,” said Rebekah Moses, the sustainability and agriculture director of Impossible Foods. “We wanted to introduce more transparency to the process so we pursued a ‘letter of no questions asked’ that entails rigorous testing on animals which was a tough thing for us because we do not want to engage with animal testing, but we did so in order to meet this additional step. That is still under review right now.”

Despite the product still undergoing review, it is available for purchase.

Ermias Kebreab, a professor of animal science and the deputy director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, took issue with the product’s availability.

“In animal agriculture, you never would’ve been able to get away with that,” Kebreab said. “All the tests that the FDA asks from industry have to be done. There are a number of cases where the technology is good but because there wasn’t really a champion or an organization behind it, that idea died because of the requirements from the FDA. We only have [AquaAdvantage salmon] officially FDA-approved after 20 years, to be sold in the market, and it’s only found in Canada right now. If the FDA required that something be verified and have data on it that then that should be completed before it is available to consumers.”

A UC Davis club, Peace for the Elimination of Animal Cruelty through Education, still sees great potential for this burger.

“There [are] definitely environmental benefits for consuming a product that is similar tasting and with a similar nutritional profile as meat,” said McKenna Maxwell, the co-vice president of PEACE and an environmental studies and management major at UC Davis. “But the environmental impacts — the land use, the water use, the carbon dioxide equivalent — is much less when you’re consuming a plant-based burger versus a traditional animal-based burger. There are also health benefits. There’s no cholesterol, there’s no saturated fat, there is unsaturated fat found in plant foods that’s easier for the body to digest.”

Although the Impossible Burger might have the same number of grams of protein and have fewer calories than a beef burger, Kebreab argued that there is more to nutrition than these values.

“It’s not just having livestock products,” Kebreab said. “It’s looking at amino acid profiles. Animal proteins have the amino acids that we need as humans. Eggs for example have a nearly perfect profile of essential amino acids, which you will not get from plants. I am not saying you should eat animal sourced food all the time. You need to balance vegetables, fruits and animal proteins. For some groups this is more important than others, like children or pregnant women — you have to have some type of animal sourced food in order to have good development.”

Environmental factors are another issue at play when it comes to creating the Impossible Burger. Impossible Foods wanted to reduce the amount of land needed to create a meat-product, thereby improving the sustainability of their item.

“We do need to find alternative means of producing animal-based products,” Moses said. “The demand for those is going to increase by 60 to 70 percent. One-seventh of human based greenhouse gases are the results of animal farming. 30 percent of our water goes to it globally, 50 percent of the ice free surface of the planet is devoted to [livestock].”

Environmental concerns is also a hot debate in the livestock industry. But depending on where you are, those numbers change. In the US, where resources are carefully controlled and research is constantly ongoing to mitigate livestock’s impact on the environment, there is a different picture.

“It really depends where you are,” Kebreab said. “Here, in the United States, it’s going to 4 percent, but if you go to New Zealand, it’s going to be 50 percent because they have a lot of sheep. For greenhouse gases, it varies where you are. Globally, the number is about 14.5 percent from animals. That number comes from the FAO. In terms of water use, yes, 30 percent sounds correct, but this includes the water used for crops grown as feed for livestock animals. In terms of space, 50 percent of the ice free land doesn’t really make any sense. You have to think if this area good for agriculture or not. If it’s not, like a lot of the rangeland isn’t in California, most rangeland would be barren. The grass will not grow because you need to have the cycle where animals graze and deposit their manure. This adds value to the land.”

With the global population expected to reach over 10 billion people by 2050, precise and responsible stewardship of limited resources is becoming more essential than ever before. According to the Center for Food Integrity, the world will need twice the amount of food produced today by 2050.

“I see the Impossible Burger playing a key role as a transition into making better products with better technology that will decrease the environmental footprint of our individual consumption habits,” Maxwell said.

Technology will definitely be on the forefront of how food will be produced in the future. Humanity needs to learn produce more with less and, depending on who you ask, livestock can either be part of the solution or be part of the problem.

“I don’t think it’s feasible to feed 10 billion people on the system we have now,” Moses said. “There are improvements in yield across plant-based foods and increases in efficiency for livestock. Those are good things but we need, in order to feed that many people, a transformative technology in addition to yield improvements if we do not want to hugely compromise natural resources. There are many ways we can initiate food system sustainability, for the 2050 population I just don’t see how we do that with the existing system.”

Many individuals within the UC Davis Animal Science department argue that livestock is an essential part of that future transformative system Moses is referring to.

“A lot of beef cattle are grazing on grassland where you can’t do anything else. A lot of the crops being grown for human food are being fertilized by manure,” Kebreab said. “If you’re going to get rid of animal agriculture, this would increase the amount of inorganic fertilizers you would have to produce, which takes quite a lot of energy and would result in a lot of associated emissions and the whole system would collapse.”

Moses said this product will help bring optionality to our food production system in order to meet growing demands.

But does the Impossible Burger stand up to the challenge? Moses said that blind taste tests have found the Impossible Burger comparable to a beef burger. Other consumers are not convinced.

“To actually call the Impossible Burger a burger doesn’t seem right because nutritionally it is not comparable,” Kebreab said. “It’s not just calories and proteins. You need to look at the trace elements that we get, like iron, which are essential for human beings. This comparison will give you a better picture as to why we need animal sourced protein.”


Written by: Alice Rocha — science@aggie.org


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