Fast-food is cheap, accessible and internationally loved. When the fast-food industry quits meat and dairy, the world will too.
One day we will tell our grandkids about the Great Burger Wars. Scientists duelling social conservatives, foodies brawling with tech entrepreneurs, vegans sniping at vegans – burgers are a window on the charged politics of climate change. And low-methane cows, Impossible Whoppers, and cellular agriculture have put fast food on the front lines. Most recently, a Burger King ad for a lower-emission beef burger featured a tween (the Walmart yodel kid) styled like Gene Autry by way of the Vienna boys’ choir two-stepping his way past farting cows. Of course, it went viral. Burger King gobbled up the free press but also stern rebukes from scientists and the beef industry. And nearly every major news outlet has over the past year run some version of a story asking, “Can a hamburger save the world?”
Well, can it? Sadly, no. But fast food’s environmental impact can be massively reduced, and with its unparalleled scale, reach, and appeal, it could help transform the food system. That, however, requires taking meat off the menu.
Jan Dutkiewicz is a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University in Montreal and a visiting fellow in the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard University. Gabriel N. Rosenberg teaches at Duke University and is the Duke Endowment Fellow of the National Humanities Center.
Animal agriculture is an environmental crime, and cows are the prime suspects. Between animals, feed, and other emissions, livestock agriculture generates around 15 percent of all greenhouse gas and a whopping one-third of nitrogen emissions globally. Cows alone contribute 6 percent of total GHGs, and beef production is complicit in record methane levels, devastating deforestation, and groundwater contamination. A typical quarter-pound burger requires 15 gallons of water and 13 pounds of feed and comes with a 4-pound carbon hoofprint. Drive past any feedlot, and the smell alone will warn you it’s no beacon of sustainability. To keep agriculture within planetary limits, beef has to go.
The problem is, people really like beef. On average, Americans eat 57 pounds of beef every year. With a century of experience tailoring food to people’s taste buds and wallets, fast food has turned burgers into a national cuisine – something rich and poor, left and right, coastal and flyover all agree is as tasty as it is all-American. No wonder people freaked out when they assumed a Green New Deal would take their burgers away. The burger is the food system and climate politics ground down to their mouth-watering essence: democratic, delicious, and deadly.
Fast food’s strengths – its low price, wide availability, and industrially engineered appeal – could help overpower our beef addiction. The thing about fast food today is that it’s not inherently worse than the conventional, mass-produced food available at most restaurants and supermarkets. It’s just more efficient. Fast-food restaurants provide cheap commodities like beef, cheese, chicken, potatoes, wheat, and corn syrup to millions every day. With billions served every year, even small per-unit reductions in environmental harms add up to massive impacts. Big changes like replacing beef with plant-based alternatives would be a game-changer.
Critics don’t see any of this as productive or sustainable. As one recent essay put it: “[Given a] long history of subsidised food production, conglomerated corporate power, and global inequality does opt for an Impossible™ Whopper … really make a difference?” It does, least of all to the cow. Rather than cursing them, environmentalists ought to drink Burger King’s milkshake: Harness the efficiencies of that fast-food infrastructure to provide cheap, tasty, and widely available alternatives to meat.
Studies show that no matter how much Burger King and major beef producers promise to reduce cows’ methane emissions, mass-produced feedlot beef can’t compete with alternative proteins on any sustainability metric, and low-carbon “regenerative” beef can’t be produced at a price that would fit with fast food’s low margins. You can have happy cows or cheap burgers, but you can’t have them both. The flavor and texture of alternative proteins is getting so close to conventional meat that switching might not be much of a sacrifice, which is the thrust of a new Beyond Meat ad.
The environmental advantages of current alternative protein over pork and chicken are more ambiguous. That’s because nearly all chickens and pigs are raised on factory farms, where every ounce of efficiency is extracted through tremendous animal suffering. But even KFC realizes chickens may soon go the way of the dodo. It has piloted Beyond Meat’s fried chicken at a number of US locations to great success, is adding a vegan chicken sandwich as a permanent part of the menu at its Canadian restaurants. If its promises are to be believed, its Russian locations will likely be the first in the world to offer cellular (lab-grown) chicken.
This is all a great sales pitch for alternative proteins, but the whole idea is bound to agitate foodie neuroses. Meat alternatives are mass-produced, processed imitations: “fake” foods. To borrow one of Michael Pollan’s rules for eating wisely, your “great-great-great-grandmother” wouldn’t recognize them as food. The haters are right that “fake” meat is a bad fit for Chez Panisse but a great fit for Wendy’s. It’s no-time-to-cook drive-thru or drunk-at-2-am food, and it’s definitely “not going to deliver any terroir.” But if you thought alternative proteins were an all-out vegan assault on the things you hold dear, fear not: The burger battles have riven the already fractious vegan community, with some hardline activists organizing against what they call the “clean meat hoax.”
That’s all a shame, because, for all that they’re not, alternative proteins are marginally more healthy. A big critique is that these are processed, bad-for-you foods, but they’re no worse, and in many cases better, than what they are replacing – and at least for beef, incomparably less environmentally impactful than meat options available at restaurants, fast and slow.
What’s more, mass uptake by fast-food restaurants would help further scale and lower costs for alternative proteins. It would also propel research and development that could slash GHGs and improve the nutritional profile of meat alternatives, and speed along with the development of cellular agriculture. Unlike foodies’ delusional nostalgic agrarianism and unrealistic calls to “deindustrializ[e] and decentraliz[e] the American food system,” pragmatism tells us that big problems demand big solutions.
There’s also a strong business case for fast-food restaurants adopting alternative proteins. Sales of plant-based meat have jumped more than 200 percent and have outpaced meat sales since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. As sales projections ramp up, costs have decreased, with companies like Beyond Meat – now expected to pull in $1 billion in sales by the year’s end – looking to compete on price with traditional beef burgers. Meanwhile, the pandemic has shown industrial farming and slaughter to be a fragile value chain prone to disruption and dangerous for workers and has convinced some that it’s a bad investment. As consumers increasingly view meat as a “dirty” industry alongside tobacco, coal, petroleum, and mining, a rapid and large-scale shift to alternative proteins could be the escape hatch the fast-food industry desperately needs.
The critics are right about one thing: Alternative proteins are not a silver-bullet solution to the food system’s problems. Not even close. No burger, no matter how low-impact, can save the planet. This gets at the heart of the debate about the meaning of sustainability. In a broad sense, it means a total food system transformation, including new ways of producing, consuming, and thinking about food. In the narrow sense sustainability simply means doing less harm within existing systems. Fast food definitely doesn’t work with the former, but it just might be able to achieve the latter.
If all fast-food joints were to phase out beef and replace it with alternative proteins, it would immediately cut down on land use, feed requirements, and water pollution (not to mention the threat of viral spread at slaughterhouses). In fact, if every burger eaten in the USA were replaced with an Impossible burger, that would require about 90 percent less land and water while reducing GHG emissions by 90 percent. None of this means fast-food companies are the good guys in the story of American agriculture or politics; they’re not. But they could be orders of magnitude less bad.
Let’s buy ourselves the time to think about how else the food system could be changed. How could we use the land freed up from grazing and cattle crop production? Perhaps for smaller farms or much-needed rewilding or reforestation, or returning land to native peoples. Other battles would still loom, including overprotection and increased wages for the workers harvesting potatoes and those dishing them out as fries. This is the realm of politics that will have to happen no matter who wins the burger wars. But it might be a lot easier in the era of sustainable fast food, with the added bonus that we’d still all be able to eat burgers. Because let’s be honest: Salad is overrated.
Original source: https://www.wired.com