Beef has a lot going for it on the sustainability front that plant-based protein alternatives do not. A cow converts forages into protein, leather, and other products. The main byproduct, manure, is returned to the earth as fertilizer for more forage. We use the entire animal. Plant-based meats lack this closed loop life-cycle and are essentially converting raw materials into a processed food.
But that does not mean cattle ranchers, farmers, and feedlot owners should dismiss the Impossible Burger. It tastes pretty good. Some of its reduced environmental impact claims might have merit. And the product’s main ingredient, soy, is grown by farmers who have a stake in the food supply chain too.
If nothing else, the arrival of the Impossible Whopper should leave the beef industry with this takeaway: many consumers will choose a protein source based not on pure taste, but on the food’s environmental impact—whether real or perceived. I think this trend will continue. For that reason, in the future it will not be enough for beef to better tasting, it must be better produced than its plant-based alternatives. The beef industry must recognize this or risk becoming a luxury product.
Update: For a good follow up to this post, please read Lauren Manning’s article at AgFunder: Alternative Proteins: Let’s Set the Record Straight about Livestock’s Carbon Footprint