HOW MONTANA SEES THE FAKE MEAT TREND

BY TODD WILKINSON

Out here in the middle of American cowboy country, where people in pickup trucks wave howdy to each other on dirt roads, one of the province’s gastronomic delicacies is locally grown beef. I offer this as a declaration before vowing to commit an act some might consider cultural heresy.

With one spark lighting the backyard propane grill, I eye a pair of bland, dun- colored patties, extracting them from plastic packaging, then gently lay them on the broiler waiting for a familiar sizzle. I hear none. This is my introduction to the plant-based food product known as Beyond Meat, invented to be an alternative to burgers and steaks.

Beyond Meat and its main rival, the aptly named Impossible Burger, are intended to let vegans, vegetarians and agnostic carnivores feast without incurring the guilt and shame associated with killing and consuming another mammal. They are marketed as healthier options, lower in fat and cholesterol, better for our hearts, minds and the planet.

But are they?

I stack two bloodless patties, “fully cooked” in about five minutes, inside a bun with lettuce, tomato and Dijon mustard. I close my eyes and take a bite while trying to make sense of that unfamiliar aroma.

In Montana, Idaho and Wyoming—whose appellation is the “Cowboy State”—what are the upshots and downsides of communing with fake beef? Is it morally and ethically superior to consume plants that come directly out of the soil rather than pursuing nutrition, as our hunter and gatherer ancestors did, by eating other mammals that ate the plants first?

Could we all, collectively, if we dropped meat from our diets, really make a dent in the atmospheric challenge of climate change by switching en masse to edibles that masquerade as something they are not?

It’s amazing how damned complicated mindful eating can be, and how jarring the experience is when you think about it too much, elevating things we typically take for granted into the realm of serious existential questions. Wouldn’t it just be easier to embrace ignorance is bliss? But, it turns out, there’s a lot at stake. Choosing the putatively wrong food can be not only hazardous to your health; it can hurt the Wild West and cause a demotion in social standing down at the local food co-op.

Further, in this new enlightened era of reflecting on how the old West came to be—at the expense of indigenous people who had their homelands, native food stores, and ways of life destroyed to make way for beef cows—there can be a discomforting, unsavory aftertaste that comes with facing reality, too.

“Do we really want to be eating stuff that requires a degree in biochemical engineering, rather than graduation from a culinary institute, to know what’s in it?”

Just two evenings earlier, I started the first leg of a taste test at Sir Scott’s Oasis located in Manhattan, a folksy ag outpost in the Gallatin Valley west of Bozeman. Sir Scott’s, a restaurant institution, is a joint where I’ve enjoyed some of the finest Montana-raised filet mignons, New York strips, tenderloins and burgers in my life. And that’s saying something being the son of restauranteurs. When visitors come to town, I take them there.

We are actually blessed with a long list of joints specializing in grass-fed beef, lamb and bison. If you’re polite and ingratiate yourself to local hosts, you might even convince them to open their freezers and share a backstrap of elk, pronghorn, moose or deer.

For years, ads for the National Livestock and Beef Board left us remembering the clever tagline: “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner” while, at the same time fast-food outlet Wendy’s had us asking, “Where’s the Beef?”

That is until our red meat intake, one of the highest in the world, became a health concern. Now we’re pondering whether that quarter-pound piece of whatever it is, is real or a laboratory-concocted facsimile.

For more than a year, I’ve been reading about the rise of Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger. But it was an autumn 2019 story in The Economist magazine that brought my intrigue about fake meat to a new level. Turns out, millions of consumers are willing to try plant-based alternatives, so long as they are as tasty, juicy, filling, protein-rich and satisfying as, say, the real thing. Turns out, according to experts working in the sophisticated field of food engineering, that people want their burgers to have the same textural consistency as beef, which requires a lot of manipulation down to the ingredient enzyme level.

Is a burger a burger if it isn’t made of red meat? Do we really want to be eating stuff that requires a degree in biochemical engineering, rather than graduation from a culinary institute, to know what’s in it? Turns out, consumers want to be part of a social trend.

“At the moment, the market for meat substitutes is tiny,” The Economist reported. “Euromonitor, a market- research firm, estimates that Americans spend $1.4 billion a year on them, around 4 percent of what they spend on real meat. Europeans also chomp through about $1.5 billion-worth of meatless meat a year, but this is 9 to 12 percent of what they spend on animal flesh.” It added that, according to Eurometer, the market for meat alternatives in the U.S. and Europe will double by 2022, growing from 1 percent of the total market for meat to 10 percent later this decade.

It’s been reported that Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, who spends summers in the Greater Yellowstone, is investing in lab-grown meat because he sees it as an important humanitarian investment. Others are following suit.

Gary Rieschel with his firm Qiming Venture Partners is a respected venture capitalist as well as an inventor, global business strategist and conservationist who divides his time between the West Coast and southwest Montana.

