The Problem with Plant-Based Meat

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A few years ago, when I was at the height of my vegan era, I was an outspoken plant-based meat evangelist. Many vegans I know are completely uninterested in anything that tastes like, or has a similar texture to, meat, but I was never one of those vegans. I opted for a plant-based diet largely out of concern for animal welfare and environmental issues—it was never really a health consideration for me. So, with the advent of the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger, I rejoiced. Finally, I could eat the fast food trash of my dreams without harming an animal in the process.

But as time has gone on, many advocates for a more sustainable food system have called the entire premise of corporate-produced plant-based meats into question—and not just from a culinary standpoint. Are plant-based meats really as sustainable as they sound? Or do they fall into the same inescapable traps of capitalism that prevent us from building a truly more sustainable way of meeting our daily protein needs?

Plant-Based Meat Isn’t the Worst Option… But It’s Not the Best, Either

There’s no denying that industrial meat production is deeply problematic on several levels. The most obvious is animal welfare: Animals raised in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) live deeply bleak and miserable lives before they’re slaughtered. The people who do the work of slaughtering are often mercilessly exploited, essentially forced to work in cruel, grueling conditions. Recently, it was reported that literal children are working in these operations. Additionally, factory farms produce significant levels of pollution that impact the communities surrounding them, which (surprise!) are often inhabited by marginalized groups that lack the power to push these corporations out of their communities.

Plant-based meat promises to cut back on some of these issues. Concerns for animal welfare, for example, would be mitigated if we were to shift to plant-based meat. However, the corporations that produce plant-based meat are still operating under a capitalist food system that prioritizes profits over all else, and the products they produce still have negative environmental impacts. They’re mostly produced with monocrops, which tend to reduce soil biodiversity and require the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. And although plant-based meat alternatives may produce a smaller environmental footprint than industrial meats do, they have more negative effects on the environment than do foods like tofu.

And if you’re assuming that corporations that produce plant-based products will inherently care for their workers better than CAFOs do, you probably haven’t heard of the labor struggles at vegetarian companies like Amy’s Kitchen and No Evil Foods. Can a publicly traded corporation really offer a competitive product at affordable prices without blatant exploitation or environmental externalities?

Then, there’s the question of health. Although some assume that vegan and vegetarian meat options are healthier than actual meat, that’s not necessarily true. Some of these plant-based meat alternatives are highly processed and contain staggering levels of salt and saturated fat, making them measurably less healthy than minimally processed plant-based foods like beans, lentils and tofu.

I’m not saying you should cut plant-based proteins out of your diet if you happen to enjoy them, but they just don’t appear to be the silver bullet the industry tries to convince us they are. If we want to build a more sustainable, equitable food system, I think we have to ask ourselves whether more innovation and more technology (which is what got us to our problematic present-day food system in the first place) is the solution to our ills when it comes to protein production.

Searching for Better Plant-Based Protein Solutions

Luckily, less-processed, more-sustainable plant-based protein has been around for ages. Many cultures have traditionally relied on plant-based proteins, either due to social convention or a lack of resources to obtain animal protein. Chinese Buddhists, for example, have long cooked faux meats made from whole food ingredients—no labs or venture funding required.

Ultimately, the large-scale production of plant-based protein, when executed in an under-regulated capitalist system, is very likely to produce a lot of the same problems other capitalist ventures do. The solution may not be sexy or cutting-edge, but it is simple: Maybe we should just be eating more whole foods and finding more delicious ways to enjoy the protein-packed plant-based foods that our ancestors have eaten for thousands of years before us. Maybe we should’ve been ordering the black bean burger all along.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.