This year, in fast food joints across the nation, instead of the usual “Would you like fries with that?” customers faced a whole new question: meat or meat substitutes? As plant-based meat alternatives like Impossible and Beyond partnered with fast-food chain giants like Burger King, White Castle, and Del Taco, meat-free eaters around the world sent up a collective cheer. Plant-based meat alternatives have reached an almost religious fanatical status in the collective imagination. Just this year we’ve heard that they’ll save the world and end the atrocities of factory farming.
But is that asking too much of a highly processed plant puck designed to bleed like a medium-rare burger? The truth is, genetically modified crops are doing more to save the planet than meat alternatives ever could.
I can already feel your shock and outrage vibrating through the screen. In the world of nutrition, we don’t know much. But we do know GMOs are the big bads, the corporate-sponsored villains of every “save the world” story. Or are they? Hear me out.
The double-edged sword of meat alternatives
One of the biggest arguments for alternative meats is their lower carbon footprint when compared to animal meat. And they’re right, it’s substantial. According to a peer-reviewed analysis comparing a Beyond Burger and a good ol’ beef patty, the Beyond meat required 99% less water, 93% less land, and 46% less energy. Sounds pretty good, right? What’s missing here is the study comparing meat alternatives and whole foods.
A CNBC piece put it this way: “While companies producing imitation meat boast of the environmental benefits, some researchers point out that for people wanting to substantially lower their carbon footprint, having unprocessed plant-based diets instead of eating imitation products is healthier and better for the planet.”
And the king crops when it comes to combating climate change are GMOs.
How GMOs are combating climate change
I know, I know. It sounds click-baity. How can GMOs––which are painted as evil––possibly do good for the planet? And why should we trust them after so much bad press? Let’s start with a brief history of GMOs and the very brief history of meat alternatives.
The basic premise of GMOs is to genetically alter a living organism’s DNA. This has been done in everything from dogs to fruits and vegetables in the last 30,000 years since GM began. The practice began with selective breeding and artificial selection (i.e. how different dog breeds came about) and has evolved into what we see now in GM crops and food. In fact, the first known GM crop occurred in 7,800 BCE for wheat crops in southwest Asia.
A year after Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen had developed the modern building blocks to GM in 1973, “government officials and scientists began to worry about the potential ramifications on health and Earth’s ecosystems. Since then, scientists and researchers have genetically modified crops to resist herbicides, rice to combat vitamin A deficiency, and bacteria “engineered to synthesize human insulin.”
A Pew Research study from 2015 found that 57% of the general public view genetically modified foods as unsafe to eat, yet 88% of AAAS scientists said they were safe. The 51 point gap between the public who believed GM foods are safe and scientists says a lot.
What’s “natural” about plant-based meats?
Despite the distrust over GMOs and the fear that gene transfer will cause increased bacteria or allergens, lab developed products like alternative meats have taken off. “Alternative” being the key word here, in these plant-based food ingredients:
Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, Potato Protein, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Leghemoglobin (soy), Yeast Extract, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Konjac Gum, Xanthan Gum, Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Zinc, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.
Where exactly is the plant? “Impossible burger” sure lives up to its name.
Still, this year alone plant-based food sales grew by 11.3% with no signs of stopping. Some choose them because they are vegan or vegetarian. Others choose them in an attempt to cut down on their meat intake. Regardless of the reason, sales are rising, and the products are still marketing themselves as Earth savers. The Trojan horse kicker here? Impossible Foods produce their alternatives from genetically engineered yeast.
“But most of the fear around GMOs is just that––fear.”
But bring up the term GMO and suddenly everyone sees tomatoes growing fishtails. Why is there still such a distrust here where there is a willingness to eat lab-grown veggie burgers? Some of it is not understanding the process, the science, or misinformation in marketing. But most of the fear around GMOs is just that––fear. When making the decision, perhaps you should question what you are eating, how many ingredients there are, and how exactly the process is or isn’t contributing to a healthier society.
How GM plants can save the world
Despite their bad rep, GM plants can do more than boost our vitamin intake and solve crop problems. Ernest Moniz, a former Energy Secretary, believes GM plants can “fix more carbon and the like.” The examples used here included grasses modified to grow deeper roots to store carbon underground and crops optimized for food, bioenergy, feed, and fiber. So, yeah. GMOs might be our ace in the hole when it comes to climate change. But they’re also pulling more weight on the nutrition front.
Currently, scientists in food labs around the world are tweaking genetic codes to increase plants’ natural nutrients. They’ve had the most success in staple crops—rice, corn, wheat—improving levels of naturally occurring vitamins, amino acids, and micronutrients like zinc, iodine, and iron. This could give us a huge advantage in ending what scientists call “hidden hunger,” or malnutrition that occurs when we’re getting plenty of calories, but not enough nutrients. And it requires zero additional processing, so unlike fortifying or enriching, the nutrients are part of the food’s natural makeup.
As if more nutritious food weren’t enough, GMOs are also one of the best chances we have to reduce our global reliance on synthetic fertilizers. Now, don’t get me wrong. As a farmer I appreciate synthetic fertilizers (and the fact that they feed up to 3.5 billion people worldwide). But if gene editing can create plants that “fix” their own nitrogen, making it so we don’t need those fertilizers, then I’m all in. Perhaps GMOs are not so evil after all.
Expand your alternatives Beyond the Impossible.
As the CEO of Northerly Farms, I’m no stranger to hot topic debates like GMOs and climate change. Plant-based meat substitutes are slowly making their way to the top of that list. My biggest beef (sorry, had to) with the alternative meat industry is the full embrace they’ve had from a society that has written off GMOs as corporate-backed “Frankenfoods.” I believe it’s time to think Beyond the Impossible, and focus on sustainable, whole food solutions.