Should we rethink eating meat?

September 4th, 2019

“Meatless meat” goes mainstream

In August, Burger King, the second biggest hamburger chain in the United States, started selling the “Impossible Whopper” in all of its more than 7,000 U.S. restaurants. Instead of a beef patty, this sandwich has a genetically engineered, plant-based one designed by the company Impossible Foods to look, taste, and feel just like the real thing. Opinions about how successfully the Impossible Whopper mimics the original vary from person to person, but the product does signify the highest profile inroad that alternative meat has made into the American marketplace.

Burger King isn’t alone in experimenting with meat alternatives. Dunkin’ stores in Manhattan now offer the Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich, which comes with a plant-based sausage patty made by Impossible Foods’ main competitor, Beyond Meat. Beyond is also teaming with Subway to test a Beyond Meatball Marinara sub.

In addition to their fast-food options, Beyond Meat’s meatless burger patties are available in grocery stores nationwide, and the company is developing plant-based alternatives to steak and bacon. Meanwhile, diners at some 1,500 colleges, corporate cafeterias and hospitals will be able to eat Impossible Burgers this fall; and according to Impossible Foods cofounder Tal Ronnen, the company also has plant-based substitutes for poultry and fish in the works. Meat substitutes are already a $1 billion-a-year business. While vegetarians and vegans still make up much of the market, widespread public interest in plant-based proteins, especially as an alternative to red meat like beef, appears to be growing.

Rethinking meat

For now, most Americans will likely keep eating meat. There are, however, some compelling reasons to reconsider our relationship to meat that might make “meatless meat” a viable option.

First, a diet heavy in red meats (all muscle meat from mammals—beef, lamb, pork, and more— are considered red meats) and processed meats (including bacon, ham, sausage and deli meats) poses certain health risks. Decades of scientific research show consistently strong links between red and processed meats and chronic diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and colorectal cancer. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and processed meat as “carcinogenic” without qualification. A study published in June in The BMJ documents a correlation between the increased consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, and an increased risk of death. While the Impossible Burger isn’t necessarily healthy — it has more saturated fat, more sodium and less protein than a beef burger — it isn’t red or processed meat, meaning some meat eaters may find it an agreeable way to satisfy their appetite without as many risks to their health.

Second, the conditions under which much of America’s meat is produced may raise moral questions for some people. Organizations such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) advocate against what the ASPCA calls the “unnatural, inhumane conditions” under which meat is produced. According to PETA’s website, “animals are crammed by the thousands into filthy, windowless sheds and stuffed into wire cages, metal crates and other torturous devices. These animals will never raise their families, root around in the soil, build nests or do anything that is natural and important to them. Most won’t even feel the warmth of the sun on their backs or breathe fresh air until the day they’re loaded onto trucks headed for slaughterhouses.” For meat eaters unsettled by the process of how their food reaches their plate, plant-based protein provides an opportunity to enjoy the taste, feel and smell of meat without the remorse.

Finally, the negative environmental impacts of consumers’ demand for meat continues to be a cause of concern. From the production of the grain used to feed livestock to the animals’ own waste products, “red meat such as beef and lamb is responsible for 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as common vegetables and grains,” according to Scientific American. This summer, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that moving away from meat toward plant-based diets “could significantly boost the planet’s ability to fight climate change,” according to Time. While individuals cannot effect major shifts in global agriculture by themselves, meat eaters who want to reduce their own environmental footprint can begin by choosing more plant-based proteins.

Meat and faith

Whether to eat meat or not isn’t just a question about health, animal welfare or the environment. For Christians, this question can also have a spiritual dimension. Some Christian traditions abstain from meat on certain days or in certain seasons as a prayerful act of penitence. The Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays is one of the most well-known examples. In fact, until 1966, this was considered an obligation of the faithful — a circumstance that inspired Lou Groen, a McDonald’s franchisee in a largely Catholic part of Cincinnati, Ohio, to create the Filet-O-Fish.

Scripture also addresses the spiritual dimensions of eating meat. In Genesis, for example, God permitted human beings to eat meat only after the Flood (9:3). When God created humanity, God gave them all of the fruit and plants for food (1:29). Some view this as evidence that a carnivorous diet deviates from God’s original will for human nutrition.

In 1 Corinthians 8, the apostle Paul extensively addresses Christians eating meat. Although the most pressing issue in Paul’s discussion is whether Christians can eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, his arguments may prove relevant to some of our questions about meat today. Essentially, Paul asks readers to consider whether exercising their freedom to eat meat will cause their brothers and sisters in faith to stumble (verses 7-13). Paul reminds us that what we choose to eat says something about how we view our relationship to others. While meat offered to literal idols isn’t an issue in 21st-century America, it’s instructive to think about what our society may be sacrificing at the figurative altars of convenience and consumerism in order to eat as much meat as we do. If we reframe Paul’s question, how might our meaty diets create rifts in our relationships with animals, with our environment and with other less prosperous nations? Later in his letter, Paul tells the Corinthians that “everything is permitted” before adding “but everything isn’t beneficial” (10:23).


Meat in the U.S. diet and economy

The North American Meat Institute reports that “the meat and poultry industry is the largest segment of U.S. agriculture,” directly employing almost 800,000 people and accounting for 5.6 percent of the GDP (per 2016 data). Overall U.S. meat production should reach “another record level of 103.3 billion pounds” in 2019, according to agricultural economist Derrell Peel on Drovers, with beef specifically “projected to increase to another record at 27.2 billion pounds.”

Not all of that meat stays stateside, however. American meat exports generate billions of dollars annually. Beef is especially profitable. According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, the United States exported $7.27 billion worth of beef in 2017, and global demand continues to grow. For example, one recently signed trade agreement guarantees the United States a bigger share of the European beef market by nearly tripling the annual amount of beef American ranchers can export duty-free.

Despite these exports, Americans continue to lead the world in meat consumption. According to the World Economic Forum, the average US citizen eats about 214 pounds (97 kilograms) of meat each year. That figure is 185 percent greater than the global average of 75 pounds (34 kilograms) per person, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “Americans are eating about 20 pounds less meat per person per year than we were about ten years ago,” notes Business Insider, “when our meat consumption peaked; still, it’s higher today than it was in the 1970s.”

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