Swap Meat

High-tech meat replacements are sold as world changing, but all they do is taste better

One of the first vegetarians we ever met was our fifth grade elementary school teacher. She was single, talked about her cats a lot, and joked about how she’d be “eating carrots in the corner” on a school trip while students and other teachers chowed down on cold cuts. So this is vegetarian life, we thought. Alone with a cat and a carrot. Nonetheless, we both turned vegetarian in our mid-teens, and have remained that way ever since. We filled the meat-shaped holes on our plates with huge helpings of lentils, followed by the odd Gardenburger and Tofurkey sausage. It’s a fine culinary life, easy actually, and rather unremarkable.

Over the past few years, though, a strange new class of proteins has been brewing, popping up on our social feeds and favorite cafe menus: Meat 2.0, the Impossible, the Beyond, the “plant-based revolution.” These brands are obsessed with perfectly recreating the taste, texture and color of animal flesh for the mass meat-eating market. Unlike the fake meat products we grew up with, their patties and nuggets aren’t designed as niche items for the vegetarian crowd, but covetable products that even the biggest carnivores would line up for. This new batch is backed by big venture capital money and an accompanying appetite for unbridled growth. The Good Food institute estimates that plant-based meat, egg and dairy companies in the United States raised over $16 billion in the past decade. Of that, around $13 billion was raised in 2017 and 2018 alone.

“Meat 2.0” companies embrace meatless meat as an engineering problem, bringing it into the realm of the investible tech product

In a 2013 blog post, Bill Gates recounted eating a Beyond Meat “chicken” taco and being unable to tell the poultry-esque filling from its animal-based counterpart. “What I was experiencing was more than a clever meat substitute,” he gushed. “It was a taste of the future of food.” While some argue that “cellular” or lab-grown meat is the real future-food, it’ll be a while before these products become commercially available. In the meantime, ultra-realistic skeuomorphic plant-based “meat” is here with a vengeance. Beyond Meat launched its IPO in May, wildly surpassing expectations with its shares rising over 160 percent in the three months to August, and Forbes calling it “the hottest IPO on Wall Street this year.” Impossible Foods, makers of the Impossible Burger, raised $300 million in its E Series funding round earlier this year; a nascent fake nugget company founded by a 19-year-old recently nabbed a $7 million funding round. Firms like Blue Horizons, New Crop Capital and Stray Dog Capital say they are building an “alt-protein revolution.” Evidently, fake meat companies have blasted from the supermarket to Silicon Valley, transforming themselves into technology companies in the process.

Of course, food (from potatoes to Pop Tarts) has always been radically shaped by technology, be it selective cultivation, grafting, or chemical emulsifiers. But Meat 2.0 is not just technology — it’s tech. While earlier generations of faux meat were birthed out of the utopian fervor of radical vegetarians, religious ascetics, and puritanical health nuts, the new crop of alt-protein savants keep the fervor but translate it into a familiar Silicon Valley story about saving the world, framing, as writer Erin Schwartz put it, “real, global problems in such a way that their products could resolve them.” At a moment when some of the world’s biggest agricultural polluters and chicken killers are getting in on the plant-based action — and investors are hankering for a tendfold return — it seems reasonable to ask whether the promise of miracle “meat” could add up to anything other than ever-more growth and consumption: more of the same problems these products aim to solve.

Ersatz patties and hot dogs and cutlets have been around for many decades — we know because we’ve been eating them. Stalwart brands like Tofurkey, Amy’s, and Gardein spent decades sequestered in the “specialty foods” or “salads and stuff” sections, and advertised their wares in the language of the farmers market rather than the lab: Tofurky still insists on “aprons, not lab coats.”

