When it comes to meat, the environmental community is sounding alarm bells.
Greenpeace recently issued a report declaring that we need to cut meat consumption in half for climate purposes. The Center for Biological Diversity warns that in order to prevent wildlife extinction, the best thing we can do is simply eat less meat. And the Union of Concerned Scientists concludes that two of the leading causes of deforestation are the creation of pasture land for grass-fed cattle and growing crops to feed farm animals.
Yet one environmental group is sounding a different kind of alarm. Friends of the Earth (FOE) recently released a report taking aim at many start-ups trying to help consumers eat lower on the food chain. As Bloomberg’s Deena Shanker and Lydia Mulvaney report, FOE is criticizing the fledgling companies making both plant-based meats and clean meat (real meat grown from animal cells).
Nearly all of these companies have been founded by environmentalists whose primary purpose for becoming food entrepreneurs is to save the planet.
While FOE for years has campaigned against genetic engineering, the organization goes further than genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in its new paper, panning even common food ingredients like gum Arabic (a natural gum of the acacia tree), cellulose (an organic compound found in green plants), and carrageenan (a seaweed extract). Even though these every-day ingredients aren’t genetically engineered, FOE’s report shows them underneath a double-helix DNA strand emerging from the ground.
Instead of eating plant-based products with these ingredients, FOE argues that we instead ought to be eating organic, grassfed beef.
Foes of FOE’s Paper
While few doubt FOE is well-intentioned in its efforts to create a more sustainable food supply — I certainly don’t — the reaction against their report was swift.
Bloomberg quotes Impossible Foods — makers of the much-celebrated Impossible Burger — spokeswoman Rachel Konrad as saying FOE’s report displays a “total disregard for science, facts and reality.” If you think that’s strongly-worded, read Impossible Foods’ full response, calling FOE’s report “preposterous propaganda.”
The Open Philanthropy Project’s Lewis Bollard was also blunt in his assessment of FOE’s report: “People sometimes ask me what the opposite of effective altruism is. I think Friend of the Earth’s new campaign against clean + plant-based meat is a strong contender.”
The Good Food Institute’s Bruce Friedrich felt similarly: “While GFI strongly supports FOE’s efforts to decrease meat consumption and promote regenerative agriculture, plant-based and clean meat is an important complement to their work. More meat was consumed in 2017 than ever before in human history; pretty much the last thing we need is an attack on products that can help.” (GFI’s Dr. Liz Specht offers an insightful analysis of the state of alt-meats today, BTW.)
Others pointed out factual errors, such as FOE’s assertion that “Finless Foods has genetically engineered algae to produce protein for its ‘algae-based shrimp.’” In reality, Finless Foods doesn’t use genetic engineering and has never made shrimp, algae-based or otherwise.
And yet others questioned the email distributed by FOE’s PR firm, BerlinRosen, which claims that “the safety of these products has not been scientifically established.” But of all the products they’re attacking, only the Impossible Burger is actually on the market, and the Impossible Burger has gone through multiple safety reviews. (More from Impossible Foods on this here.)
What About Cheese?
FOE’s beef with the plant-based Impossible Burger is that one of its ingredients, a heme, is produced through genetic engineering. (The heme itself is GMO-free, but the process used to make it is not.) However, this is the same exact process used in nearly all hard cheese production today.
Until 1990, all hard cheese contained calves’ stomach lining, known as rennet, in order to make the dairy curdle. Today, nearly all rennet is produced in vitro, where genetically engineered bacteria serve as factories for producing chymosin, the key component of rennet. After the genetically engineered bacteria does its job, it’s discarded, leaving the chymosin isolated and allowing the cheese to be considered GMO-free. Not only is this the same way Impossible Foods makes its heme, this is also the same process used to create the insulin that millions of diabetics safely inject themselves with every day.
It’s unclear why Impossible Foods should be treated any differently by FOE on this score than cheese-makers have been for the past three decades.
FOE also also takes aim at meats grown from animal cells even if they don’t use genetic engineering. The main concern with these foods, FOE asserts, is that it’s too early to know if they’re safe.
In addition to the fact that none of these products are on the market (though I’ve eaten them several times in researching my book on the topic and felt fine each time), already the FDA has declared, “Given information we have at the time, it seems reasonable to think that cultured meat, if manufactured in accordance with appropriate safety standards and all relevant regulations, could be consumed safely.”
FOE asserts in its paper that the FDA isn’t capable of making that determination.
Michael Jacobson, cofounder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, feels differently. The man who’s crusaded against the dangers of food additives like trans fats and olestra is optimistic about cellular agriculture. “It’s a good way to have animal products that would be a lot safer to consume and more sustainable to produce,” he observes. “I’d be happy to eat it.”
Does Opposing Alt-Meat Achieve FOE’s Goals?
Given that the overwhelming majority of GMOs in America are planted to feed farm animals so we can eat them, one might wonder whether simply urging less meat consumption would actually do more to achieve FOE’s goal of reducing GMO use in the food supply than criticizing environmentalists-turned-entrepreneurs in their efforts to displace factory farming.
McKay Jenkins, a sharp critic of industrial agriculture, makes this point in his 2017 book Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet:
“The grand prize — growing meat from cell cultures rather than from actual living livestock — could mean all types of powerful changes to industrial agriculture. We wouldn’t need pesticide-laden GM corn, industrial slaughterhouses, or gasoline, because we wouldn’t be feeding, slaughtering, or shipping animals around the country. We also wouldn’t need to deal with the mountains (or lakes) of animal waste that contaminate our water, or clouds of methane that contribute to climate change. And we wouldn’t need to kill billions of animals to satisfy our bottomless desire for protein.”
Jenkins is joined in that sentiment by one of industrial agriculture’s biggest foes: Bob Martin, director of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future. Martin, an enthusiast for clean meat, argues that “cellular food animal production is very promising and could solve the problems caused by the present concentrated animal feeding operation model.”
In other words, rather than fighting against the fledgling alt-meat companies, helping to divorce meat production from livestock-raising could just be the most important way to achieve many of the goals FOE is so passionate about pursuing.