Early on, going back to when he was based in China, Rieschel recognized an opportunity with companies like Beyond Burger, a confluence where profit potential as an investor could align with human good. “The science around the quality and nutritional value of these products has advanced so much in the last seven to eight years,” he says. “Venture capitalists have put billions of seed money into helping alternatives reach a critical mass.” In addition, major food titans like Tyson, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland see themselves not as purveyors of grains and meats but protein.

In order to be economically sustainable, alternative meat needed to scale up and that involved achieving broad brand recognition and wider distribution channels. Plant burgers are now menu offerings at McDonald’s and Burger King in addition to big box stores. Coming soon, Rieschel says, are plant steaks.

Where plant-based, protein-rich meat alternatives can register their biggest impact, he explains, is in the developing world where rising standards of living might otherwise result in more American-style beef consumption that would not be good for the environment. In order to avoid that, companies selling affordable alternatives that can feed billions play a vital role. As for the conceit that plant burgers are as satisfying as beef, Rieschel isn’t buying it. Yet. “I don’t think these products represent a threat to the booming steak business at Sir Scott’s Oasis,” he says.

Photo by Zac Cain
Dr. Selena Ahmed, associate professor of sustainable food systems and principle investigator with the Food and Health Lab at Montana State University.

“In discussing the profound ecological costs of the way we grow and consume food, I think it is important not to pit livestock production against plant crop production.”

How might consumer growth and shifting consumer tastes ripple? Seemingly in ways big and small, but there could be casualties, too. Dr. Selena Ahmed is associate professor of sustainable food systems and principle investigator with the Food and Health Lab at Montana State University. She is widely respected for delving into the head-spinning holistic realm encompassing how food is grown and consumed.

Given rising numbers of humans on the planet, levels of meat consumption are a problem, she says. Growing cows to meet demand is a problem. Costs of production don’t register when we pay the tab at a restaurant or grocery store checkout line, say those involved in a new emerging cross-disciplinary field of study that combines ecology with human health, market economics, conservation, climate change and social justice.

Every year in the U.S. about 100 million cattle are raised. Many readers here know that the gastrointestinal process of bovines converting grass to flesh involves creating a lot of methane that is burped and farted by cows. Methane, like carbon dioxide, rises into the atmosphere and accounts for about 14.5 percent of greenhouse gases.

“In addition to being a major driver of climate change, the livestock industry is a major driver of land-use change, biodiversity loss, water pollution and resource waste,” Ahmed tells me. “Rearing livestock requires expansive areas of land which have often come at the cost of replacing native diversified landscapes, damaging soils and contaminating waterways.”

Livestock require numerous other resources including feed, which requires its own land and resources to grow. In the Northern Rockies, for example, rivers are nearly dewatered in summer to grow a single crop, alfalfa, that will provide hay for cattle in winter.

Ahmed does not blanketly condemn the livestock industry. “There are ways of rearing livestock in more sustainable ways such as regenerative agriculture that supports sequestering carbon dioxide and rebuilding soil organic matter,” she notes, mentioning that she met a neighbor around Bozeman who is starting a regenerative bison operation that mimics native habitat and ancient grazing patterns.

“This is really inspiring,” she says. “I think it is important to think about the land-use colonialism that created our current food systems and learn from the indigenous food systems of a place and their associated cultural and ecological values.” Yes, she invokes the word colonialism, a hot-button topic on college campuses with a focus on social and environmental justice.

Colonialism pertains to the usurping—read: racist—values brought to North America from Europe that resulted in genocide of indigenous people, killing off of predators like wolves and grizzlies that ate nonnative cattle and sheep, annihilating bison to subdue native people that survived on it as a staple, and fencing out species like elk and deer from private property because they competed for grass with cattle. The heart of the issue is the way land itself was forcibly wrested away from tribal nations and privatized, becoming manifested in the West as cattle ranches and farms grew crop monocultures at the expense of native plant diversity. These are topics that, until recently, were seldom explored critically at public land grant agricultural schools like Montana State University.

There is a correlation, Ahmed and a large number of colleagues say, between the lack of diversity that has existed in the community of food growers and the way it has been expressed on landscapes. Corporate agriculture has severely impacted family-run operations and resulted in attempts to maximize production yields with single commodities.

“Monocultures of crops such as corn and soy have replaced thriving prairie ecosystems in the Western landscape that were once characterized by diverse species of grasses, shrubs, flowers, insects and mammals,” Ahmed says. “In looking at the nine key planetary boundaries about the earth system processes to sustain life on Earth, we are already in a dangerous zone for biodiversity loss. In the past 120 years, we have lost approximately 75 percent of the crop diversity in the food system. We need to bring this diversity back into our landscapes, back on our plates and bowls.”

