Plant-Based Meats - The Seven Sons Guide
By now you have likely seen fast-food restaurants and grocers giving greater visibility to man-made or "plant-based" meats.
There are even venture capital-funded companies across the world that have entered the Fake Meat market with 3D-printed steaks. Can you believe that?? If not, watch them being printed in this Yahoo Finance video on YouTube:
Can you see why we use the term "fake meats" now?
We know our customers value transparency and real, wholesome food and ingredients. But, given all the recent press and options popping up on menus and grocery store shelves, we know many questions exist about these plant-based foods, too.
How healthy are the ingredients?
What are they made of exactly? Are they really made of plants?
Are fake meats better for the environment?
Is it really more ethical to eat plant-based foods?
I'll address these questions and more in this article.
Also, please know that my goal in writing this article is not to disparage anyone who is making a genuine effort to eat healthier and improve our food system. Rather, we applaud and wholly support you!
I want to assure you that my goal is to simply raise questions that I believe consumers should consider before choosing to believe all the fancy marketing claims.
As we dive into this massive topic I want to clarify that the perspective I bring is one of a farmer who truly believes in (and has seen) the benefits of regenerative livestock principles.
With that said, let's get started.
The Ingredients of Plant-Based Meat
Between the 3D-printed meats and the long list of hard-to-pronounce man-made ingredients in these lab foods, there's A LOT to unpack.
While I will refer to science to support my recommendations about the questions we believe consumers should consider asking about their food, I also want to give practical advice. In our house, we use a very simple 3 question "filter" to determine what foods we consistently feed our family.
My wife, Charis, and I as parents of 5 children ask these questions before we bring any type of food into our home (be it animal-based, or plant-based foods.)
#1 Can This Food Be Replicated or Made in Our Kitchen?
Have you ever tried making high fructose corn syrup at home?
When was the last time you whipped up a fresh batch of homemade Crisco?
Just like the above foods, fake meat is a product of an ultra-processed food manufacturing system that uses preservatives and ingredients that you could never make in your own kitchen.
With the exception of the primary ingredient (water, which is the first ingredient listed among top brands I reviewed), the list of ingredients is both long, complex and quite "science-ey".
I go into a few of the problem ingredients I found on the Impossible brand label in the next section.
But, to wrap up question #1, fake meat products don't use ingredients or a recipe we could reproduce in our kitchen, so it fails the "Blaine and Charis test."
#2 Can I Pronounce The Ingredients?
Charis and I, like you, have now been trained to have a heightened awareness of how common it is for food companies to include ingredients that we can’t pronounce in many foods.
As parents, we feel like it's our responsibility to filter out unknown or unpronounceable ingredients when making meals for the family. To be honest, that becomes quite the challenge with many foods on grocery store shelves, especially as it related to plant-based foods.
Here's an interesting test for you, if you're interested.
Two of these labels below are ingredient lists for popular branded plant-based burger alternatives, and the other is a label for Walk About Premium Dog Food.
Can you guess which is which? Take the test, the answer is at the bottom of this article.
I'll give you a hint. One of the ingredients in Beyond Burger is something called Methylcellulose, which actually is a chemical compound that is used in both laxatives and cosmetics.
Similarly, we didn't have a high level of understanding of what Soy Leghemoglobin was...but with a little bit of research (that the Impossible Foods brand was involved in), this new genetically engineered ingredient is one we'll choose to omit, too.
As it turns out, the "pronounceability" of ingredients is a reliable and simple filter for us as parents.
#3 Where Does This Food Come From?
Most of what my family eats at home comes from our very own farm or from the farm partners that I trust and know by name.
We also do our best to support local food artisans within our region for foods that we don’t raise. This is true both for Charis and I's family food dollars, and in the products that we choose to carry in our on-farm market.
When we buy food in a conventional grocery store, at the very least, we want to know that it came from the USA.
As I've addressed in previous articles, this is getting surprisingly harder and harder for beef, but highly processed, synthetic foods like fake meats take it to a whole new level!!!
This Good Food Institute report which examines China's role in growing the plant-based food economy reports that almost 80% of global textured soy proteins and other popular plant-based proteins are being processed in China.
Lastly, ingredients like Pea Protein Isolate, Soy Protein Concentrate, and Canola Oil, which are common in these products are all known as highly processed and from GMO sources.
So, after using these 3 questions as filters both Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger fake meat brands failed our test miserably.
They fail because they create a very low level of confidence and a high level of uncertainty, especially when compared to real regeneratively-raised nutrient-dense meats.
1. Fake meat could never be made in your own kitchen
2. Fake meat is full of unpronounceable GMO ingredients
3. Fake meat includes ingredients typically processed in foreign countries
Plant-based Meats & The Environment
There are some pretty smart people like Jeff Bezos, Al Gore and Bill Gates who are reported here to be heavily investing their fortunes and time in promoting the beneficial claims of fake meat.
While I believe Bill Gates is a really smart guy, I do believe he’s choosing to ignore the environmental differences between industrial feedlot beef versus regenerative grass-fed beef systems.
Are Plant-Based Meats Good For The Environment?
Net Carbon Affect
First off, let us humble ourselves and remember the fact that ruminant animals like the lowly cow have been a part of regenerating healthy ecosystems for millennia.
You see, when a cow grazes, she only metabolizes 10% of what she eats and the rest of her food is returned to the grassland as fertile manure. The cow then moves on allowing the freshly grazed and fertilized grass to regrow before she returns for a second grazing months later.
