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The Impossible Burger: Industrialisation & Food Sustainability – A Paradox?

Vandana Shiva, an Indian scholar and environmental activist, is a leading and well-respected food sovereignty advocate. In a recent article for the Ecologist, entitled ‘The Industrialisation of Fake Food’ she argues that industrial food systems have reduced food to a commodity, to ‘stuff’ that can be then reconstituted in a lab which is bad for our health and the health of the planet. At the end of her article she calls for a boycott of the Impossible Burger, a burger made from 100% plants, arguing for us all to ‘make tofu and cook dal’. In response, Impossible Foods, the creators of the phenomenally successful Impossible Burger, issued their own rebuttal within the Ecologist, entitled ‘ The Impossible Response’. In it, they argue that activism alone has not dented consumption of industrially produced meat and that they are welcoming and catering to the needs of consumers who are omnivores, who like the taste and texture of meat and who would prefer to eat meat made from plants rather than animals.

Herein lies the dilemma, is it our industrial food systems that drives unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, or do industrial food systems provide the solutions, through the provision of more plant-based products for example, catering to the changing needs and tastes of the consumer? The answer I believe, is both.

Both Vandana Shiva and Impossible Foods want the same end goal – for all of us to eat more plants. Both state they want to’ improve human health and the health of the planet’ and yet, they advocate very different paths, in terms of how to get there. Like Vandana Shiva and many others, I believe that our ‘productivist’ model is broken and we need to move towards a food systems that focusses on re-building ecosystems health through agroecological or regenerative practices, for example. We need to restore human and ecological health and ensure we re-empower citizens so that they become the beating heart of our food system. This requires more localisation of food systems and a move away from a system where a few dominate 6-8 globally traded crops that provide 60% of global calories. It will require radical new models.

At the same time, I recognise that to move from an industrial model to one based on agroecology, diversity and citizen centred decision making, will not happen immediately. Many of us live in parts of the developed world industrial systems dominate with power and influence concentrated in the hands of a few. To effect change in the short term we have to work with innovators within the industrial system and those who seek to disrupt it in the medium to long term. The urgency of the challenges means it is essential to take this dual approach.

Both articles fail to recognise the differences between food cultures and the values that underpin these. Vanda Shiva mentions the importance of recognising the diversity of food cultures and yet  states ‘I had thought that the plant based diet was for vegans and vegetarians, not meat lovers’ thereby dismissing  the many cultures who focus on omnivorous diet or those who want to moderate consumption, often spurred by a host of genuine health, sustainability and animal welfare motives. At the same time, Impossible Foods fail to mention ‘food culture’ at all. An Impossible Burger may have sustainability benefits to those who want to reduce or eliminate meat in parts of the West, but should not be foisted on other parts of the world, that don’t want or need it. There is a danger of a new ‘imperialism’ and the reduction of choice and diversity where eating nuts, lentils wholegrains, fresh produce and fruits are the best thing to eat from a health and sustainability perspective.  Impossible Foods reliance on genetically modified soy for the Impossible Burger and its reliance on an industrially produced monoculture crop is also problematic and could prove to be the companies achilles heal to long term expanison plans, particularly in continents such as Europe, unless non GMO alternatives can be found.

As we see more and more plant based products enter the market in the coming years, expect to see much more debate and argument on the industrialisation of plant based products.  Its a debate that needs to happen to ensure that the protaganists understand and can respond to the unattended consequences of their positions.

For more information on a related blogs see the article on 6 plant based innovation trends for 2019  and Forgotten Crops.

A day after the publication of this blog an additional spat between Impossible Foods and the Regenerative agriculture sector emerged in a Civil Eats publication here.