Not long ago, I chatted with Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota widely heralded as “the Sioux chef” for bringing his knowledge of ethnobotany and Native cuisine to the forefront of discussions about food. His cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen won a prestigious James Beard Award for best American cookbook. Sherman, who spent some of his formative years in Red Lodge, Montana, raises his eyebrows when pondering the invention of Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger.

“You don’t need to have food invented in a petri dish,” he says. “Everything you need to survive well is already there in nature made available by the Creator. You just have to live respectfully with it.”

In a state like Montana where rural legislators have a huge say in controlling the purse strings of public funding for universities, issues like confronting the legacy of colonialism is controversial. But it’s also indicative of how conversations arrayed around human equity and seeking a more harmonious relationship between modern humankind and the land is changing.

So, back to my simple quest to judge the relative merits of those Beyond Meat burgers coming off the grill. Although it was cooked, it barely changed color. There really was no varying degrees of temperature, as in rare, medium or well done. Plants, like carrots, are either raw or cooked. As my molars and jaws engaged, I had another inquiry: What would a local nutritionist make of all this?

Kim Johnson in Bozeman is a dietitian and nutritionist who advises people struggling with making healthy food choices, in particular young and old folks with eating disorders. An important bit of advice she offers is that the way people talk
about food reflects the way they think about food and vice versa. If they wrestle unconsciously with issues such as shame and guilt, body image and social acceptability, it can distort how food is perceived.

“There is no ‘good food’ or ‘bad food,’” Johnson says. “That’s not how I approach it. If you enjoy eating a beef burger it doesn’t make you a bad person.” Similarly, ponying up for a plastic-wrapped two-fer of Beyond Meat patties doesn’t validate self-righteousness. She tries to help people move beyond obsessively-compulsively being fixated on food, including the tribalism attached to being a devout vegan.

I wondered if Johnson has noticed a shift in southwest Montana in the way people choose to eat, influenced by the presence of food co-ops, farm-to-market ventures and more local sourcing of food in restaurants. “I have noticed diet culture has shifted to a high-protein phase,” she says. “We’ve moved from a low-fat phase to a low-carb phase and now to a high-protein phase. Fad diets such as paleo and keto have fueled the fad that people need excessive amounts of protein in their diet. People do need protein but not as much as the current diet culture makes it out to be. I’ve found that one of the main adjustments I make to a majority of my client’s diet is decreasing the protein intake and increasing the carbohydrate intake.”

Plant burger manufacturers emphasize protein. When Johnson works with clients, she moves the conversation toward the larger realm of seeking balance in life as it pertains to everything. Food is no different. Meat, vegetables and fruits, grains, proteins, carbs, starches, sugar, salt, calories, even alcohol. The body has needs to run healthy and it doesn’t discriminate what is put in the tank. She helps people ponder a mix and, in understanding moderation, it can help people become liberated from fixation, including habits that lead to addiction.

As an extension of what Johnson says, Ahmed cautions against demonizing ranchers and farmers. “In discussing the profound ecological costs of the way we grow and consume food, I think it is important not to pit livestock production against plant crop production,” she says. It’s not a binary either-or proposition, but a transformation is needed and she believes that consumers and producers can together drive a positive feedback loop for change, where consumers support conscientious growers encouraging more of them to exist.

Photo by Stijn Te Strake

In my line of work as an environmental journalist, I’ve seen many farming and ranching families in the Rocky Mountain West leave their operations behind, selling the land and seeing it converted into ranchettes or subdivisions. Lost is more than access to Gallatin Valley soil, considered some of the most fertile in our corner of the West, but gone, too, is crucial wildlife habitat and sense of community.

While cattle are blamed for being negative agents of change on hundreds of millions of acres in the public-land West, ranchers control the fate of private lands that are vital to the survival of native species that humans like to view with spotting scopes and hunt. They provide visually pleasing open space punctuated by views unmarred with blight.

Montana, Wyoming and Idaho don’t even register in the top five cattle-producing states but cattle disproportionately influence land-use practices. There are about 2.5 cows for every Montana human resident, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of Montana’s 93 million acres of total land area, 58 million acres, or 64 percent, are found within the fenced boundary of a ranch or farm. Six of every 10 acres has livestock on it. Some 26,000 farms and ranches exist in the state, with the average spread about 2,100 acres. Livestock production is a $1.5 billion annual industry in Montana and crop production an equal amount.

COVID-19 caused a freeze in beef production leaving Western ranchers without a market when many families were struggling to stay viable. Land conversion away from agricultural use is seen as one of the biggest threats to maintaining biological connectivity for migrating wildlife. Ironically, while ordering a Beyond Meat or Impossible Burger isn’t likely to seal the fate of agrarians, buying grass-fed beef from conscientious local ranchers invested in sustainable practices is itself a value-laden investment. It’s another way to vote with our wallet.

