With a mixture of defiance and bravado, Impossible Foods’ CEO Pat Brown recently challenged anyone questioning his decision to use American GMO soy beans in his flagship product, the Impossible Burger Version 2.0. Citing constraints on the availability of organic soy and noting the manufactured consensus on the safety of GMO foods, Pat Brown basically asserted that anyone who questioned his decisions is a fear mongering Luddite.
All of these health and safety arguments are also made within the context of Brown’s larger quest, and that’s to rid the world of the greatest threat in his mind to humanity (and his bottom line) : beef cattle or, more colloquially, cows. The health arguments, though germane, really miss the larger issue with GMO technology as it’s currently practiced today. Herbicide resistant GMO’s help to perpetuate very destructive industrial monocrop conventional and no-till agriculture practices reliant upon agro-chemicals for weed and pest control as well as for fertility. So it’s very ironic that Pat Brown tries to position his ultra-processed analog based on environmental concerns.
Would you like the glyphosate Impossible Burger or the 2-4D version?
(Sidebar: as noted in this video just below, practically 100% of soy grown in the US is sprayed with glyphosate. Glyphosate is a chelator meaning it binds minerals. It’s also an antibiotic so it changes the composition of both the soil biome and the gut microbiomes of animals including humans).
Though oblivious vegans across the globe quickly retort, “But, at least, no animals were killed!” Well, that is except for the birds, voles, moles, foxes, badgers and everything else in the entire ecosystem along with all of the life in the soil food web. Guess the “Ecocide Burger” didn’t test well in the early marketing tests with consumers. So, in reality, Impossible Foods’ stated concerns about the environment are really nothing more than a well orchestrated PR campaign. The whole premise that no-till soy with herbicide burn downs is somehow more soil and climate friendly is something of a bad joke when you understand the adverse impact that herbicides like glyphosate have on mycorrhizal fungi (soils with high fungi to bacteria ratios store a lot more carbon). Green washing aside, the obvious goal is to use cheap, price depressed (due to tariff wars) US soy beans to have even higher profit margins on these Ecocide Burgers for his billionaire, celebrity, and venture capitalists investors. Farmers aren’t making much money off of this facsimile.
Soy is also a very phosphate extractive crop. In healthy soils, mycorrhizal fungi help plants obtain phosphate. But in unhealthy soils, phosphate has to be added. Added phosphate also adversely impact the soil’s “gut” including reducing the amount of nodules needed for nitrogen fixation. Phosphate also is mined. It’s a finite source. Plus is contains toxic contaminants like cadmium that accumulate in soils.
As for food safety concerns, given the imprecision of nutritional science as a whole, claims for or against safety really can’t be made. There are simply too many confounding variables. This is especially true with GMO’s since even imprecise epidemiological studies can’t be done because people don’t know what they’re eating. So, in reality we’re all just guinea pigs. Meanwhile rates of autoimmune and brain degenerative diseases soar along with cancer and diabetes. Probably the last thing people should do if they’re truly concerned about their health is eat ultra-processed foods with novel proteins in them like the Impossible Burger. Though like any good vegan or Seventh Day Adventist, Pat Brown blames red meat for all that ails our health and the health of the environment today. Pat has probably watched Cowspiracy, at least, ten times. Wouldn’t also be surprised if he helped finance the making of this mockumentary.
Impossible Foods whole PR and marketing strategy is to demonize the food, beef, it’s trying to replace. To that end, Pat Brown cites the long list of arguments made by everyone else trying to replace beef burgers with plant based analogs or cultured stem cell proteins. He cites and exaggerates statistics related to feed efficiency, land use, water use, green house gases and relative risk. Though these supporting statistics are tricky. As Twain said, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics” On the surface such numbers can seem damning, but when examined in more detail, these figures aren’t really that damning at all.
Take, for example, feed efficiency. The stat most often repeated is that “It take 9 lbs of feed to produce 1 pound of beef.” But for grass finished cattle, as noted by the recent UN Report on Feed (Mottet et al. 2017), nearly 100% of that feed (grasses) is inedible to humans. So cattle up cycle inedible to human food into edible to human nutrient dense food and thus increase food security. Pat Brown, in a recent editorial rationalizing his decision to use GMO glyphosate tolerant soy, further exaggerated this feed efficiency stat by writing, “a cow needs to eat about 30 pounds of corn and soy for every pound of beef they produce, far less herbicide is needed to make an Impossible Burger than a burger from a cow.” Even with feedlot finishing in the US, Brown’s stats aren’t any where close to being honest. Feedlot finished cattle spend the first half to two-thirds of their lives on grasses before being transferred to feedlots where their rations include a lot of crop residues and food waste that’s also inedible to humans. Almond shells or corn cobs anyone? Beef cattle also eat very little soy, since they’re finished on carbs not proteins. Soy bean oil goes to human uses while soy meal goes primarily to CAFO chickens and pigs.
Another commonly repeated stat bantered about is that “It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.” But with grass finished beef 97% of that water is “green” water also known as rain fall. That rain falls regardless of the land use. Grasses take a lot less water to grow than most crops. Beans for example take over five times the amount of water per acre as grasses. Water is also very tricky, since drought isn’t solely a function of how much rain falls from the sky. Drought is also largely a function of how much water infiltrates and is retained by the soil. So well managed cattle that improve soil health and increase carbon utilization and sequestration, create soils with improved soil structure that capture and retain more water. Thus well managed cattle can actually dramatically IMPROVE drought resilience.” For more on water footprints, please read my prior blog entry: Understanding water footprints.
