Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 21, 2019

Dining on the Impossible Burger

Filed under: Ecology,food,Kevin Coogan,socialism — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Fake meat about to be enjoyed by real people

This week I picked up a couple of 12 ounce packages of Impossible Burger from Fairway in order to see what fake meat tastes like. I was motivated not just out of curiosity as a food lover but to gauge its potential role in resolving the ecological crisis caused by cattle ranching. There’s a certain irony in buying “Green” products from a grocery chain owned by Blackstone. According to The Intercept, its CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a driving force behind deforestation:

Two Brazilian firms owned by a top donor to President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are significantly responsible for the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest, carnage that has developed into raging fires that have captivated global attention.

The companies have wrested control of land, deforested it, and helped build a controversial highway to their new terminal in the one-time jungle, all to facilitate the cultivation and export of grain and soybeans. The shipping terminal at Miritituba, deep in the Amazon in the Brazilian state of Pará, allows growers to load soybeans on barges, which will then sail to a larger port before the cargo is shipped around the world.

The Amazon terminal is run by Hidrovias do Brasil, a company that is owned in large part by Blackstone, a major U.S. investment firm. Another Blackstone company, Pátria Investimentos, owns more than 50 percent of Hidrovias, while Blackstone itself directly owns an additional roughly 10 percent stake. Blackstone co-founder and CEO Stephen Schwarzman is a close ally of Trump and has donated millions of dollars to McConnell in recent years.

I left it up to my sister-in-law to use the Impossible Burger in a Turkish dish. Originally, she was going to make kofte (Turkish hamburger) but it turned out to be too fragile, falling apart in her hands when she was making paddies. Instead, she made something that amounted to a flat meatloaf that she never cooked before. To my surprise, it was delicious.

Up until about five years ago, I used to eat Amy’s Veggie Burgers 2 or 3 times a week for lunch. I cut it out for health reasons. How can a veggie burger be unhealthy, you must be asking. Well, it wasn’t the burger but the two slices of bread that surrounded it. Dealing with a prediabetic condition at the time, I resolved to cut down on the amount of carbohydrates I took in and this was a good place to start. As for Amy’s, I didn’t have any problems with the taste but nobody could possibly confuse it with meat.

In a 23-page article in The New Yorker on Pat Brown, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods (he has plans to replicate chicken and fish down the road), we learn that the special ingredient that makes his laboratory beef taste like the real thing is something called heme. Tad Friend, the author of the article, explains why:

Brown assembled a team of scientists, who approached simulating a hamburger as if it were the Apollo program. They made their burger sustainable: the Impossible Burger requires eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per cent less land than a cowburger, and its production generates eighty-nine per cent less G.H.G. emissions. They made it nutritionally equal to or superior to beef. And they made it look, smell, and taste very different from the customary veggie replacement. Impossible’s breakthrough involves a molecule called heme, which the company produces in tanks of genetically modified yeast. Heme helps an Impossible Burger remain pink in the middle as it cooks, and it replicates how heme in cow muscle catalyzes the conversion of simple nutrients into the molecules that give beef its yeasty, bloody, savory flavor.

Brown’s main competitor is a company called Beyond Meat that does not use heme, which is based on genetically modified yeast. Both Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have attacked the use of heme due to their stance against GMO. Beyond Meat does not use heme but that does not prevent it from running a close second behind Impossible in a taste test:

If you pass by a Dunkin’ Donuts, you’ll notice that they are selling a hamburger using Beyond Meat, as does Carl’s Jr. and A&W. When an old friend noticed that it was being sold in Dunkin’ Donuts, he bought a fair amount of shares since he saw this as the wave of the future. My friend took advantage of Beyond’s I.P.O. in May, which was the most successful of the year. The stock skyrocketed up by more than five hundred per cent. All in all, this is a real magnet for venture capitalists who have noticed that sales of plant-based meat in restaurants nearly quadrupled last year.

This year Verso published a book by Aaron Bastani titled “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” that took an almost Panglossian view of the future based on the idea that technology will virtually make capitalism outmoded. Among his tech-fixes is fake meat. In a NYT op-ed timed to the release of his book, he sung its praises:

The first “cultured beef” burgers are likely to enter the market next year, at approximately $50 each. But that won’t last long. Within a decade they will probably be more affordable than even the cheapest barbecue staples of today — all for a product that uses fewer resources, produces negligible greenhouse gases and, remarkably, requires no animals to die.

Actually, the young optimist is being a bit pessimistic. I paid $18 for a pound and a half of Impossible Burger and it was enough to feed 5 people.

He does have a point about the ecological implications of real beef versus what we ate. Farming uses more water than any other human activity, with a third of that devoted to cattle. Tad Friend writes, “One-third of the world’s arable land is used to grow feed for livestock, which are responsible for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Razing forests to graze cattle—an area larger than South America has been cleared in the past quarter century—turns a carbon sink into a carbon spigot.”

By comparison, the Impossible Burger needs eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per cent less land than the real thing, mostly devoted to growing soybeans, a key ingredient. It also generates eighty-nine per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. Cows produce huge amounts of methane, which traps 25 times more heat than carbon. (It is not the product of farting but burping.)

It is also important to consider the role of real meat in your personal health as opposed to the health of the planet. It is associated with heart disease and cancer. According to Friend, a recent Finnish study found that, across a twenty-two-year span, devoted meat-eaters were twenty-three per cent more likely to die. Even more frightening, “Because antibiotics are routinely mixed into pig and cattle and poultry feed to protect and fatten the animals, animal ag promotes antibiotic resistance, which is projected to cause ten million deaths a year by 2050.” That’s not to speak of avian and swine flus that pass easily to humans via the aerosolized feces ubiquitous to slaughterhouses. University of Minnesota researchers found fecal matter in sixty-nine per cent of pork and ninety-two per cent of poultry, while Consumer Reports found it in a hundred per cent of ground beef. Nice.

