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Seitan: The Other Green Meat

Is there such a thing as a sustainable alternative to beef and other meats? Beef is not what's for dinner if you are serving 6...

Is there such a thing as a sustainable alternative to beef and other meats?

Beef is not what’s for dinner if you are serving 6 billion people, much less so if you are serving 9 billion (where population is expected to level off, around 2050). Current meat production puts meat on the dinner table for far fewer than 6 billion people every night, as most people can’t afford it. Meat alone is responsible for about 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The land required to grow the feed and graze those animals that are allowed to graze, the water used at every stage of the process, and the complications of hormones and antibiotics make the kind of industrial meat production required to feed billions of omnivores one of the biggest threats to the global environment. Scale that up to meet current or future demand and you have a crisis.

We really should have started eating less meat years ago, but in the 20 years until 2002 (the most recent year the data is available from the World Resources Institute) meat consumption has grown in every region of the world except in Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, where it has essentially remained stable (and in Africa very low). The Americas, with the United States, Canada, and Argentina in the lead, are the biggest meat eaters. The Europeans aren’t far behind. As countries get richer, they eat more meat, because it tastes good, and because they can. And some very big countries are getting richer right now, so the trend is clearly upwards.

As in past pieces in this series, the question is how to find, among the many forms of meat touted as greener or more environmentally friendly, that kind of meat that really has a chance of pushing environmentally damaging, industrial meat off the table. We are looking for a “disruptive innovation,” to use the concept coined by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen to explain how innovations in technological and business systems can gain a foothold in a market of established, profitable corporations and eventually come to dominate those markets themselves. The theory of disruptive innovation successfully explains the rise of the cell phone against the landline and Japanese automakers against Detroit. Environmentalists should hope to replicate such successes in environmentally damaging industries like transportation and electricity (discussed previously) and in the meat industry.

A trip to even a mainstream grocer or butcher will likely bring the shopper in contact with one or more of the following green “innovations” in meat production:

  • Organic: animals fed entirely with organic feed, excluding GMOs, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers. They are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones and are not genetically modified themselves. Since a third of all grains goes to feed livestock, and almost half of all cropland is used to grow grains, organic livestock feed could better the ecology of an area about the size of Alaska and California combined. Not bad.

  • Grass-fed: Grass-fed meat is fed largely or exclusively on the natural food for ruminants like cows and sheep, instead of on corn and soy and other non-grass additives that make up industrial feed. The most obvious benefits are in the health of the animals and the people who eat them, but it also amplifies some of the environmental benefits of the organic meat. All those acres of feed that stay chemical-free under organic agriculture don’t need to be planted for grass-fed, though they may be needed for pasture. And, ruminants that eat grass have better digestion and lower methane emissions.

  • Local: Local meat is grown near the place it is consumed, and the designation implies traditional, non-industrial farming, though this isn’t always the case. The benefits of local are as often described in terms of supporting local economies or freshness as they are described in terms of reducing the energy and pollution from transporting meat long distances.

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The question is which, if any, of the above might be that disruptive innovation that will make eating meat sustainable, moving from its current niche to a paradigm shift. Asked differently, do any of these have the qualities that gave Toyota a foothold in the U.S. car market in the 1960s? Compact, unsexy Toyotas were cheap, fuel efficient for the time, and could get you from here to there, so they were good enough for some people who couldn’t afford an overpowered, gas guzzling Ford. Detroit was caught unprepared for the oil shocks of the 1970s, and that gave the little Japanese cars their chance to go from niche to mainstream as buyers’ priorities shifted. Today, Toyota is the biggest car company in the world.

Looking at the organic, grass-fed, local meats above, we won’t find any Toyotas, unless you are looking for a Prius. None of them are cheaper or just good enough, relative to their non-green equivalents. They are all premium products. Organic feed is more expensive and pasture land even more so. Not feeding the animals antibiotics, hormones, or protein-rich industrial feed results in them taking longer to fatten, further increasing the cost. The meat is likely healthier too, and some people can tell the difference. Local meat is generally more expensive, especially if it comes from a small farm. The reduced cost of transporting meat long distances is not enough to make local meat cheaper. These cost differences would be less obvious if the United States and other governments didn’t subsidize so many stages of the meat production process. These subsidies stifle innovation in a fundamental industry and ultimately hurt the meat eating public, the environment, and industry competitiveness.

So if none of these meats are Toyotas, could they be cell phones? Do they allow people who have not had access to meat in the past include it in their diets the way a cell phone lets you make calls even when you are away from home or work? A product doesn’t have to be cheaper to get a foothold if it isn’t competing against anything else. Unfortunately, none of these kinds of meat are available where industrial meat is not, and very few people would not eat meat but for the existence of these preferred varieties.

Neither cell phones nor Toyotas, these green meats are certainly better than industrial, but they aren’t cheap or distinctive enough make a difference in the big picture or the long term, and that's disappointing.

But we left something out. If we ask ourselves what meat does in our diets, we find it is an important source of combined protein, fat, cholesterol, vitamins (especially B-vitamins), and minerals. These nutrients don’t have to come from animals. That same mainstream supermarket in which you may have found the high-priced organic meat probably also carries some of the following:

  • Soy: in the form of tofu, tempeh, pups, tofurkey, and every other form imaginable.

  • Seitan (high protein wheat gluten): in traditional forms as well as those that can resemble duck.

  • Veggie burgers: a mix of all kinds of things in as many varieties but all standing in for the American beef staple.

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Some of these “meat alternatives” (like the traditional tofu, tempeh, and seitan) are Toyotas because meat is a luxury in many parts of the world: For centuries they have been an important part of traditional diets and a cheaper, good-enough nutritional stand-in for meat, or just a regular part of the traditional cuisine. Some (the pups, veggie burgers, and soy nuggets) are like cell phones in countries where meat is very cheap and people are relatively well off, like the United States. They are not a cheaper alternative to hamburgers as they are mainly for people who don't eat meat, but they are gaining popularity as people seek healthier, safer, more humane, and greener alternatives to meat. As they get tastier, more meat-like, cheaper, and more socially acceptable, they can ride these trends to a greater share of United States “meat” consumption like cell phones took over land lines as they got better, lighter, cheaper, and less ostentatious.

However, as shown by the short happy life of Zen Burger (a tasty vegetarian fast food concept that closed a year ago in New York City), it will take more than good intentions to marginalize meat eating among those who can afford to eat it at every meal. Meat substitutes will probably only become a mainstream alternative if the price of meat rises sharply, perhaps as a result of subsidies being scaled back or in the face of an oil-shock-type crisis in water, climate, or food—like recent scares over e. coli or the food price rises attributed to the biofuels boom, but bigger. When something like that happens, the Boca Burgers and Nasoyas of the world will be ready to become the Toyotas of tomorrow.

Michael Keating is an environmentalist and entrepreneur living in Brooklyn, New York.

Illustration by Will Etling.

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