The Impossible Burger - the clue is in the name

The Impossible Burger - the clue is in the name

If there's one thing that disgusts me more than environmental damage and animal cruelty, it's the processed food industry taking advantage of these things to feed us rubbish and sell it as a solution to our problems, at an inflated price. This week Joanna Blythman delved into the ingredients list of The Impossible Burger to try to work out exactly what it was made of. And that got me thinking, what if we decided to do the Impossible here at Rosewood Farm?

Quote by Joanna Blythman; 'I'd have absolutely no chance of tracing the origins or uncovering any substantitive detail on the assiduously guarded production methods behind its utterly anonymous components'

The Impossible Burger proudly claims, on its website, to be better for the environment because it 'uses 95% less land' than beef. So based upon that 'fact', we've crunched the numbers for our business and realised we could produce the same amount of ‘meat’ as we do now, on just 30 acres! Sounds pretty brilliant eh? Of course, we’d sooner give up meat than abandon the wildlife on some of the most diverse pastures in the country here at Rosewood so the cows (or other more appropriate grazing animals if you wish) would have to stay to graze the nature reserve and retain the boost we’ve seen in biodiversity.

There's only one ingredient in Rosewood burgers - grassfed beef!
There's only one ingredient in Rosewood burgers - grassfed beef!

Things started crumbling for the new Impossible Burger plan when we looked at another of their ‘facts’ though - that the Impossible Burger produces 13% of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) of beef. On 5% of the land. 13% of the emissions, on 5% of the land. So actually, more than double the GHGs of beef production per acre. Add the 95% of GHG emissions still being caused by the cows or wild ruminants which encroached to fill the grazing niche created by the lack of cows, and we have an EXTRA 8% of GHGs being produced. We’ll pass, thanks.

This reminds me of two commonly reported benefits of the world turning to plant crops as our only food source - 1) the reduction of greenhouses gas emissions and 2) global food security. Apparently, according to UN figures farming animals produces 14.5% of all human related emissions which we could eliminate if we just ate the food we feed to animals directly to humans instead. It seems simple - less animals = less greenhouse gasses, right? Wrong.

As Mottet et al discovered, 86% of livestock feeds are not suitable for human consumption at all, leaving a modest 14% that could feed people. Livestock are in fact utilising the waste from human-direct crop production and turning it into human edible food for us. The irony of so many emerging meat & dairy alternative products is that they create by-products that are fed to intensively reared livestock. Copra meal from coconut milk, soya hulls from vegetable oils, almond husks, the list goes on, are all sold back to the meat & dairy industry. I wonder how many people buying these products actually realise that they are subsiding the feed costs of the very industry they usually wish to avoid supporting?

The UN/FAO are tired of being misquoted on this issue, too:

As a farmer, it has always puzzled me as to why anyone would think that it is financially attractive for us to feed animals on crops that we could sell direct to humans.

Livestock don’t currently utilise the waste of livestock production in the UK as they do for crop production - we aren’t feeding butchery trimmings back to pigs and chickens, let alone cows and sheep (thank goodness). Instead, the waste from livestock production makes things like fat/tallow, which goes into our cosmetics and toiletries to name but one use. In crops, the oil we’d make soap out of is the product and generates waste itself, (up to 79% in the case of soy). In livestock, the food is the product and the oil is just the ‘waste’. Cows are really cool that way.

Another Impossible fact that just doesn’t add up is water use. In their recent film Stella McCartney claimed that it takes 2350 litres of fresh water to produce a single beef burger. The reason they attribute so much water to a single burger is that this includes all the water that falls, as rain, on the land that animals inhabit. It doesn’t matter if the water is ‘used’ to grow the crops, drunk by wildlife, is stored in the soil or flows straight into a reservoir, it’s still attributed to beef. Because The Impossible Burger uses less land it is deemed to be ‘responsible’ for less water, even though the water continues to fall on the vacant land. To calculate it in this way has severe implications for the water footprint of our beef, as our fields can be covered with six feet of floodwater in winter!

If we take out the water that remains on the land though, maybe drinking & processing water is still too much? Here at Rosewood we’re charged £1.27 per 1,000 litres by Yorkshire Water which, according to the McCartney figure, would mean each burger would cost us £2.98 in water consumption alone, and we’d only be able to produce 30kg of beef. Given that we sell our burgers for £1.20 each that would represent a net loss of £1.78 for every single one, just in water - that really would be an impossible burger!

In reality we produce much more than just beef burgers here at Rosewood, but let’s assume we didn’t, for the sake of simplicity. At current production levels the entirety of our water supply, including all the water we use domestically, amounts to 60 litres per burger or 1/40th of the amount claimed. At less than 8p per burger that sounds like a much more realistic figure.

Floodplain beef production & floodwater storage go hand-in-hand
Floodplain beef production & floodwater storage go hand-in-hand

Yet again the eco- friendly claims of the Impossible Burger all get a bit muddled, because it uses 74% less water than beef on only 5% of the land this means the Impossible burger has a water footprint 5 times that of beef. Price is important to us at Rosewood - a product can be the most sustainable thing mankind has ever seen but unless most of us can afford it, it’s a waste of space. We price match with supermarkets, thanks to our efficient system which grows cows purely on old pasture that can’t be used to grow crops on, and no middlemen. We had struggled to work out why Impossible Burgers cost, in their own words ‘as much as a high end beef burger’, given they are so supposed to be much more efficient to produce, but if they use five times as much water this might go some way to explaining it.

We’re not sure what kind of profit margin this ‘cost of a high end burger’ leaves for the Impossible Burger company, but we’re a bit worried if it’s a good one. Because that 95% of vacated land starts looking highly vulnerable if it is. What would stop unscrupulous corporations swooping in and serving Impossible Burgers at a vast profit to as many human beings as we could breed to eat them? Not much. If we converted more than 20% of this land to Impossible Burger production, given the 5x higher water footprint, we’d run out of water altogether. And if all of the land was used, we’d be producing an extra 8% GHGs for our troubles.

Luckily, we don’t need to convert to Impossible Burger production. While we do graze a large area of land with our cattle, the time they spend on any given patch of ground is relatively small, ranging from 2-14 days per year. So, in terms of land use over time, Rosewood rotational cattle grazing only uses the land for 3.8% of the time at most, even beating The Impossible Burger’s 5%, with just 20% of its water footprint and 8% less GHGs…

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