The meat substitute business goes back well before we had our first hickory smoked “deli” slice. Chinese Buddhist fake meat dates back to the seventh century CE, where monks would replace meat in traditional dishes with vegetables, soy or gluten, especially when hosting guests to their monastery. The first American meat analogue, Nuttose, was released in 1896 by John Harvey Kellogg, who experimented with meat alternatives in order to help people adhere to the vegetarian diet that Seventh Day Adventists are encouraged to follow. Since then, a plethora of other soy, gluten, textured vegetable protein and nut-based products have been dreamed up by health reformers, religious communities, back-to-the-landers, and entrepreneurs, as described in Jonathan Kauffman’s health food history Hippie Food.

“Hippie food,” with its focus on whole grains, organic veggies, and soybeans, surged into American culture in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as disillusioned young people were “trying to forge some life outside the dead architecture of their parents’ society,” writes Kauffman. This turning away from the Good Housekeeping Americana of the mid-century was informed by “century-old strains of resistance to the industrialization of food” that bubbled up in the utopian California health food movements of macrobiotic evangelists of the early ’60s. Fake-meat purveyors like Tofurky and Morningstar Farms retained the aesthetics and values of the hippie food movement, but embraced mass production and processing as a way to get these foods into more hands.

The Silicon Valley era of fake meat, however, doesn’t see itself as the newest iteration of the alternative food movement. While Meat 2.0 retains and repurposes some of the utopian foodies’ environmental and world-changing zeal, it disavows all ties to counterculture and creates a new story for itself based on innovation and science. As with many other goods and services that were once the purview of women (meal replacement drinks, calorie counting), the working class (house cleaning, delivery, and laundry services) or non-Western people (yoga, meditation), fake meat’s transition to high-tech comes with a new set of slogans and rhetoric that separates it from the feminized and otherwise marginalized worlds that came before.

Divorcing themselves from the religious impetus of Buddhist mock-duck or the anti-establishment crunch of a nutburger, Beyond and Impossible embrace meatless meat as an engineering problem, legitimizing it as a tech product and bringing it into the realm of the investible. The website for a new chicken-free nugget tells us that “NUGGS operates like a software company,” and Impossible Burger CEO Dr. Pat Brown proclaimed that “literally we go through a hundred iterations … of the recipe every month.” Overlooking (for the moment) the fact that food doesn’t scale like software, these nuggs and patties reassure us that they aren’t just cooked, they’re “designed” and “engineered.”

In his book Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food, Benjamin Wurgaft describes the way Silicon Valley creates value not by offering new products, but by establishing (and conquering) new “frontiers.” Google’s value did not come from the provision of a ubiquitous search engine but through the reimagining and harvesting of personal data. In the case of food, the new frontier is the “food space,” an area of investment and enterprise where food production and supply “meets environmental impact, human health and the welfare of non-human animals.” The Silicon Valley investor class is not just reimagining the veggie pattie, it’s reimagining meat — reimagining food.

The big dream of many of Meat 2.0’s main players can be summarized as “reducing harm by reducing meat consumption.” Following the example of Soylent — a plant-based nutrition shake created by a software engineer as a way to minimize engagement with the base materiality of foodstuffs — Impossible Foods aims to “drastically reduce humanity’s destructive impact on the global environment by completely replacing the use of animals as a food production technology.” The Beyond Meat website proudly proclaims that plant-based meat provides “one savory solution” to crises as vast as climate change.

Soylent turned food into tech in a way that was totally congruent with the growing obsession with the “quantified self,” where every element of embodied life might be measured, analyzed, and improved. Soylent and its cohort of future gruels encouraged the re-imagining of food as a series of precisely portioned inputs, with tweakable protein sources and endlessly improvable texture profiles, with the stated mission of finding and funding “solutions for the global food ecosystem of the future.” Likewise, armed with epic marketing budgets, the new fake meat is working hard to convince us that it’s  not just for wusses and bleeding-heart liberals, nor is it a freaky franken-food that will rot your insides. Next gen meatless-meat isn’t aimed specifically at the meat-free — “We don’t say vegan, we are for meat eaters,” says Impossible’s chief communications officer — but their new iteration of food idealism appropriates the old utopian energy for a new, more palatable, vision of the future. Harnessing ideas from the think-big philanthropy world of the Gates Foundation and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the new fake meat scions offer up a bombastic and high-level model of systems-change, replete with heroic statements about mass-scale social and environmental transformation signaling a break from the oppositional or woo-woo natural foodism of old.

