Will Clean Meat Change the GMO Debate?

The environmentally devastating statistics on the meat industry are staggering. It seems predicated on the idea that the population needs to eat now, so the future can take care of itself. If humanity follows through on that idea, efforts at sustainability will go to waste.

Before you slap another steak on the barbecue this summer, contemplate the following arguments against red meat as we know it:

  • The livestock industry is responsible for 18 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, more than all the transportation emissions combined.
  • The livestock industry takes up about 30 percent of land on Earth.
  • It takes over 55 pounds of grain and almost 4,000 gallons of water to yield a little over 2 pounds of beef; the grain from all livestock production could feed 3.5 billion people.
  • In the U.S., the livestock industry pumps 80 percent of all antibiotics into cows, which contributes to the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

And that’s just livestock. The fishing industry is pillaging the ocean. Almost 90 percent of fish stocks are depleted due to overfishing. Meanwhile, meat production will double by 2050 in order to feed a growing population. A plant-based diet could feed the multiplying masses, but people are addicted to meat, and agriculture will produce the stock necessary to feed that addiction. The production will come with a pollution pricetag and escalating climate change.

Enter clean meat, a Silicon Valley creation that aims to provide the texture and flavor of hamburger without the environmental concerns. The company at the forefront is called Impossible Foods, and the creation is called the Impossible Burger. It’s entirely plant-based, yet it bleeds and browns on the grill like real beef. There’s soy in it, but Impossible Foods doesn’t even dig up the soy plants because that promotes erosion and releases carbon stored in the soil. Instead, Impossible uses a much more high-tech process (more on that to come). But there’s a caveat: The company uses genetic modification to create its burger.

Genetic modification and the future of food

Genetic modification is a touchy subject for many. It starts with genome analytics — a practice that raises privacy concerns — because, according to Maryville University, gene sequencing services sell data on people’s genes to third parties. When it comes to plant genome analysis, Monsanto’s Dr. Sherri Brown touts the wonders of collaborating with plant breeders to “combine specific plant characteristics in initial crosses between plants, as opposed to breeding for such combinations over multiple years.” She also points out that genetic modification can produce better harvests. The idea is basic: Harness science to produce higher yields, and you can feed the poor and help countries with food shortage problems.

Brown may be a doctor, but she’s also being paid by Monsanto, which has a controversial history — not only with a range of other agricultural pesticides and chemicals shown to be toxic to the environment, its name has become synonymous with genetically modified food and exemplifies the public’s mistrust of the agritech industry.

But if Impossible Foods were the ambassador of genetic modification, would you think differently? Genetic modification is a process that is purely the result of science. In an effort to show the science is sound and genetically modified crops aren’t necessarily bad, Neil DeGrasse Tyson narrated a 2016 film called ***Food Evolution***.

As Slate author Keith Kloor points out, Food Evolution is “scientifically accurate” but “it won’t convince anyone,” because the debate around GMOs is ideologically driven and “increasingly immune to facts.” In the film, DeGrasse Tyson says there are “nearly 2,000 experiments” and “foremost scientific institutions” that prove GMOs are safe.

Impossible Foods uses genetic modification to take heme cells — iron-carrying cells found in all organic matter, which carry oxygen in the blood of humans and animals — from soy plants and multiply them with yeast. Through a GM process, Impossible Foods makes enough heme to give the Impossible Burger a flavor and texture resembling hamburger, and the heme even makes the uncooked burger “bleed.” According to Impossible Burger: “Compared to a burger made from cows, making an Impossible Burger uses about 1/20th the land, 1/4th the water, and produces 1/8th the greenhouse gas emissions.”

Joanna Blythman is a “renowned investigator of the unpronounceable ingredients in processed food” who wrote an article about the Impossible Burger for Sustainable Food Trust. She says the burger’s ingredients are “all signifiers of low-grade, ultra-processed food,” while the soy heme (leghemoglobin) is “a novel ingredient that has no proven track record of safety.” To her, this product is just another part of the processed food world that produces ultimately unhealthy substitutes for real, whole foods.

Indeed, a look at the Impossible Burger’s nutrition information reveals a lot of sodium (430 mg per serving), which is standard issue for processed foods. Furthermore, according to Bradley University, people consume too many calorie-rich foods in America, which has helped lead to an obesity epidemic, with some 36 percent of adults classified as obese. The Impossible Burger has 220 calories for every 3-ounce serving, while ground beef has 213 calories. The Impossible Burger might be better for the environment than beef, but it certainly won’t help anyone maintain a healthy lifestyle. Joanna’s speculative stance on the GM component, which has “no proven track record of safety,” adds another layer of doubt about the Impossible Burger’s merits.

Blythman’s final argument is that the meat industry could clean up its act by returning ruminants to their natural grass diet instead of feeding them grain, as is the practice in feedlots. According to the site for which she writes, “The only sustainable way to obtain food from grassland is to graze it with ruminants. With the growing global population, it would be irresponsible not to do that.”

It would also be irresponsible to continue giving antibiotics to cows. The Impossible Burger has the added advantage of not containing antibiotics, but that won’t convince critics such as Blythman, who feel the solution to the problem is to return ruminants to a natural state of grazing. To critics such as Blythman, any novel tech solution is suspect.

Any side of the argument can agree the population is growing, and the future of food must account for that. As Inc.’s Jeff Bercovici puts it, “Only a radical break with the past will prevent doubling down on practices such as high-density feedlots and vertical chicken farms.” Impossible Foods’ radical break from the past is a GMO sandwich that takes up far less space than beef and could be a model for future meat substitutes. But to critics of the business of genetic modification, we need a radical break from the present and a return to organic meat production, but at a bigger scale than ever before.

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