February 22, 2019

RUMINATIONS | “Where’s The Beef?”

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Photo by Murali Saravanan

Last week, I was making conversation with a customer during one of my work shifts. She was speaking about a vegetarian friend, who was shaming her friends for their decision to eat meat. This customer defended herself, replying that she now chooses to participate in Meatless Mondays, and that she was doing her part to “save the world”.

I laughed at this. My place of work has been limiting the number of straws we dispose of in an effort to be more environmentally conscious, and she had just asked me for a straw for her drink.

She proceeded to explain to me and my coworkers that the “industrial farming industry” does not attempt to conserve or recycle water on their operations, and therefore was responsible for most of the depletion of water resources in the United States. She specifically identified beef and dairy operations as the culprit.

My work shift suddenly became much more exciting.

I proceeded to explain to her that water is recycled 2-3 times on a dairy farm before it is released back into the environment. She counter argued that while that may be true for small farms, it is certainly not the case for these large, “industrial farms”, that are harming the environment. To this point, I argued that small and large farms alike are concerned with their water consumption and recycling, as state and federal regulations, and recommended best practices in general, require them to be conscious.

At this moment, I extrapolated that this customer genuinely believed that a plant based diet was the future of sustainable food production not only in the United States, but across the world.

She then began to challenge the basis of my argument, to which I replied that it was my fourth year in the Animal Science program here, and I had sufficient knowledge and sources to support my case.

Earlier this week, I was walking into Trill for lunch, (Just like every other Cornell student, judging by the crowd at that time). Despite my haste to get inside and get out, I was stopped in my tracks upon reading this sign:

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I had always seen the ad for the Impossible Burger on campus, and heard differing reviews about it. For those of you who may not be familiar, the Impossible Burger is a plant-based product that has been created to imitate a real beef burger. It appears, and apparently tastes, just like a conventional beef burger. How do they make it taste like real meat? A soy plant root protein called heme, which is inserted into genetically engineered, fermented yeast.

I will admit that nutritionally, the Impossible Burger has come somewhat close to comparing with a real beef burger. One Impossible Burger provides 28% daily value of Protein, while a real burger provides 48%. An Impossible patty contains 290 calories, while a real beef burger contains 150 calories. Each burger contains a comparable amount of vitamins and essential nutrients. A beef burger at Trillium is also significantly less expensive than an Impossible Burger, I might add.

So what made me do a double take on this particular day? This line.
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#yikes. Begin rant:

It is a privilege for most of us, not all of us, in this part of the world to make our own food purchasing and consumption decisions. Not only do I have the financial freedom to purchase conventional products; I also believe in the way they are produced, and I have easy access to them. Personally, I choose not to purchase vegan products and plant-based products, because I do not believe in the scientific and/or marketing claims surrounding them. Not to mention that, typically, they are of much higher cost than a conventional product, and I’m a college student. It is not realistic for me to make this decision.

That being said, I respect the decisions of others to make their food choices. Do I wish they would use sounder scientific data and nutritional information to make their choices? Sure. Do I wish that people would peel back the label and really examine what is going into vegan, plant-based alternatives? Absolutely. Do I wish that the ethical arguments surrounding the vegan and plant-based movement, in regards to animal welfare and sustainability, used more hard facts? Or that people would just talk to a food producer? Every single day. However, most people have the freedom to make their own food purchasing decisions, and it is not up to me to tell them otherwise, but only provide them with what I know.

Notice I said *most* people. I believe that those who are major proponents for the plant-based and vegan diets fail to recognize that issues surrounding food are incredibly different for each person.

The majority of Americans, and citizens of developing countries, cannot feasibly feed themselves on an entirely plant-based diet. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2018, 40 million Americans received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, globally, there are 815 million people who go hungry each day, 11 million of them inhabiting underdeveloped countries. Disease and malnutrition, in most cases, ravishes the populations of these underdeveloped countries, especially the childhood population. Micronutrient deficiencies are some of the most common culprits. This may be a familiar correlation, but poverty is the principal cause of hunger, globally.

So, to put this together, lack of resources causes hunger not only here in the United States, but in a variety of countries overseas. Hunger causes micronutrient deficiencies, which cause disease and, in some cases, death across populations.

Oh, and by the way, Impossible Burger is currently only available in the United States, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Therefore, I beg the question, how are things like the Impossible Burger and Meatless Mondays “saving the world”?

A plant based diet may be a feasible option for you. Nutritionally, the Impossible Burger may be adequate for you. Who is to say that they are nutritionally adequate for a group of starving people in underdeveloped countries? And who is to say that everyone can afford things like the Impossible Burger? If the majority of our campus here at Cornell cannot possibly afford an Impossible Burger, how is the average American family supposed to do so? Or a family in rural India, for example?

I will leave the sustainability argument for another article, because the carbon footprint of a plant-based product, on a life cycle basis, is much less sustainable than the carbon footprint of a real beef burger. That is an entire argument in and of itself.

Regardless, it is incredibly unrealistic for those of us who are more fortunate, whom do not live in poverty, to assume that another portion of the world, who does, can accept our lifestyle.

Some would argue that eating meat itself is a luxury that many developed countries cannot afford. I see this as a great opportunity for learning and change. Many global projects have been teaching and encouraging developing countries to produce their own high protein foods, in order to help alleviate their malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. These countries are actively demanding animal proteins. They need them. And they deserve the opportunity to consume them.

As we move into an era of population increases, reduced land and water resources, and the effects of climate change, food production is going to have to evolve. This is not a theory, this is a fact. However, relying more heavily on land and water resources, in order to provide plant-based diets to the global population, will most certainly not be the solution. Food companies, farmers, scientists, and consumers are coming to the table, collaborating and brainstorming ways to face this challenge head on. This is incredibly exciting and terrifying at the same time. What we do know, however, is that an entirely plant-based diet is probably not the answer.

So, Impossible Burger, and Trillium Dining, “Where’s The Beef?” – I would say it is between me and you.

I am calling you out for your “saving the world” claim. People of the world who believe Meatless Mondays are going to “save the world,” I am calling you out, too. The people who have sustained the world, and will continue to do so, are the farmers and ranchers. The original stewards of the land. Their purpose is to sustain a safe and affordable food supply, and to do it in an environmentally and socially conscious way.

I will admit, folks, that this is exciting. Science is cool. Many people call me a cynic, while I prefer to identify as a realist. Realistically, nothing about the Impossible Burger, or the adoption of entirely plant-based diets, is feasible. The cost, the resources required, and the shift in culture that would need to take place is something that we cannot reasonably identify.

If your definition of “saving the world” is saving the privileged population who can afford to purchase your product, and have the means of accessing it, then I it may be time to reevaluate your purpose.

The real folks saving the world are the ones who are producing food, conducting groundbreaking nutrition research, making more nutrient-dense foods available to rural, developing areas, and helping to alleviate the global malnutrition crisis. They are using the latest advancements in science and technology to accomplish this. Let us continue to support them, the original food producers, in order to help us move into this new era.