Can You Have Your Meat and Eat It Too?

When I was young, there was a saying that was often used to describe someone who wanted to do two incompatible things simultaneously: “She wants to have her cake and eat it too!” The moral of the saying was that we often have to make difficult choices: we can’t preserve our cakes, and have the pleasure of eating them as well, but must do one thing or the other.

I recently read a fascinating article about the development and marketing of the Impossible Burger, a bioengineered plant-based meat substitute, which made me think of this saying. Pat Brown, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, “intends to wipe out all animal agriculture and deep-sea fishing by 2035” by making many kinds of “meat” from plant-based products. The premise on which the Impossible Burger is based is that we can enjoy the taste of meat without animal cruelty and in a way that is good for the environment: we will be able to have our meat and eat it too.

Impossible Whopper. (Photo by Sarah Stierch, CC BY 4.0 Missvain / CC BY

Impossible Whopper. (Photo by Sarah Stierch,  CC BY 4.0)

Brown’s motivation seems to be primarily to do something good for the environment. Producing meat is undeniably, even terrifyingly, bad for the environment. The article states that agriculture “consumes more freshwater than any other activity, and nearly a third of that water is devoted to raising livestock.” In addition, “one third of the world’s arable land is used to grow food for livestock, which are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Razing forests to graze cattle — an area larger than South America has been cleared in the last quarter century — turns a carbon sink into a carbon spigot.”

I have not tried an Impossible Burger (yet), but it sounds intriguing, if not delicious: it contains a form of genetically modified yeast called heme, which gives it a “beefy” flavor, making it vegetarian food that can be enjoyed by die-hard meat eaters. In fact, the Impossible Foods company has been so successful in creating a beef substitute that many people can’t tell the difference between an Impossible Burger, and an old-fashioned, beef-based one. Moreover, the Impossible Burger “requires eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six percent less land than a cowburger.” What’s not to like?

While I admire the ingenuity that went into creating the Impossible Burger, I have to admit that it nonetheless makes me feel vaguely ethically queasy. I trace these feelings of discomfort to two primary sources. First, do we really want to eat bioengineered food? And, second, is this kind of food really the solution to the environmental ills that ail us?


First, while the environmental footprint of the Impossible Burger sounds almost miraculously good when compared to the environmental footprint that results from raising animals for meat, there is, to my mind, something strangely unappetizing about the Impossible Burger. The description of how it is actually made can actually make one feel slightly ill – although not as ill, perhaps, as learning about what goes into the production of real meat.

Its ingredients begin in a microbiology lab, and its production requires the aforementioned genetically modified yeast, to which a “snippit” of soy DNA is added. As Friend describes it, heme sounds quite unappetizing: “Yeast is usually white, Impossible’s yeast, made in fifty-gallon tanks, the foamy red of cocktail sauce.” Heme allows the Impossible Burger to taste a lot like real beef, and also to be pink in the middle after cooking, so that the burger mimics the blood found in actual meat.

Local produce, CB Food Hub

Local produce, Cape Breton Food Hub (Source: YouTube )

That it’s made from genetically-modified ingredients grown in huge tanks means the Impossible Burger is a bioengineered food, something produced in the lab rather than grown on a farm. As such, its creation and consumption seem to be at odds with another current trend, that of producing and eating organic, locally-grown food, some of which is created from heirloom varieties.

I signed up for an organic food box last summer, which was filled, every week, with a variety of in-season delicious vegetables that were grown locally. Personally, I would rather eat natural food like this (and even local, grass-fed beef) than bioengineered products made from genetically modified yeast. Indeed, the kind of thinking that underlies Impossible Food’s projects seems to be the antithesis of the idea that it would be better for us and for our environment if we ate food that is locally produced.

Second, it seems pretty clear that, if we are really to come to grips with what we are doing to the environment, we need to do a lot more than replace real meat burgers with plant-based, bioengineered ones. The places where meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger have been most successful so far is at fast food chains like Burger King. However, food chains like these are quite costly to the environment. The food they serve comes in lots of packaging, and is often sold through drive-through windows. What I suspect will happen is that meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger will allow us to feel virtuous about our eating choices without requiring us to make the kinds of radical changes in our lives that we need to make if we are really to help the environment.

In short, the Impossible Burger, for all its merits, seems predicated on the deceptive idea that we can have our meat and eat it to: continue to live in the way that we do, and save the world at the same time.

For more on “impossible” foods, see the Spectator’s interview on the subject with Michael Milburn.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native
Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.