Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard about the plant-based meat alternative craze. If you do live under a rock, odds are there’s a Burger King under a rock near you, and you’ll see it on the menu there. Veggie burgers have been making their way from health food stores to grocery stores for decades, so why all the hubbub now?
These Aren’t Your Mamma’s Veggie Burgers
Recipes for meatless patties have been around for ages, fashioned from mixtures of grains, legumes, and vegetables. Veggie burgers as we think of them, however, didn’t come on the scene until the 1980s. One of the earliest incarnations, the “Vegeburger,” was made in the UK by restaurateur, Gregory Sams. As a lifelong vegetarian, Sams had never tasted a beef hamburger. The Vegeburger, and the many versions that followed, were variations on a theme: food built to be healthy and tasty in its own right, and to give vegetarians something to eat at barbeques. They were never intended to fool meat-eaters, and likely never did.
The new generation of plant-based meat alternatives, on the other hand, are made for and marketed to meat eaters. There are even alternatives showing up in fast food chains, as these establishments try to rehabilitate their unhealthy image. That’s right: the Home of the Whopper is now the Home of the Impossible Whopper, made with Impossible Foods’ much-ballyhooed bleeding plant burger. With a stampede of brands bringing plant-based meats to market, one can almost hear the global cry of the carnivore, “I can’t believe it’s not beef!”
Agriculture: Is It the Problem or the Solution?
Little known fact: The rich soil of North America was created over millennia by herds of migrating bison. They grazed, pooped, and moved on, building topsoil as they went. Tragically, bison populations today are a fraction of what they once were, and the state of our soils reflects the lack of their natural fertilizers. But there is a potential understudy in the wings for the next act: the cow. While industrial-style, feedlot cattle production is resource-intensive and destructive to ecosystems and species biodiversity, it appears a regenerative approach to livestock can turn cows into enviro-allies.
Regenerative agriculture means farming and grazing practices designed to rebuild soil organic matter and restore biodiversity. This creates a carbon “sink” where greenhouse gasses are actually pulled out of the air and put back in the ground where they belong. Regenerative models of livestock farming include “managed grazing.” In managed grazing, the herd grazes a section of grassland for a few days, before being moved to another area. This simple practice mimics the activity of the original bison herds. Recent studies highlight the benefits of managed grazing for cows:
- Land Use: A well-managed herd improves the health of the landscape it occupies. It aids in soil carbon sequestration, which is our best shot at rolling back agriculture’s massive contribution to climate change. It’s also an economical use of the land, as managed grazing uses land that’s often unsuitable for other crops.
- Manure: Managed grazing is a very efficient way to fertilize: the cows do all the work of spreading manure around, which is reintegrated into the soil without producing much methane. Industrial-style feedlots, on the other hand, generate tons of manure in a small area. The liquified manure is typically stored in a lagoon, producing lethal fumes and the occasional toxic spill until it is sprayed onto fields as a fertilizer. Once sprayed, much of the nutrient potential of the manure leeches into the groundwater, causing contamination. By comparison, the evenly-spaced cow patties produced by managed grazing seem simply adorable.
- The Issue of Burps and Farts: Another source of methane is the famous flatulence of the modern bovine. This is a pretty constant trait between feedlot production and managed grazing: If you’re a cow, you burp and fart. It’s part of the job description. But the benefits to the soil in a managed grazing approach effectively sequester greenhouse gasses, more than making up for anything produced at either end of the animal.
Too much of a good thing is still, sadly, too much. Many of us still need to reduce our meat consumption. The USDA says, on average, we’re eating twice as much meat as is good for us, with most of that meat produced without regard to the environment. Cutting back on meat—and, when we do indulge, considering how that meat was raised—will go a long way towards fostering healthier people and a healthier planet. Now here’s the skinny on some meat alternatives that can help you cut down on the cow.
New Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: Go Non-GMO!
While the new generation of plant-based meat alternatives satisfies the tastebuds of the most devoted carnivore, not all these patties are the same. Plant-based meats made with GMO crops don’t offer the environmental benefits of non-GMO, grass fed or regenerative beef. Also, be wary of new bioengineering techniques used to create alternative meat patties that “bleed.” These new techniques are still GMOs, and inadequate regulation and incomplete safety testing make you the guinea pig for new tech.
Whether you’re looking for a better burger or the next best thing, look for the Butterfly!