Dan Murphy: Media (Finally) Gets The Message

The media have begun to recognize claims that plant-based burgers will save the planet is a sham. ( . )

After years of echoing the hosannas of alt-meat promoters who claim their plant-based shamburgers will save the planet, the media is starting to embrace a novel concept: reality.

I can understand the temptation to grasp at straws when faced with an existential crisis.

The very scope and scale of the threat presented by global climate disruption, and its potentially devastating impact on agriculture, is at least a partial explanation why media have jumped on livestock producers as one of the key culprits in the crisis, and thus by extension, the elimination of animal foods as a critical component in dealing with the impending dangers posed by droughts, floods and erratic weather patterns driven by the warming of the oceans and the atmosphere.

If only the cause of climate change were so simple as raising livestock, and the solution so straightforward as eliminating meat-eating.

Both of which, by the way, have only a minimal amount of credibility.

Nevertheless, virtually the entire positioning and marketing of the various brands of non-meat “meat” have focused on the idea that if consumers would only abandon their consumption of animal foods in favor of alt-meat products, global warming could be reversed, not to mention the incidence of lifestyle diseases such as heart attacks, cancer and diabetes.

It’s a powerful message, one buttressed by statistics purporting to demonstrate that producing foods in factory settings could be done with an unbelievably smaller carbon footprint.

Unbelievable being the operative word.

One little problem

Now, new research is beginning to cast doubt on the rosy predictions of the alt-meat entrepreneurs. As noted in this space previously, the idea that high-tech food processing, so-called cellular agriculture, can solve the existential threat of climate disruption is suspect on its face.

As is the idea that people, other than diehard vegans, would be thrilled by the idea of totally eliminating meat, poultry and dairy foods from their diets.

The media are beginning to catch on to that reality. From the Gizmodo.com website, certainly no source of conventional wisdom, here’s an example of Issue No. 1: the hype with which alt-meats are being marketed:

“A cadre of Silicon Valley startup founders … are sure [alt-meat] will heal the environmental woes caused by American agriculture while protecting the welfare of farm animals. But these future foods’ promises are hypothetical, with many claims based on a futurist optimism in line with Silicon Valley’s startup culture.”

Issue No. 2 is the notion that lab-grown, plant-based analogs can be manufactured with but a fraction of the inputs — specifically, energy and nutrients — as conventional meat production. As the Gizmodo.com review noted, “there’s just one slight problem.”

According to the findings of an Oxford University study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, “technology alone won’t solve climate change.”

Why? Because the production of alt-meat products typically requires significant amounts of energy, and until somebody invents a new form of energy that doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, nor cause serious environmental impacts in its production and distribution, the business of producing cultured foods in massive, centralized factories isn’t the magic wand its proponents want consumers to believe it might be.

The bottom line is this: Animal husbandry can — and must — continue to become more efficient, more ecologically friendly and less energy-intensive. The business of raising livestock can and must be managed as a solution to the dual challenges of feeding the world and ensuring the sustainability of agriculture.

Meanwhile, let’s stop pretending that alt-meat products are anything other than what the previous generation of vegetarian alternatives have proven to be: a nice complement to traditional dietary choices.

But not the salvation of either people or the planet.

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

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