Impossible patties
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A writer argues that glitzy new plant-based technology distracts from the bigger issue of animal welfare.

The move toward plant-based meat alternatives is usually hailed as a victory, a sign that we as a society are finally moving away from eating animals (bad) toward vegetarianism or veganism (good). But what if the debate isn’t as black and white as we make it out to be?

Writer Sam Garwin makes an argument that is bound to be provocative for TreeHugger’s many plant-based readers. Writing for Mark Bittman’s new food magazine, Heated, Garwin explains how she transitioned from working as a software manager to heading up an artisanal butchery shop. Garwin, who was deeply influenced by Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, became disillusioned with the industrial system used to raise meat for consumption and committed herself to eating only meat whose origins she knew.

What really caught my attention, however, is Garwin’s reluctance to blindly accept the rise of plant-based giants as beneficial. She presents a view that I hadn’t considered before – that many of these wildly successful startups are funded by the same huge agricultural corporations that are perpetuating profound animal cruelty. Their investments do not solve a problem, but rather distract from it. She writes,

“These companies have long degraded the value of life, as evidenced by the conditions in which animals are kept, the environmental violations committed daily, and the poor nutritional quality of the food they sell. Meat alternatives remove the ‘problem’ of respectfully caring for living creatures and the planet in favor of a cheap substitute with unknown consequences for human health.”

Farming techniques vary drastically. The industrial model is nothing like the small-scale, regenerative model, and it is overly simplistic to assume that a pasture-raised animal has had an equally unjust life as one raised in a CAFO, even if the outcome (butchery) is the same.

Garwin raves about the benefits of regenerative agriculture, which, obviously, is essential for the continuation of her business, but she makes important points – that this slow and conscientious style of agriculture improves the earth, rather than degrades it. Regenerative farmers pay close attention to soil and water quality, and to the wellbeing of plants and animals that depend upon a that land for survival. Raising animals in this way, she says, could improve some of our environmental and health problems, but many people don’t want to talk about that.

“As Americans, we hate problems of this sort. We much prefer shiny, new technologies made of silicon and metal, that scale rapidly and offer investors a return. But some of the best technologies are not things, but processes.”

In the 1950s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture “handed off the responsibility [of feeding America] to factory farms” and that’s when things went downhill. We started calling meat ‘protein’ and moved the process of raising and slaughtering to distant factories that most people never entered. Over time it has become easier to say that eating animals is the really terrible thing, rather than the dirty, cruel industrial system that raises them.

Over the past 70 years, Garwin argues, eaters, investors, and policymakers have “abdicated the responsibility of caring for animals and the land to large corporations.” It’s time we took back that responsibility, ate far less meat, refused to buy it from unknown industrial sources, and challenged the practices of funders who are driving the development of plant-based alternatives.

It’s some interesting and controversial food for thought. Read her whole piece here.