Can we ‘meat’ halfway?


With the rise of “meatless meat”, Chris Chatteris SJ considers the moral and social implications of substituting meat for something that tastes, smells and looks like the “real thing”.

So-called ‘meatless meat’ is coming to a butchery and a fast-food outlet near you. Apparently, the big question at the moment is whether McDonald’s will succumb and offer plant-based burgers; other well-known burger outlets have already started. Some observers think that the chain is just waiting to see whether ‘meatless meat’ is a fad or not. Or maybe they are hesitating because artificial meat might affect their virile image.

The evidence suggests this is not a fad. Plant-based, or ‘meatless’ meat is getting a huge amount of publicity, especially in the highly carnivorous United States. Big money is going into research and development. Some products are already on the market in South Africa and the producers say that the number of customers is increasing all the time.

Apart from cost, the key to a successful uptake of meatless meat is taste. And here the big breakthrough is a component called heme (a word, the unpleasant sound of which, makes one of my colleagues want to heave up!). This stuff is made from yeast and it gives the artificial meat that bloody taste that we seem to have inherited from our hunter-ancestors. Plant-based Impossible Burgers ooze heme for those that like their artificial meat rare.

How far does substitution go?

There seems little doubt that we soon won’t be able to tell the difference between a plant-based burger and a bovine-based one. I have a few whimsical reflections about the implications of this coming gastronomical revolution, and a serious one.

For instance, is the eating of meatless meat an infringement of the law of abstinence, the refraining from eating meat by Catholics on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? I suppose a canon lawyer would have to agree that it’s not technically against the law, even though he might feel that it’s against the spirit of the law.

What about food taboos? Would Jews and Muslims be able to enjoy plant-based pork and tuck into a hefty English breakfast of ‘meatless’ bacon, pork bangers and eggs with a good conscience? And in Mr Modi’s India where it’s now inadvisable for non-Hindus to slaughter and eat cows, would it be safer for them to eat plant-based beef in this time of a resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism? One would hope so, but of course, fanatics don’t always take kindly to being deprived of their pet hatreds!

And what of societies in which animal sacrifice is important, certain African societies for example?  I rather doubt if the ancestors would be impressed by an offering of artificial meat. Apart from its artificiality, there is the significance of lifeblood being poured out. Heme would probably not quite hack it! And in conservative pastoralist societies such as the Maasai, I imagine that making cows redundant would be a dire threat to their very sense of identity. Still, lobola is often calculated and paid in cash these days, and in a rather surreal but true event, at the funeral of a prominent car-hijacker in Johannesburg, his mourning fellow-hijackers burned a car in lieu of slaughtering a cow!

In South Africa where barbequing meat (braaing in the local demotic) is closely bound up with the national identity, it is difficult to imagine braai purists happily turning their pieces of ‘syntho’ as artificial meat was referred to in a sci-fi novel I once read. One can in fact easily imagine some fellow citizens coming to blows over what is a real braai and with what contempt effete plant-based braaiers will be held!

What of health?

Could there be an argument for artificial meat from the point of view of health? It seems not. Eating an Impossible Burger is not the equivalent of a salad or a bowel of quinoa. The producers of this brave new meat are focussing on people who actually enjoy meat, and therefore they make sure that it contains the right amount of protein, etc as in ordinary meat. One possible health benefit is that it won’t have any of the steroids and antibiotics in it which are currently pumped into livestock. Basically, this is processed food, something we all already eat and enjoy, thanks to the taste additives put in to titillate our jaded, modern palates.

The only really good argument for artificial meat is nothing fundamentally to do with personal health or holiness, although in the longer term it might well impact on both of those quite powerfully. The argument is environmental. Meat production for an expanding human population is horribly polluting. Its carbon footprint is massive (15% of all emissions) and it’s incredibly inefficient. To produce a kilo of beef requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water – 10 times the amount required for a kilo of wheat. It takes up a lot of space, takes a long time to grow, and requires vast quantities of feed, often soya which is cultivated in many places by first torching environmentally important jungle.

The calculations for scaled-up artificial meat production suggest that the impact on the environment will be one tenth of that of rearing livestock, so if one is interested in saving the planet, artificial meat is probably a sine qua non. Critics of this position say that it all depends on it breaking out of its niche market and going mainstream. Well, that’s obvious. The same argument holds for any environmental action, from the adoption of electric cars to recycling. If only a few people do it we’re doomed; if the majority does it, we’re in with a chance. Surveys done in India and China found that a large majority would be in favour of consuming artificial meat. If those two countries scaled up production of meatless meat, livestock might end up a bit like horses in the era of oil, it’s nice to have a few around for nostalgia’s sake, but they are not essential to the economy any more.

Here’s hoping that this little effort will contribute to making plant-based meat mainstream. In the meantime, we can all do something by going vegetarian or vegan or simply eating less meat.

Technical and other issues are dealt with in this helpful article.
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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Can we ‘meat’ halfway?

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