Why a beefless Burger King Whopper is cause for excitement

Beefless meat enters the mainstream.

  • Burger King is testing its first major foray into the field of beefless patties.
  • On top of plant-based meats, cellular agriculture — or "cell-ag" — can also yield animal-free patties.
  • A new report lists 90 reasons that cell-ag holds a lot of promise.

Burger King has just announced they're testing a new version of their Whopper that's completely free of actual beef, in 59 locations around St. Louis. Not that even Whopper devotees can tell the difference, according to reports. It's called the "Impossible Whopper." (Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat burgers are already available in grocery stores.)

The food chain isn't the first to offer a lab-grown patty option, but Burger King's announcement is a very big deal. While the new Whopper's currently in testing, if it becomes available at its 7,200 restaurants, it means millions of consumers will be introduced to an animal cruelty-free meat option that's every bit as satisfying as traditional fare.

For those concerned about their health, climate change, and animal rights, there might be no turning back.

The Impossible Taste Test | Impossible Whopper

Burger King conducted an experiment to evaluate how well Whopper fans know their beloved Whopper.

Welcome to cellular agriculture

While the Impossible Whopper and other alternative "meats" are a beginning, researchers are also looking further down the road to animal-product alternatives constructed at the cellular level that don't even require plant matter as current options do.

Enter "Cellular Agriculture," or "Cell-ag," a new form of food and clothing production that results in food and clothing products indistinguishable from traditional offerings without the necessity of raising — and killing — a live animal, or even a plant. A report explaining what this could mean has just been released. It's called 90 Reasons to Consider Cellular Agriculture.

As author Kristopher Gasteratos notes in the report's introduction, modern animal husbandry is no longer the industry we've known for thousands of years: "While animal products have been incredibly positive for society over multiple generations, today they are proving more destructive than beneficial with the rise of factory farming." Gasteratos is a researcher at Harvard and founder of the Cellular Agriculture Society.

The report's cumulative effect is overwhelming: 90 good reasons is a lot of good reasons. They're arranged in categories: Health, Environment, Human & Animal Rights, and Business and Economics. Here's a brief summary of each.

Image source: Cellular Agriculture Society

The health case

This section contains, among other things, a list of the things we won't get from lab-grown cell-ag foods, including:

  • pathogens such as Salmonella and E. Coli
  • fecal contamination
  • meat and seafood growth hormones
  • mad-cow disease prions
  • botulism
  • swine and avian flu, and other illnesses
  • plastic particles in "seafood"
  • mercury in "seafood"
  • animal-production antibiotics that accelerate the development of resistant superbugs

Cell-ag also looks to promote greater food production stability and predictability, and can scale to help feed the planet's growing population. Their contaminant-free growing environment gives cell-ag foods a longer shelf life. Critical shortages can be more efficiently addresses after disasters, and famines can be avoided, and geographically independent production solves current supply issues in areas that struggle to import food.

Image source: Brooke Becker / Shutterstock

The environment case

Land use

We know that the extensive land-use requirements of animal-based products are among the main drivers of climate change. For some animals, it's an issue of grazing land. For others, such as seafood, it's processing.

Here's how much less land Gasteratos estimates we'll use after switching to cell-ag:

  • cattle — 99%
  • dairy — 97%
  • poultry — 66%
  • pigs — 82%
  • seafood — 55%
  • land overall — 80%

Water

It's much the same story with water use:

  • cattle — 98%
  • dairy — 99.6%
  • poultry — 92%
  • pigs — -95%
  • seafood — 86%
  • water overall — 94%

Greenhouse gasses

Here's the reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) an industrial switch to cell-ag may produce:

  • cattle — 96%
  • dairy — 65%
  • poultry — 74%
  • pigs — 85%
  • seafood — 59%
  • GHG overall — 76%

General environmental benefits

Production and food and clothing animals is dirty work, and there's a long list of pollutants it generates, all of which may be avoided by cell-ag: land and ocean animal waste, production chemicals that create dead zones, and plastic pollution from the fishing industry among them.

In addition to resulting in less deforestation, cell-ag promises less ocean habitat destruction from bottom-trawling, and an overall reduced need for energy in food production.

Cattle farming is a key driver of deforestation in Brazil. Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Image source: CIFOR

The animal and human rights case

Well, obviously, cell-ag could bring about the end of killing countless cows, pigs, chickens, and seafood and so on. Not to mention the elimination of the often inhumane conditions, particularly in factory farming, in which production animals spend their short lives.

You might not think at first there's much of a human-rights issue in food production, but there are several, and they're serious. Factory farming and food processing operations can be brutal places to work. Factory farm workers, says the report, are at higher risk for amputations, tannery workers are regularly exposed to carcinogenic chemicals, and the seafood industry exploits cheap and slave labor for catching fish.

In the U.S., there's also environmental racism that cell-ag could end, with food-production facilities exposing poorer — often black — neighborhoods to dangerous runoff and sprayed chemicals.

Pig farm fecal waste being sent airborne on the edge of a residential community

(SpeciesismTheMovie)

Pig farm fecal waste being sent airborne on the edge of a residential community

The business and economics case

In addition to the dawning of a new industry with lots of new jobs, the rise of cell-ag has other positive economic benefits as well.

A food supply that's independent of weather conditions cannot only be a boon in the climate-change era, but the same foods — being grown indoors — can become available in any area, regardless of local climate.

Because cell-ag is more predictable and controllable than traditional agriculture, it affords not only greater quality consistency, but also greater financial predictability. Cell-ag can reduce the uncertainties faced today by today's growers, and help avoid the need for the many subsidies and bailouts currently required for both over- and under-production, saving taxpayers money. Even growers' neighbors benefit once farming stops lowering the value of their own homes.

Cruelty-free products may also become valued premium products for which premium prices may be asked.

Image source: Aaron Weiss / Shutterstock

Would you like a better life with that Whopper?

Gasteratos is undoubtedly personally invested in cell-ag, and so the report paints a decidedly rosy picture of its benefits. Even so, you wouldn't think a new burger lunch option could make such a drastic difference in the world. 90 Reasons to Consider Cellular Agriculture may convince you it can.

Update Tuesday, April 16, 2019: The original headline for this post referred to the Impossible Whopper as being "lab-grown," which is technically true. The plant-based burger was developed in a lab. However, a number of our readers felt the headline suggested the burger was the product of cell-ag, which it is not. To avoid any further confusion, we've changed the headline.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.