A Note from the Founder
As the founder of Soul Burger, a restaurant that aims to showcase the brilliance of plant-based meat alternatives in burger form, it’s incumbent upon me to respond to the recent FairFax Media article (click the link to read it) on plant-based meats. Let’s just say I had to take some deep breaths after reading it. To avoid writing a full blown essay, I am just going to take two of the gems from the article and respond.
GEM 1: “Popular Mexican food chain Guzman y Gomez is bucking the national trend and vowing never to offer fake meat on the menu. “First of all, I think it’s disgusting,” founder Stephen Marks said. (boldness and italics is my emphasis).
This quote took me aback. Apparently cleanly processing soy beans, mushrooms and pea protein into meat alternatives is disgusting?
Speaking of disgusting, let’s talk about the modern day broiler chicken industry (Which supplies virtually every single fast food premises that serves chicken – “free range” or not).
Whilst some chains, like GYG, use FREPA (Free Range Accredited) Chickens, it’s important to note FREPA is *incrementally* more ethical than generically factory farmed chickens. If factory farming chickens is 10/10 on a scale of cruelty, our commercial free range industry is 8.5/10. That 1.5/10 improvement matters a lot for the baby birds in the system, it’s better than the status quo, but not by much, and let’s not pretend this is any kind of a solution. The commercial “free range” broiler chicken industry has cruelty baked into the business model.
1. 23 hours of continuous light in their sheds for <7 days old birds to speed up their growth (Same as factory farms).
2. An indoor stocking density of *15* chickens per square metre (Factory farms allow for 20)
3. No requirement of environmental enrichments such as perching or pecking objects (Same as factory farms).
The pic below is that of an industrial “meat” chicken (known as broiler chicken) collapsing under its own weight. These broiler chickens can be used in FREPA farms. Pic is from Animals Australia.
Importantly, FREPA farms still tend to use the same “broiler” breed of chicken. And this is the saddest part –
The modern broiler chicken is a human designed, selectively bred, Frankenstein bird. And I say this with nothing but sheer empathy for these poor baby birds who’ve been hideously “designed” for maximum efficiency and profit. The modern broiler bird has been selectively bred since the 1950s to grow *so fast* that researchers from the University of Arkansan declared if a human newborn baby born at 3kg grew at the same rate of the modern broiler chicken it would weigh 300KG after 2 months….
Why is this atrocious, morally reprehensible and possibly the worst iteration of “capitalism at all costs” ever known?
Because these poor baby birds, at just 6 weeks of age, have breasts so large (due to the sheer demand for constant chicken breast) their legs often break being unable to take the weight. A 2008 study found that 33% of all broiler chickens had movement impairments, with 3.3% declared lame altogether. Meaning, out of an industrial shed of 50000 chickens, about 1650 will literally not be able to move, live in their own faeces, suffer terribly from lameness and cardio-respiratory problems, and eventually die where they are. In fact it is so bad, that many farmers consider it a welfare obligation to kill these “lame” birds prematurely to avoid suffering.
Broiler chickens are now so “unnatural”, that the RSPCA doesn’t even require them to have access to outdoor areas as so many are not even interested anymore. They have had their natural desire to roam, literally, “bred” out of them. Imagine breeding a dog that is so overweight by 6 weeks of age, it has no real desire to go for walks or be active. We’d rightly call this animal abuse and disallow the breeding of such a dog to occur.
How Mr Marks considers plant-based chicken alternatives “disgusting”, and the intensive chicken industry, which GYG is dependent upon, presumably “not digusting” is beyond me. Has he actually visited the slaughter houses where the chicken in GYG burritos come from (note – slaughter houses have their own vast amount of moral problems)? Has he investigated the enormous industrial facilities where baby chickens spend their deplorable lives? Does he realise the life cycle of the modern broiler chicken, which makes up more than 90% of all chickens used in food (including free range), is now just 6 weeks of age before slaughter (the natural chicken ancestor lives up to 10 years)?
How is *this* not disgusting? Due to the never-ending quest for efficiency, chicken breast cuts and cheaper chicken, our society has created a bird which perpetually suffers, has very little desire to move, suffers from numerous health conditions and is destined to live for 6 weeks. This has nothing to do with Old Macdonald and his small scale farm. This is not natural in any sense of the word.
