Dan Murphy: Make-Believe Messaging

Burger King's Impossible Whopper ( Burger King )

Even the most prestigious, high-profile columnist (definitely not talking about yours truly) can whiff when it comes to analyzing the projections surrounding the rise of the alt-meat category.

In baseball, one out of three is considered wildly successful. A Major Leaguer who hits .333 for his career is not only a shoo-in Hall of Famer but would rank in the top 25 in batting average among all baseball players in the last 120 years.

But with commentaries on important, topical subjects — especially ones that enjoy widespread attention — when only one out of the three assertions a columnist makes is accurate, that’s Hall of Shame-worthy.

Such was the case with a recent Wall Street Journal column titled, “Make Believe Meat and the Future.” Now, the WSJ prides itself on the prominence of its commentators, and the author of that piece isn’t lacking in credentials.

That writer of that column is Walter Russell Mead, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College, a Distinguished Fellow in American Strategy and Statesmanship at the Hudson Institute, and WSJ’s Global View columnist.

Despite that résumé, Mr. “Call Me Walter Russell for Short” started out his commentary with a swing and a miss.

“Last weekend I faced up to the 21st century,” he wrote. “I walked into a hamburger emporium and ordered an Impossible Burger with all the trimmings.”

“Hamburger emporium?” Seriously? It’s called Burger King, friend.

Even more off-base, though, was his assertion that Impossible Burger is to be the iconic game-changer of the 21st century. That may be accurate as a milestone of technology, but Mead is citing a mass-produced sandwich sold at drive-thru fast-food restaurants in conjunction with a whole lot of other far less “21st century” in terms of changing the dynamics of food production, dietary choices and global nutritional sufficiency.

To be sure, alt-meat products will carve out a share of stomach among upper-income, more highly educated populations segments, likely displacing conventional hamburgers and other animal foods.

But along with that market share comes some 20th century complications, namely, increasing corporatization of the food supply, concentration of distribution networks and even greater inequities in terms of access to and affordability of the staples on which the majority of people depend in their daily diets.

And talk about being behind the curve in a column ostensibly about predicting the future, Mead served up the following phrase: “shamburgers — as plant-based faux meat burger patties cry out to be called …”

Dude, the term “shamburgers” was coined back when George W. Bush was in the White House.

Visiting his father!

One Out of Three Seems Right

While acknowledging that shamburgers are “no threat to America’s steakhouses,” Mead makes the claim that if “shamburgers (obviously his favorite new word)  become cheap enough to undercut actual ground beef in the fast-food market, these heme-infused patties could have more impact on climate change than the Paris Accords.”

I disagree with that, but whatever accuracy there is in that assertion is more about the toothless nature of the voluntary promises that defined the Paris agreement, rather than any credible projections that alt-meat will be some kind of miracle cure for climate change.

To summarize, buy quoting Med’s summary: “In the end, my shamburger lunch left me with three takeaways. First, capitalism is our best hope to fight climate change. Second, we should expect more global turbulence as the capitalist revolution rolls on. Finally, mustard, ketchup and pickles will be more essential than ever as we struggle to master the challenges ahead.”

He’s right about more global turbulence, although one could argue it’s not due to capitalism taking over the world, but rather, the rise of anti-capitalist, authoritarian regimes in Russia and China. But hoping capitalism will solve climate change? Capitalism is the cause of climate change.

And hoping that shamburgers will be the superstar that reverses the interrelated challenges involving energy sourcing, resource scarcity and food security that are truly going to be Mead’s welcome to the 21st century is akin to hoping that a fast-food diet won’t cause any health problems, no matter how many shamburgers one consumes.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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