“We need to be working with policymakers, landowners and scientists to create conservation zones that support biodiversity and have regulations or development,” Ahmed says. “Landowners need to be provided incentives and be supported.”

Those who say the remedy is simply eliminating all cattle to address climate change is impractical the same as suggesting the power grid can seamlessly switch tomorrow from burning fossils to wind and solar in generating electricity. Like moderation with diet, the first shifts must be incremental.

Ahmed cites emerging evidence that livestock practices using select feed additives such as certain seaweeds can inhibit methane-producing microorganisms in the rumen and reduce methane emissions. “However, there is also evidence of risks to those additive practices,” she says. “On the consumer side, reducing meat consumption as part of a largely plant-based diet is key. It’s important to note that this is not a recommendation for a 100 percent vegetarian or vegan diet. In fact, some evidence suggests that a 90 percent plant-based diet is more sustainable based on multiple indicators compared to a 100 percent plant-based diet.”

Based on differing datapoints, researchers say that in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the production of plant-based burgers generates about 3 percent of emissions that a beef herd does, requires a tiny fraction of freshwater withdrawals from aquifers and rivers, and involves a small amount of total land use that it takes to yield a pound of beef.

Yes, indeed. What are the ingredients in a Beyond Meat burger? Its flashy webpage says: “Protein, fat, minerals, carbohydrates and water are five building blocks of meat. We source these building blocks directly from planets, to create delicious, mouth-watering plant-based meat.” Drilling down a little deeper and the protein comes from peas, mung beans, fava beans and brown rice; fats from cocoa butter, coconut oil, sunflower oil and canola oil; minerals from calcium, iron, salt and potassium chloride; carbohydrates from potato starch and methylcellulose (a plant fiber derivative); and the “colors and flavors” from beet juice extract, apple extract and what it calls “natural flavors.” Adding beet juice is intended to mimic the appearance of blood.

These ingredients do not naturally appear out of the sky. They need to be watered, grown in a way that avoids insect infestation, at a scale that the burgers are affordable to produce and for consumers to buy, and they must be transported, usually via vehicles whose engines run on gas. And the more popular that plant-based burgers become the more those ingredients must flow into the pipeline. Ahmed agrees.

I ask her if Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers are making the wrong pitch, doing too much work, in masquerading as replacements for traditional beef burgers. She does not have a Pollyannaish perspective. She applauds food-production practices that result in less consumption of natural resources and cause fewer impacts.

“This is one dimension of sustainability. But let’s dig a little deeper,” she says. “What are these meat alternative burgers made of? They are essentially ultra-processed foods dependent on lengthy supply chains. As the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting, lengthy globalized supply chains that require ingredients transported from different locations are vulnerable to disruptions,” she says. “We really want to foster resilience in the food system and lengthy unpredictable supply chains are not the answer. In thinking about Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger, lots of things come to mind in how this impacts our complex and wicked food system, and all the systems our food systems interact with.”

In her lab at MSU and in working with other experts, Ahmed has conducted sustainability analyses for most food ingredients. “In thinking about the cultural aspects of these meat- alternative burgers, on the one hand they are great examples of our industrialized and globalized milieu, and on the other hand they can seem distant to the cultural heritage of a place,” she says.

Most consumers cannot grow their own meat, nor grow all of the ingredients in what would be the perfect organic veggie burger. But carnivores can buy meat locally that don’t require many inputs to get from pasture to table. They can give their business to responsible restauranteurs. They can get to know ranchers the same way that wine connoisseurs go to regions and become friendly with eco-conscious vintners. They can support indigenous operators who are raising bison as a way of reconnecting to past, culture, spiritual identify and land.

So, I take a bite of Beyond Burger and then another. When I finish, I carry the plastic it came in out to the recycling bin. Cost of the two patties: $6. What are all the tentacles of resources used that went into its getting to Bozeman? I’ll never know. But the delivery truck probably pumped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any I saved by eating it instead of Montana grass-fed cow.

As I reflect on the real burgers and steaks I’ve had at Sir Scott’s Oasis, and have seen where the animals were raised—in open spaces where they shared the premises with elk and deer—I have a better feeling in my gut. I know where the meal came from. I know that given their land practices they share the same values I do regarding the long game in protecting parts of our heritage in the region.

What am I also daydreaming about? It’s someday sharing a meal with my indigenous friends in their backyards when the bison burgers they put on the grill came from land their ancestors inhabited for generations too many to calculate. The high price I’m willing to pay for that experience would pale in comparison to the satisfaction it would deliver.

Todd Wilkinson, who lives in Bozeman, is a western correspondent for National Geographic and The Guardian, and is founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), a nonprofit, public-interest journalism site devoted to exploring the intersection of people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His column, The New West, also appears weekly in the Explore Big Sky newspaper.