The fact that she only takes 10% and returns 90% to the soil is the foundation of an environmental benefit, and why our pastures look like this:
Can you tell where our property line rests? ;)
In the Seven Sons ecosystem, the rate of biomass accumulation speeds up thus enabling the cow to actually have a NET positive carbon footprint.
Here's a chart from a Quantis International study that was conducted with my friends at White Oak Pastures that shows how this net carbon effect can work:
It’s a beautiful system and it’s been this way for thousands of years until clever humans came along with tillage, chemicals and cattle feedlots that ultimately displaced cows from their once synergistic role on this earth.
As prideful humans, we then turn around and arrogantly blame the humble cow for our environmental woes??
I'm sorry, but that doesn't compute.
Fake meat is not the answer because it is still propped on the exact same industrial-scale, high tillage, high chemical, carbon-releasing farming systems that continues to degrade our soils, and pollute our waterways.
Net Total Emissions
Ok, let's pivot to address how the manner in which plant-based meats are produced compares to our style of farming at Seven Sons as it relates to emissions.
Instead of using the term “plant-based" meat, perhaps, these brands should be labeled as “grain-based meat” because that’s exactly what the ingredient label includes.
Quantis International recently conducted a full lifecycle analysis to compare the full carbon effects of conventional GRAIN-fed beef versus Impossible Burger and found that plant-based meats indeed have a lower carbon footprint compared to grain-fed beef.
Impossible Burger actually highlights this study on their website here. Fair enough...
But get this...Do you want to know what Impossible Burger DOES NOT publicize? Any idea what they don't want you to know??
The exact same research firm also conducted a study on regenerative GRASS-fed beef systems and found that grass-fed beef actually has a net positive carbon impact whereas Impossible Burger was still emitting carbon. Similarly, you can find that study here.
This chart summarizes the results of both studies:
In summary, I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of Dana Pearl from Friends of the Earth who put it this way:
“Instead of investing in risky new food technologies that are potential problems masquerading as solutions, shouldn’t we be investing in proven beneficial agriculture and transparent organic food that consumers are actually demanding.”
I’ll leave it at that. ;)
Fake Meat - Ethics & Morality
It may seem logical to conclude that fewer animals would die if everyone switched from consuming animal proteins to plant-based meats. But it’s not that simple… ☝
Is Eating Plant-based Ethical?
The ethical case for plant-based meat breaks down quickly when you consider that millions of small animals like mice and rodents die each year when tilling the land for crops like corn, soybeans, and peas - the staple ingredients of fake meat and that of a vegan diet.
As a farm kid who grew up helping in the fields during our early conventional farming days, I can vividly recall seeing baby birds, mice, and bunnies frantically attempting to dodge tractor tires and heavy tillage equipment.
While the debate rages and the research is inconclusive, one study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics in 2018 cited the number of small animals deaths into the billions each year.
Many will argue that killing smaller or simpler, undeveloped life forms is somehow justified because it is considered “unintentional” or creates a means to a better end. But once you are aware of the consequences it can no longer be considered unintentional.
Research doesn’t even begin to quantify the loss of billions of beneficial insects like bees and pollinators or soil organisms like earthworms due to tillage and chemicals used for growing the plant ingredients for fake meat.
And, the deleterious impact goes beyond animals, bugs and insects giving life to the soil and the land...Let us not forget about all of the marine life harmed from chemical runoff and soil erosion into our lakes, streams, and oceans.
Proponents of plant-based meats cannot deny the substantial loss of animal life each year due to industrial mono-cropping systems. I believe we are better off when we recognize the universal truth that all life requires sacrifice. Life is a cycle of death, decay, and regeneration.
The ultimate question is, "how are we honoring and respecting the animals and earth we depend upon for our life?"
This is indeed a deep philosophical question, and as a farmer of faith I sincerely believe God cares how I steward His creation. This brings us to the very heart and soul of our mission at Seven Sons - to heal and nourish the land and those it sustains.
- At Seven Sons, we eliminated all tillage practices that would otherwise harm wildlife by converting 100% of our land to diverse perennial pastures.
- Because we combine zero-tillage with adaptive grazing, our pastures are now teeming with livestock, small wildlife and beneficial insects all thriving in symbiosis.
- Because we eliminated tillage and chemicals, our measurable earthworm populations have increased by over 200,000 per acre.
- By eliminating mono-cropping practices, our increased organic matter levels hold an extra 20-40 thousand gallons of water per acre, contributing to cleaner water for marine life downstream of our lands.
- While our cattle and bison live on forage alone, we prioritize working with regenerative producers who utilize cover-cropping for sourcing our non-GMO grain to feed our pigs and chickens (which they require for optimal health).
This image above is the ecosystem we wake up each day to create and dutifully care for...for the health of our land, our animals and thousands of customers.
On the surface, the term “plant-based” sounds wholesome to the average consumer. It gives the vision of eating a healthy alternative protein source that's made of nutrient-dense fresh foods you might otherwise see in a colorful produce aisle.
I would propose that a system of agriculture that honors and embraces the distinctive patterns found in nature is far more ethical than resorting to eating manufactured foods derived from industrial cropping systems that wreak havoc on our ecology.
By now, you can see that's not exactly the case.
What do you think? We certainly welcome you to leave your comments and join the discussion below.
Thanks for reading.
[Quiz answer from above: Beyond Brand Meats (Left), Walk About Dog Food (Center), Impossible Brand Meats (Right)]