GYG previously declared they wanted to “fix fast food” due to the cruelty involved in meat production. Well, in my opinion, if they really want to, they need to sell less (or no) meat. And if they do sell meat, they need to source it from suppliers like Feather and Bone or those with Humane Choice Accreditation, but now we’re talking seriously expensive burritos and this is where the problem lies. The economics for small-scale farms and genuinely higher-welfare farming just doesn’t stack up with $8 burritos. I believe this, by the way, because I *did this*. Prior to being wholly plant-based, Soul Burger was a flexitarian restaurant in 2015. I sourced genuinely higher welfare meat. For example, we paid $33.5/kg wholesale for Melanda Park Bacon because the were genuinely raised on pasture. We lost enormous amounts of money and I still couldn’t reconcile the reality of slaughterhouses and the fact that these genuinely well-cared for animals would be killed for food. (Hence why we transitioned to being wholly vegan in December of 2015).
And this is where plant-based meat alternatives come in. We know most people (including vegans!) love the taste of meat. And this is why we try to provide the experience and satiation of meat, sans the mass cruelty involved.
To be fair, this is not a Steve Marks or GYG Problem (he just happened to publicly say what he said under the GYG banner). This is *any* restaurant that sells chicken in any sort of commercial capacity. It is a problem I’m truly confident our children’s’ children will look back upon with sheer disbelief that their cute, cuddly old grandparents actively participated in.
Encouragingly, and importantly, the vast majority of restaurants are putting more and more plant-based meat options on the menu. Thankfully most don’t and won’t follow Steve Marks’ lead in declaring plant-based meat “disgusting”.
PS. I’ve just superficially described *one* part of *one* problem of *one* aspect of the intensive animal agricultural industry. There is so much to learn in how our modern food system impacts animal welfare, our environment, our food security, our biodiversity, global hunger and human rights abroad.
GEM 2: From the article: “And even the climate-friendly credentials of meat alternatives, a big selling point with Millennial consumers, are under a cloud.”…However, Springmann says the better alternative is vegetables with meatless meat having an emissions footprint that’s roughly five times higher compared to unprocessed vegetable products.” (boldness and italics is my emphasis).
Okay, let’s avoid any more essays and just keep this one short… So who on gods green earth claimed plant-based meats have an emissions footprints less than raw vegetables?… This is truly the mother of all proverbial strawmen. I’ve honestly never heard *anyone* advocating for plant-based proteins claim this.
This argument is akin to someone saying “Yes, I get that Electric Vehicles and Public Transport is much better for the environment than gas-guzzling SUVs, BUT, did you know that walking is even more efficient?”
Err…yes we did, friend. But the point is, people really like travelling long distances in a short amount of time. And hence, the innovation we require, is in reducing the emissions of said transportation. Trying to convince 7 billion humans to give up travelling more than 1km at a time is not going to work.
Now use this analogy for meat and we should quickly realise why using raw vegetables as a comparison to plant-based meat alternatives is an absurd way to argue against their sustainability credentials.
The problem plant-based meats want to solve is around meat consumption. Meat is baked in our DNA. Almost every culture across every time period has eaten animals. It is part of our tradition, culture, religions, life styles and so on. This is why working with peoples’ preferences is *so important*. How do we give people the experience of meat without contributing to the dizzying array of morally reprehensible problems? This is why plant-based meats exist.
As a consumer, supporting and buying from wholly plant-based restaurants/manufacturers/distributors is incredibly important. Our colleagues in the plant-based food industry are not our competitors. We don’t aim to fight for 2% of the customer pie. This is barely an impact. We wish to grow the pie, and multiply the impact.
Brands/Companies in our industry actively turn their backs on meat profits because we’ve decided we cannot participate in the animal ag industry. If you care about the plant-based movement growing, support us! Support Lord of the Fries. Support Vandals. Support Moo Free Burgers. Support Green Lion and Vegan Lebanese. Support the Vegan Grocery Store, Vegan Perfection, PANA, Alternative Meat Co, V2, Veef, Flave, Fable, Soulara, and every other plant-based company. We can’t subsidise our plant-based food and higher costs with meat products. This isn’t just a “market” for us. We believe in this and truly give a shit.
The better we do as an industry, the more powerful the argument becomes for large incumbents like MacDonalds, Grill’d and Hungry Jacks to range more plant-based proteins.
And the more plant-based proteins there are, the less disgusting and more sustainable our food industry becomes. If you believe (like we do) that humanity’s obsession for the taste of meat will forever endure, then the change to our food system truly lives or dies with this industry.
Founder of Soul Burger (formerly a meat restaurant until we reconciled with the irrefutable reality of industrial animal ag industry).
Disclaimer: This op-ed is not intended to defame FairFax Media, FREPA, GYG, Mr Marks, Mr Springmann or anybody else. It’s designed to put forth the opinion of the author in response to the article and its claims above. Please research all the facts yourself before drawing conclusions.