Plant-based burgers look set to change the world

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In the past, veggie burgers have been thin, grey patties stuck between two buns; pale imitations of the real thing. But purveyors of plant-based protein including Beyond Meat and Impossible Food say the new veggie burgers are, quite literally, changing the world.

The reason? The burgers are aimed at meat eaters as well as veggies and vegans.

Pick up a Beyond Burger and you’ll encounter a meat that looks like real meat, tastes like real meat. Heck, it even ‘bleeds’ like real meat - albeit with a blend of beet juice. Ditto the Impossible Burger. 

And this is key to the burgers’ broad appeal. As Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, points out on the company’s website: “At Beyond Meat, we started with simple questions. Why do you need an animal to create meat? Why can't you build meat directly from plants?”

So they did. “We hope our plant-based meats allow you and your family to eat more, not less, of the traditional dishes you love, while feeling great about the health, sustainability, and animal welfare benefits of plant protein,” continues the blurb. 

Meat production is harsh on the planet, in addition to being hopelessly cruel. According to Livestock’s Long Shadow, a 2006 report by the UN, agriculture is one of the most significant contributors to environmental degradation, both globally and locally, accounting for 19 per cent of greenhouse emissions, 70 per cent of freshwater consumption and 38 per cent of total landuse.

Poor cows. Agriculture is one of the most significant contributors to climate change. Picture: Annie Spratt, Unsplash.

Poor cows. Agriculture is one of the most significant contributors to climate change. Picture: Annie Spratt, Unsplash.

And that’s just now. In a follow-up report in 2010, the UN warned that rising meat and dairy consumption, and a global population predicted to be 9.1 billion by 2050, meant a shift towards veganism was now vital to save the world from climate catastrophe and food shortages

And the world is responding: more people are turning to plant-based eating than ever. In the UK alone, research showed the number of vegans now exceeds three-and-a-half million, a bounce of 700% in just two years.

Vegetarian and vegan foods are now big business, looking set to exceed $6 billion by 2023. No wonder then that investors in Beyond Meat, for example, read like a who’s who of business insiders including Bill Gates, Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams - and meat company Tyson Foods.

Oscar-winning actor and environmental activist Leonardo diCaprio joined late last year. "Shifting from animal meat to the plant-based meats developed by Beyond Meat is one of the most powerful measures someone can take to reduce their impact on our climate,” he said in a statement at the time. “The company's ability to create appealing, healthy meat directly from plants will go a long way in helping everyday consumers take action on climate change."

Gates is also an investor in Impossible Foods, founded by Stanford biochemistry professor emeritus Patrick Brown, creators of the vegan Impossible Burger. The company, recently announced a $114 million investment in preparation for a global expansion, bringing total investments to $400 million. 

Recipes vary. Beyond Burgers are made with pea protein, canola and coconut oil, potato starch and beet juice, which provides the color and “bleeding” effect. But it’s Impossible Burgers that has garnered the most headlines, using a blend of science and tech wizardry to create something as close to meat as plants can get.

Wheat protein gives the burgers firmness; potato protein allows them to hold water and get more solid during cooking. For fat, Impossible Foods uses flavourless coconut. But the key ingredient is leghemoglobin, an iron-rich molecule found in many meat proteins but also in soy, which Impossible grows in yeast. 

Also referred to as heme, leghemoglobin is key to the burgers’ “craveability” factor; it has also led to controversy. Last year, the New York Times published an article highlighting correspondence between the FDA and Impossible Foods that environmental groups say indicates that the protein had not met the agency’s approval before going to market about a year ago. The burger, created to reduce the environmental impact of the food system, has attracted the same ire and suspicion as GMOs still do.

Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods say their goal is to produce a sustainable, environmentally friendly replacement for cattle production. And by Gods, the stakes are high - particularly if we want to feed a rapidly expanding species on a planet that stays  the same size. And with lab-grown meat, or “clean meat“, due hit store shelves, our antipathy to food tech may have to be moderated.

When Oxford academic Dr Marco Springmann attempted to model what a vegan planet would look like, he showed a world that would save $1.1tn in healthcare costs, $0.5tn in environmental costs and a cut in greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds, saving billions of human - and animal - lives. And if a meat-mimicking burger can help get us there, I’ll take a dozen, cheers.