Fake meat’s transition to high-tech comes with a new rhetoric that separates it from the feminized and marginalized worlds that came before

Meat 2.0 promises a revolution in food that centers the welfare of animals and the planet — all while slotting seamlessly into the existing system of production and distribution. That’s precisely the problem. The meatless burger hopes to do its revolutionizing in the lab, re-authoring “meat” and spitting out a product that requires no new thinking or behavior change from its vendors, servers, or eaters. There’s an analogy here to the recent rise of “compostable” plastic, which has become omnipresent at environmentally conscious conferences and coffee shops, at least in liberal strongholds like the Bay Area. Compostable plastic replaces something that’s obviously detrimental to the planet (single-use plastic cups, straws, storage containers) with an alternative that’s functionally identical but purports to be environmentally benign. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that bioplastic is not environmentally benign: the compostability of these products is marginal in anything other than perfect circumstances, and the manufacturing process still contributes to harmful emissions and requires considerable fuel inputs.

Bioplastics are a techno-fix that allow us to maintain our habits, and for manufacturers to maintain profits, without investigating whether the issue is with the system of endless growth and ever improving “convenience” that created the idea of single-use products in the first place. This is where the utopian possibility of mainstream fake meat falls flat. Industrial food, whether it’s animal or plant based, is produced for profit. These profits accrue in the hands of a few — at the expense of workers, animals, and planetary health. Monsanto continues to sue farmers who save seeds from season-to-season, and common procurement practices mean that buyers are able to cancel large-scale food shipments at the last minute, resulting in enormous food waste.

Venture-funded fake meat works in a similar way to any other superficially eco-friendly techno-fix like ridesharing or geoengineering, where the true priority is “not to save the planet,” as scholar and activist Nick Estes suggests, “but to maintain the gross levels of consumption in North America” along with gross levels of profit for the holders of capital. Inserting fake meat into this system ends up obfuscating the root causes (industrial food production under capitalism) for the sake of — hopefully — making a marginal reduction in American meat consumption. This kind of “cheeseburger environmentalism” lets ethical and environmental arguments against eating meat find peaceful co-existence with Silicon Valley’s appetite for endless growth and new markets.

The executives of these companies may be earnest in their intentions to reduce animal suffering and environmental harm through massively mainstreaming fake meat. It’s doubtful, however, whether fast food joints and supermarkets see fake meat as anything other than a novel product form for driving profits. Fast food joints market fake meat in the same way as they pitch any other promotional menu item, using appeals to novelty and manufactured scarcity. The lines-around-the-block hysteria induced by KFC’s one-day-only fake nugget sale felt eerily similar to the Rick and Morty nugget-sauce hype, and until recently the Impossible Whopper has an aura of almost McRib-level mystery and desirability due to the unstable supply of Impossible patties. While recent reports from Burger King show a sustained interest in the Impossible Whopper, traditional beef Whopper sales have also increased since the Impossible Whopper launched.

As vegetarians, the sensation of being directly addressed — or “hailed,” per Louis Althusser, describing the way ideology interpellates individuals as subjects through a constant process of address and recognition — by the tube meat purveyors and breakfast sandwich slingers that have ignored you for so long is a real trip. Now, when the TV screen above the bar flickers with an image of a plump burger dropping onto a springy bun, we feel spoken to, included as a born-again subject of the fast food sandwich universe. When we went vegetarian, it was for inchoate but firmly-felt moral concerns about the death and life of intensively farmed animals. However, an enjoyable side-effect was the way new worlds — of food, politics, and sociality — opened up to us at the same time that we turned away from burger joints and mainstream food culture.