Of course, it is hard to make the case that Impossible Burgers made from soybeans are particularly good for you. If Beyond Meat comes in a close second, it does come in first in healthiness since it is made of peas, mung beans, and brown rice. You’re probably better off eating broccoli and lentils for dinner but you might grow weary of that kind of diet after a while. Been there, done that.

Tad Friend mentions another technology that is animal based but not agricultural in nature. Thirty-three companies are working on a substitute for beef by using animal cells to grow meat in vats. He writes:

The cell-based approach may eventually provide meat using a tiny fraction of the land and water that livestock use. And, if companies can figure out how to grow cells on a scaffolding of mushroom or celery, or arrange them using a 3-D printer (and also surmount issues with vascularization and oxygen diffusion), they’ll have solved the defining challenge for meat replacements: building a sturdy approximation of muscle, fat, and connective tissue to produce full cuts of meat and fish. Mike Selden, of Finless Foods, told me, “Where Impossible stops is where Finless starts. They’re limited to ground products, and we’ll be able to make sashimi and fillets.”

All of this is very intriguing but I am left with the same old question that also applies to the Green New Deal. What good do these “alternative” energy or food sources do when the capitalist system is militating against their adoption. Pat Brown told the New Yorker that he hopes to see cattle-ranching become obsolete by 2050. That would be nice but with everything else falling apart by then, we’d still be facing ruin. It is not just cattle that is impinging on rainforests. It is farming as well, including the production of soybeans that are essential to Impossible Burger.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx called for the reintegration of the city and the countryside so as to overcome the “metabolic rift”. Something like that will ultimately be necessary for a sustainable agriculture. To make that happen will require an all-out assault on the capitalist system. Who knows? By the time we reach 2050, the conditions for worldwide socialist revolution will ripen to the point of making such dreams possible.


  1. Ugh. I tried the Impossible Burger at BK. Had to do a double since the paddies were so thin. Feh. I was unimpressed, though I still have to get some of the raw stuff and *make* a burger, about an inch thick, maybe with blue cheese in the middle the way I usually make on. Then we’ll see. So, made of soil depleting soy beans, eh? I’m not impressed. What will really impressive me is not if the company (or companies) can make faux-chicken or fish, but if they can make *real beef* like, say, rib-eye, hanger, flank steaks, porter-house and short ribs. I suspect I’ll be waiting on those for quite awhile.

    If people want to *help* the environment, factory faux-meat is not going to help. What will help is eating grass fed and *finished* beef, grown without any chemical inputs, in a regenerative way. THAT would help.

    Comment by davidwalters66 — November 21, 2019 @ 10:31 pm

  2. No question that ersatz beef is better for the environment than the real thing. However, it’s questionable whether it’s healthier for the consumer. Beyond Meat, which I’ve tried, contains more saturated fat than beef.

    Like Louis, who bought his Impossible Burger at Fairway, I purchased BM at the same chain, only on the Upper West Side. They also sell BM sausage, not as good as the hamburger. It’s discouraging to know that Fairway is owned by Blackstone whose scumbag CEO is Stephen Schwarzman.

    Short of stocking up at limited weekly neighborhood green markets, what’s a humble lefty who needs food supposed to do? Westside Market in NYC might be a better option: for what it’s worth, the chain remains family owned, though that by no means guarantees more humane treatment of workers or anything else.

    The stock that Louis refers to skyrocketed last year but this year has been very up and down. It’s not clear why since it’s hard to imagine fake meat will do anything but gain in popularity.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — November 21, 2019 @ 11:33 pm

  3. I think QDOBA Impossible Burritos are quite good fwiw

    Comment by freetofu — November 22, 2019 @ 12:13 am

  4. Probably anything that calls for ground turkey will work with this stuff.

    Comment by davidwalters66 — November 22, 2019 @ 12:19 am

  5. Who in their right mind would eat “ground turkey” after knowing this is how they’re slaughtered? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_ybEbrQeOA&t=17s

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 22, 2019 @ 12:04 pm

  6. Louis you have lost your way and are in dire need of remedial help. I strongly suggest that you toddle down to PJ Clarke’s on Third Ave. and indulge in a bacon cheeseburger. As I rapidly approach 80 a good bacon cheese burger is as close to nirvana as I am likely to get these days. One burger should stop your journey on the treadmill to oblivion with alternative meats. One proviso, indulge in these genuine burgers sparingly, myself I find one a month is perfect on the day I cash my pension check.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — November 22, 2019 @ 1:09 pm

  7. To sum up the debate: “Good burgher” vs. “good burger.’

    Paging Ludwig Feuerbach . . . .

    Comment by HH — November 23, 2019 @ 12:12 am

  8. Just remember: Soylent Green is people!

    Comment by Janet Avery — November 23, 2019 @ 12:54 pm

  9. One word: jackfruit.

    Comment by Poppa Zao — November 24, 2019 @ 4:38 am

  10. Motley Fool is advising people not to invest in Beyond Meat, which has been losing steam on the stock market recently and faces a lot of competition from bigger and more established companies.

    But I guess people like me are just jealous of all those capitalists who work so hard and take such terrible risks in order to succeed and bring new products to market for all of us.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — December 3, 2019 @ 5:32 pm

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