With land use, the stat always repeated without any qualification is that “Cattle use 70% of agricultural land.” But, again as noted in the UN report on feed (Mottet et al, 2017), 65 to 70% of agricultural land isn’t suitable for crop production, so the only way you get food off this land is via grazing (plus arable land is more productive with integrated livestock that recycle nutrients). Some regions of the world, like Africa for example, on average only 5% of the land is arable. People living in more humid wet regions like the Northeast US or the UK don’t seem to understand the climates of other regions on the planet aren’t like their own climate What’s truly ironic about the Ecocide Burger is that it takes a food- beef- that can be produced with inedible to human food grown on non-arable land with only green water, and replaces it with an ultra-processed facsimile that uses edible to human food, more limited arable land and a lot more critical blue water. Sort of points out how meaningless, the percentages are that Pat Brown incessantly spews.
But what about cow farts? AOC screams!
Enteric methane is the form of microbial methane that cattle “burp”….not fart. Methane is the by-product of cattle digestion where cattle turn the carbon they eat in the form of cellulose (carbohydrates from plants) into short chained fatty acids [SCFA’s], H2 and CH4 in their rumen via methanogenesis. Methanogenesis is the genesis of methane from archae called methonogens. Different types of methanogens live in all sorts of different places. In cattle, they live in the rumen. In other animals, methanogens live in different parts of the digestive tract.. Archae also exist in soil and in water. They were thought to be only in anoxic environments, but recently some forms have also been found to live in systems with oxygen as well.
I’ve written at length about how enteric methane is conventionally measured, and also has a system’s context. I have a third paper I’m writing in my head that puts enteric methane in the context of the carbon cycle. Basically atmospheric CO2 is turned into sugar by photosynthesis. This sugar becomes plants leaves, branches, etc. Cattle eat the plants. The plants are turned into SCFA’s H2 and CH4 by bacteria and archae in the rumen. The cattle use the SCFA’s for energy and burp the (enteric) CH4. This emitted CH4 collides with hydroxyl radicals in the troposphere and is then reduced eventually back to H2O and CO2. That CO2 is then again converted to glucose via photosynthesis . The cattle eat the plants, emit the CH4, and the cyclical loop repeats itself. If the cattle don’t eat the grasses (plants), the grasses do one of three things: either die then oxidize to CO2, rot then oxidize to CH4, or burn plus emit pyrogenic forms of CH4 (as well as CO and CO2). So basically enteric CH4 is part of the respiration cycle. This form of microbial CH4 doesn’t add to the atmospheric load of CO2. It’s a lot different than thermogenic or other ancient forms of trapped methane from fossil fuels that haven’t been in the atmosphere for millions of years.
Or, in other words, enteric methane is something of a red herring.
Though as a concern, enteric methane was first seized upon by the large meat packing industry that wanted to verticalize the beef industry and thus rationalize feedlots as a means to consolidate processing and distribution of beef just like had been done previously with chicken and pork. The mission of 2006 UN Long Shadow’s author was to mitigate livestock “long shadow” through “intensification” where intensification was simply an euphemism for confined animal feeding operations [CAFO’s]. Yes, these UN authors were industrialists that wanted to expand factory farming.
Regenerative forms of beef production, including both integrated and range based systems, are the largest threat to Pat Brown’s business model. If beef can be raised in a way that isn’t environmentally detrimental, then his whole PR strategy falls apart. So it’s really no wonder that Pat and his leader on sustainability and impact strategies, Rebekah Judas, borrow broadly from the industrial beef sector to denigrate any environmentally carbon negative forms of beef production. Of course, both cite the “more methane a head of cattle emits the longer it lives” rational noted just above without considering any broader context.
While Pat Brown loudly proclaims that there are no credible scientists who support any form of regenerative forms of beef production, Rebekah Judas cites studies like one from Harvard on how there isn’t enough land for regenerative beef production. This is pretty amusing, since Pat Brown ignores recent papers (2016) like The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America, co-authored by Dr. Rattan Lal (a Nobel Prize winning soil scientist), while Rebekah Judas routinely references a study done in the heart of cattle country (Boston, Massachusetts) by an engineer (without any range or soil science background) and animal rights activist, who also acknowledges in his paper that he hasn’t accounted for any differences in range management in his analysis. It gets really hard to cut through all of this GMO glyphosate tolerant soy based irony with a knife.
So in reality, Pat Brown will pretty much say whatever falsehood he has to say to further his business interests. He’ll pay for studies with methodologies to generate contrived statistics that he’ll chant over and over again like a mantra. Repetition replaces truth. Investors and consumers, who are so disconnected nowadays from any form of food production, will also cite these metrics as their rationalization for spending extra for these ultra-processed ingredients mushed into a disk shape that bleeds just like a real burger. Though if these investors and consumers were truly sincere about the health of the environment, they’d spend their dollars directly with ranchers and farmers using ruminants, including beef cattle, as tools to regenerate land and rebuild soil. Pat Brown’s Ecocide Burger doesn’t do a darn thing to regenerate land or rebuild soil. Pat Brown’s Ecocide Burger is nothing more than a GMO glyphosate tolerant soy facsimile.