When Burger King launched its new burger on April Fool’s day, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a joke. The global outlet—which serves up Whoppers to more than 11 million people a day—said it was serving up its famous burger without the main ingredient: meat.
But the savvy move was 100 per cent real—like the meat-less burgers replacing the meat patty. The Impossible plant-based whopper, made by UN Environment Champion of the Earth winners Impossible Foods, are made from soy protein, and resemble the texture and taste of meat.
The Impossible Burgers have not been developed without challenges. Ingredients include proteins from soy inserted into a genetically engineered yeast, which faced criticism before being approved by America’s Food and Drug Administration last year.
What this move demonstrates though, is growing concern over the unsustainable production of meat. And what Burger King and Impossible Foods bring to the table is a way to tackle this concern without asking consumers to sacrifice the taste of meat.
“People are increasingly aware of the health and environmental benefits of eating less meat. Ordering an Impossible burger is an easy, tasty way to move towards a healthy and sustainable diet,” said Clementine O’Connor, UN Environment’s Sustainable Food Systems Programme Officer.
Conservative estimates suggest that rising livestock production accounts for around 15 per cent of global greenhouse gases emitted each year.
“Impossible Foods and Burger King are creating alternatives for people who still want a burger that tastes like a burger, but care about the environment as well. Appealing to people who wouldn’t usually order a veggie burger, this new partnership provides a great new flexitarian option on a traditionally meat-intensive menu,” she said.
“Essentially, we would like to see smaller portions of ‘better’ meat—pasture-reared, local, organic—as part of a diverse plant-based diet,” added O’Connor. “Nearly a third of corporate carbon footprint in the fast food sector results from beef production, and this is an excellent example of how targeted activities in the private sector can create momentum for system change.”
But system change is slow. And, it must happen on several fronts. Individual action, grassroots activity, finance mechanisms and government infrastructure must work together for long-term sustainability.
Tim Christophersen, UN Environment’s coordinator of the Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, said:
“Individuals can do their part. But governments worldwide continue to distort markets by providing harmful agricultural subsidies, and not including the full cost in meat—the health implications, environmental consequences and degradation, for example—in products. This is a market failure caused by outdated policy signals. It is not a failure of individual consumers.
“If governments would set policy signals, like fiscal incentives, in line with climate targets, meatless burgers could become cheaper than meat options,” he added. Yet the meatless versions in Burger King will retail for US$1 more than their meat counterpart. “Working with governments, there is still much to do to change the status quo,” he added.
Salman Hussain, coordinator for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, argues that the wider negative costs borne by society need to be ‘internalized’ into food prices more generally.
The true cost of foods depends on how they are produced, distributed, stored, consumed and disposed of. “Although we cannot be sure that any particular vegetarian option is better for the environment and for human livelihood outcomes than any particular meat alternative, we do know that in general consuming less meat would help us stay within planetary boundaries,” he said.
Indeed, a 30 per cent shift from ruminant meat to plant-based proteins by the world’s wealthiest consumers would, by itself, halve the emissions gap—the gap between where global greenhouse gas emissions currently are and where they need to be to prevent a harmful temperature rise under 2˚C.
The Burger King version of the plant-based burgers also contain 15 per cent less fat and 90 per cent less cholesterol. Impossible Foods, which makes the plant-based burgers, said:
“We were inspired to partner with Burger King because of its massive scale, but also its massive appeal to meat-eating consumers... In addition to satisfying customers, plant-based meats will play a vital role in solving one of the planet’s most pressing challenges: sustainably feeding 9.7 billion people by 2050 while consuming far less of the earth’s precious resources.
“Our target consumers are meat eaters. We like to say that we make plant-based meat for meat lovers, without compromise in taste, texture or nutrition... Our goal is to replace animals as a food production technology by 2035, and provide consumers with meat, fish, and dairy foods that are good for both people and the planet,” they added.
In a recent study, Impossible Foods found that 91 per cent of their consumers are meat eaters. After trying the Impossible Burger, containing no antibiotics, hormones, slaughterhouse contaminants or cholesterol, consumer interest increases from 24 to 40 per cent.
If that trend continues, system change will come. One bite at a time.