I have never owned a cow. So when I heard that the meat industry was marketing itself as a “value-added industry” that rewards workers for conservation efforts on the land, I tried to take it in, but was disappointed. It was like being sold a car that drove itself and left the mechanic cleaning its grime and engine. A car, that I could envision driving itself.
In the States, I don’t expect to see a plant-based burger on any supermarket meat counters for a very long time. Most people still have an image of a meat-eating person as a middle-aged white guy who lives in rural America with a wife, kids, or a rural farm in the background. But the truth is, it is getting rarer to find pictures of that image on the street, and the picture of the future is the mix of many people.
Having just moved to the South, I know a bunch of locals who raise cattle, raise chickens, work at farms, and share a picture of the potential of a rapidly growing shared economy. Less shareable images are the images of labor-intensive animal agriculture and workers in general, animals and farm animals, and meat manufacturers and the workers they employ. When I saw the ads for the nongenetically modified meat companies and other GMO foods, I thought, “Hey, they mean it. They’re trying.” So when the latest ads for plant-based products arrived, I felt they weren’t totally meaningless — they had been made to be.
“Animal factory farming” is a lot of things, but it’s hardly associated with “altruism” — I mean, aren’t we all just basically greedy and aimless? But if you look at it in terms of the ethos of our times, and think about global hunger and the actual fulfillment of human aspiration, the call for today’s meat-producing companies to take up that environmental, social, and economic burden has a certain poetic luster.
One of the startups making this call is Beyond Meat, which is from the company of an Oregon dad who used to drive his kids to and from school in an old Jeep in the middle of the road. The idea is that feeding your meat products on low-nutrient grain instead of farmland avoids the necessity of creating new farmland. And it reduces animal suffering, energy consumption, and greenhouse-gas emissions.
The founders say they have already made a change in the company’s product, and that it helps the ethical sensibilities of people who will consume the meat. Vegan viewers will even learn how the grass that provides the feed for the animals that become the meat and skin is raised.
“Everybody is so wrapped up in their personal guilt that there is this tendency to sort of tune it out,” says Alissa Pemberton, Beyond Meat’s executive vice president of operations. “We didn’t really talk about what this business will mean for ethical practices.”
The company’s cafeteria food is now delivered in an all-vegan-only food truck (or in a small storefront in the greater Portland area). The truck is also custom-branded with a large messaging sign that reads “Humanely raised. Grown without a need for aggressive livestock operations. GMO or not.”
The food truck idea came from the chef who oversees the trucks, Jamie Miller, who was developing recipes for a vegan restaurant and realized that creating a van-sized production kitchen with the kinds of ventilation needed to let noxious fumes escape without affecting people would cost way too much. The E-Bird truck delivers ground-cage-free and a burger-based product, which is essentially an entirely plant-based patty similar to a veggie patty. The food is delivered by boat — the S&S bus is a recent design collaboration with Berkeley designer Satil Naik and can travel at up to 11 knots. (It gets around 16 knots right now.)
Many of the products are easy to see are fresh and cold-pressed — no emphasis on heat production and no processing. Some of the labels are fun, like the one for No Cruelty-Free, which went through a line of names before they realized it sounded more like an extreme sport.
There’s also the experience they’re trying to develop — branding itself as inclusive to all types of people who eat meat.
“The challenge is to build from this data science to figure out how to convey the core idea,” Pemberton says.
Creating a path toward a shareable and inclusive meat industry might seem trivial, even too easily acknowledged