We’re interested in the smattering of food innovations that do more than burn through millions of hours and dollars for a perfect mimesis of meat

To be a vegetarian in the year 2019 is to acknowledge that while the personal is political, it’s also true that individual dietary actions are near meaningless when we remain reliant on a complex web of exploited labor, nature, and non-human animals for our food and other commodities. As purposely-set fires raging in the Amazon draw attention to the genocidal destruction of forest and indigenous lands in the name of animal agriculture and monocrops, the reasons for the fires are complex and “go vegan to save the Amazon” is a simplistic, and unhelpful, response. The beef raised in Brazil is not the beef that ends up in our American burgers, and a blanket “go vegan” rallying cry disregards the fact that subsistence agriculture and meat-eating by poor and indigenous communities over the millennia is very much not the problem. Turning our gaze closer to home, though, it’s undeniable that most of the beef and chicken and pork consumed in huge amounts in the U.S. is raised in a way that’s horrific for the animals and harmful to the environment. It stands to reason that reducing demand for meat might reduce some of those harms. But it’s unclear whether the current version of fake meat will live up to its big promises.

One of the tragedies of the current era is that gloomy shadow of capital makes it difficult to get excited about new technologies, even those that might — in other contexts — contain a germ of emancipatory potential. Beyond the realm of the currently possible, theorists and sci-fi authors alike have imagined ways that food systems (or other tech systems) might operate equitably and creatively outside of the joy-killing constraints of industrial capitalism. From James Bridle’s description of a self-driving car “enmeshed in an infrastructure of renewable energy… slippy maps… and messy human desires” to Laura Forlano’s evocation of her networked insulin pump as part of a network of interpersonal care and meaningful data rituals, to Jacobin’s suggestion that we socialize lab meat, we are given visions of another world that lies just over the horizon.

Holding firm to that seed of utopian possibility, we’re interested in the smattering of food innovations that seem to do more than just burn through millions of hours and dollars in search of a perfect mimesis of meat. Some of these projects are bizarre and uncanny, investigating algae sludges and non-mimetic flavors and mycological foams as food sources or as building materials. Others, like Bren Smith’s “restorative 3D ocean farming” or Plenty’s partly-automated urban vertical horticulture more closely resemble “food” as we know it, but rethink the way it’s grown or distributed. Smith’s open-source ocean farming model, in which a variety of seaweed and shellfish are grown at different layers of the water column, turns fishers into farmers and creates the potential for new livelihoods in the wake of fishery collapse. Plenty focuses on growing traceable, high-yield greens on a small indoor footprint close to the communities where they will be sold, inverting the usual model of huge far-off farms that send their produce long distances through complex supply chains. While these projects are not immune to the challenges of scale or the pressures of investor capital, they open a space for looking at food — and the people that produce it — outside of the forms we’re familiar with.

As Bridle writes, “Just because a technology — whether it’s autonomous vehicles, satellite communications, or the internet — has been captured by capital and turned against the populace, doesn’t mean it does not retain a seed of utopian possibility.” If nothing else, the rise of Meat 2.0, with its revolutionary rhetoric and circumscribed reality, gives us an opportunity to consider what a truly equitable food system would look like, and think about the changes required to get us there. Fake meat can likely be part of that solution, by making a reduced-meat diet look plausible, and providing a palatable stepping-stone for the veg-resistant. But the massive efforts being sunk into building an “alt-protein revolution” ultimately consume huge amounts of capital and public attention while eliding wider systemic issues.

Anna Pendergrast is a New Zealand-based writer and analyst. She is co-lead of ANTISTATIC, a research and communications group that focuses on issues of technology and the environment.

Kelly Pendergrast is a writer, researcher, and curator based in San Francisco. She works with ANTISTATIC on technology and environmental justice, and she writes about natures, visual culture, and laboring bodies.