The Ecocide Burger

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.

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.

Infografica_6billion_DEF

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.

understanding water footprint numbers

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.

white oaks pastures -LCA- net emissions

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.

 

13 thoughts on “The Ecocide Burger

  1. Terrific synopsis. Looking forward to more on this topic. Also, it seems, that none of the current emissions calculations for cattle take into account that carbon sequestration cycle you mentioned previously. That is, they count solely for emissions through feed production and methane emissions but fail to take into account the fact that the methane breaks down into CO2 and is reabsorbed by the re-growing grass. I suspect, from what you say in the piece above, You are treating this in your next
    post. Looking forward to that and many thanks for this concise summary. Cheers, Cameron

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  2. Good people on both sides. One side wants to hurt defenseless animals for their pleasure, entertainment and convenience, while the other side wants to prevent suffering and respect life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are a lot more that two sides. Life, in general, isn’t a simplistic dialectic. So such duality sort of misses the point.

      When you look at any form of food production for any kind of food, there are a variety of ways to grow, raise or catch that food item. Depending upon where, how and what, there are a range of ways to grow, raise or catch that food item that range from very bad to very good in terms of collateral and environmental impact. This is true with rice, bananas, palm oil , almonds, beef , fish or whatever. So the HOW and the appropriateness of WHERE are often as or more important than the WHAT is grown, raised or caught.

      So someone growing plants in a very destructive ways, that kills a lot of animals (collateral damage that is ecocide) and does a lot of harm to the environment, isn’t ethical. Nope he’s more likely purposely oblivious, hypocritical, and sanctimonious. And in the case of Pat Brown, a very shrewd and otherwise intelligent man, driven primarily by his business plan to make a lot of money for his VC, billionaire and celebrity investors. So again the pseudo environmentalism is just a deceitful PR strategy to gain market share simply for PROFITS.

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  3. Vast majority of soy is for animal feed. https://ncsoy.org/media-resources/uses-of-soybeans/

    While only a tiny fraction of cattle is grass fed. So this rant is pretty scope insensitive. On average veganism is super beneficial. There may be some tiny fraction of people who manage to source enough grass fed beef and organic produce to live on, and I applaud them. But vegans have a much more beneficial cumulative impact.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your linked graphic is a bit misleading on three accounts.

      First it’s not like there are two piles of soy beans where 80% is used for meal and 20% is used for oil. No, ALL soy beans are pressed for their oil. The meal is what’s left over AFTER pressing. Moreover, the meal as feed industry started approx. 30 years after after the crushing for oil industry. So the meal industry was a by-product industry of the oil industry, and now is a co-product of the oil industry.

      Second, the oil is more valuable than the meal so, even though, just 20% of quantity, the oil is actually 40% of the value of the crop. All the oil goes to human uses including for food, cooking, biofuels and industrial uses. In the US per FAOSTAT’s as I noted in one of my prior blog entries, since “vegetable” oils have replaced animals fats as a source of fats in US diets, soy bean oil is approximately 600 calories per day of a typical US person’s diet. That’s nearly 25% of 2500 calorie per day diet.

      Third, very little of any of this soy is fed to beef cattle. If any soy is used, it’s done so as a protein supplement. But, in general, feedlot finished cattle are finished on carbs, not proteins. Meal typically goes to animals in this order: chickens, pigs, pets, fish, dairy, humans. Most goes to chickens

      Which brings me to my final point, and that is that you don’t know how beef cattle production is done. Globally most is in mixed systems. Some countries like Australia, New Zealand & Brazil are 95% plus grass fed & FINISHED. Around 7 to 13%- depending upon whose numbers you believe- is FINISHED in feedlots like here in the United States. Maximum feedlot capacity at any one time in the US is for 16 million head of cattle. In recent years only 14 million of that maximum has been utilized. So where are the other 68 million head of US beef cattle inventory? On grass in cow-calf and stocker operations. All breeding inventory (cows, replacement heifers, and bulls) are on grass. Conventionally finished calves spend the first 1/2 to 2/3 of their lives on grass before being transferred to feedlots to FINISH. So all cattle in in the US is grass fed, but not all cattle is grass FINISHED. Though due to consumer demand, more beef cattle is being grass finished – approx. 7% now. It was only a single percent a few years ago.

      Regardless, if you want to be vegan, for whatever reason. Fine. Please just supplement properly with B12, DHA and D3 so you aren’t another vegan mental case. Plus also don’t promulgate lies and half truths like those broadcast by people like Pat brown. He only really cares about money, not the environment. Plus he’s just selling utlra-processed junk food. So if you really want to be vegan, eat something else besides Impossible Burgers or Beyond Meat that isn’t so unhealthy for your body or for the environment.

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      1. Here’s a good overview of production methods and issues with grass finishing that has the numbers for current grass finishing https://www.stonebarnscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Grassfed_Full_v2.pdf This was citing numbers from 2016 which were at 3%. More recent numbers from April 2018 were at 5% https://extension.psu.edu/grass-fed-beef-production , and both of these numbers aren’t accounting for spent grass fed dairy cows that are also part of the beef supply. Though what I actually support is regenerative grazing and integrated grazing systems, and these methods are what need to be replicated and promoted. So as Bobby Kennedy once said, “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

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      2. Unfortunately you entirely missed the point of the article, and that’s GMO’s simply perpetuate a deleterious industrial farming system, and that it’s this farming system that’s therefore the problem. Beyond Meat isn’t much better in that respect since it too sources it’s ingredients from industrial farms. Plus its ingredients are also ultra processed, and worse, includes canola oil. So Beyond Meat is equally bad for the environment and even worse for your health. I’ve written about this in the is prior blog post: https://lachefnet.wordpress.com/2018/03/31/a-tale-of-two-expos/ Therefore, thanks but no thanks, I’ll pass and stick to real food.

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  4. Great write up! One note on the methane bit. There is recent research showing that healthy pasture souls are home to a methane consuming bacteria. As the cows belch these bacteria gobble up the methane. If I remember correctly they release oxygen in exchange. Heard this from Peter Allen of Mastadon Valley Farm.

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    1. Yes, methanotrophs consume (oxidize) methane….but more the methane emitted elsewhere in the ecosystem than directly from enteric methane (cattle burps) since that enteric methane is already released in the atmosphere. So grazing provides an overall systems benefit, but not a 1 to 1 offset for “cow burps.” I go into this in a lot more detail in this blog entry: https://lachefnet.wordpress.com/2018/05/04/ruminations-methane-math-and-context/

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