Will Meatless Meat Save Us?

Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have made their media debut and are deep in the marketing plans for their publicity campaign. Their products are now available at fast food restaurants and coming soon to as many food-product streams as possible. Venture capital firms are bullish on the companies and the financial outlook in the press is positive. While meatless meat is the latest in processed foods to be offered to the consumer, the products, like their predecessors, follow the arc of other highly-processed food products rigorously marketed to a skeptical audience.

The marketing departments of these meatless meats are pursuing two sales pitches to woo us to their savory offerings. The first pitch is for human health, complete with a set of points of how this product is better for the human body than the meat it is replacing. They are arguing that meatless meat is the healthy choice. The second pitch is a series of arguments about climate change and degradation of the environment, and how these products benefit the planet. Their pitch is that each of us can help save the planet from ourselves by choosing meatless meat. Between the two arenas of argument stands the acclamation: they are tasty, and they taste like the meat these products are replacing; therefore, you should eat them.

The first pitch takes a page from the Heart Association, removing red meat from the human diet promotes better health. The heart and the rest of the circulatory system benefits from the removal of large quantities of animal fats in any given diet is a true, evidence based statement. These meatless meats do meet this healthier heart criterion by removing animal fats. However, these products are still higher calorie foods than grains and vegetables. They are not necessarily healthier either. The complex composition of these food products provokes other issues of human health.

These meatless meats are highly-processed, which is only a descriptive term. No scientific consensus exists on the definition of a processed food. Pasteurized milk is processed, and ultra-pasteurized (UHT) milk is highly-processed; however, the comparison between the two milks is like night and day. Pasteurized milk is heated to 212oF (100oC) until the harmful bacteria and enzymes, the pathogens, are killed. The milk is chilled and ready for consumption. Due to the application of minor heat, there are only minor changes to the nutritional quality.

Ultra-pasteurized milk is sterile milk. The milk is heated beyond boiling to 275oF (135oC) and has a burnt taste. Chemicals, including msg, are added to give the milk flavor and to mask the burnt taste. Vitamins and minerals must be added to the product as well to reproduce nutritional benefits that were destroyed by the major heat. Packaged in sterile containers, UHT milk has a typical unrefrigerated shelf life of six to nine months. All the ultra-pasteurized dairy products go through the same thorough process.

The lack of definitions of mildly processed, processed, and highly-processed is exploited by the food industry. Food producers are legally allowed to market their products as they wish, and the FDA boundaries are few. Companies trot out food scientists who will go on the record saying without a definition of processed food, no one can determine when a food is processed beyond its original state. After all, eggplant must be cooked in order to be edible. From a specific legal standing, manufacturers of highly-processed food products can claim that their foods are healthy. In every other reasonable context, the claim is ambiguous.

This ambiguity is what the meatless meat companies exploit as well. Yes, the meatless meat is processed, but so is milk and eggplant. Who is to say what product is highly-processed? Besides, the FDA approved the food product for human consumption, which means the food cannot hurt you.

Except, long term food studies on ingredient safety do not exist and even if someone were willing to pay for such a study, how would the researcher compensate for the variables of the other 20,000 different botanical and animal foods humans consume. Such data is impossible to collect and even if it were, what human would want to be constrained to such a limited diet for years? The safety testing is limited and instead of adding caution because of the limits, food companies fill the vacuum with positive marketing campaigns.

All the debate over what is processed food deliberately ignores one inescapable element of food. Vitamins and minerals in our fruits and vegetables do not present as discreet components of food. The essential elements for human health are integrated into other components, other chemicals, which help with the absorption of vitamins and minerals in our gut. These other chemicals help with digestion, providing bridges and catalysts that promote absorption. The publication of added fortified vitamins and minerals are listed on the side of the cereal box, does not confirm that the body absorbs any of them by consuming the food product in the box. The more processing, the less likelihood of absorption takes place, because most of the helpful bridge and catalyst chemicals are not present.

Whether these meatless products are healthy for you is still subject to confirmation. They are healthier in one area, no animal fat. Beef is more than fat though, giving us the essential nutrients from the muscle tissue. The more processed a product is, the more “empty calories” devoid of essential nutrients we consume. While the human digestive system digests beef efficiently, the gastrointestinal tract tends to react to artificial ingredients, creating side effects such as gastric distress. The FDA can confirm the food product will not kill you on a short-term basis, but agency’s confirmation does not verify that the product is good for you.

In the end, the consumer is left to decide with a paucity of evidence whether or not to eat highly-processed food products. While the food industry can spin the lack of evidence as a “not bad thing,” the long-term health of your physical body is what is at stake. No one knows the outcome of those stakes.

The second arena, climate change and the environment, is easier to parse as a benefit.

Cattle and their beef on one side and the environment and climate change on the other conflict in surprising ways. The raising of cattle from birth to the slaughterhouse and onto the wrapped packages in your grocery bag accounts for 25 percent of the greenhouse gases in the United States every year. Huge swathes of land are necessary to raise cattle to adulthood and these lands are not used sustainably because of the monoculture ranching business model. Large herds of cattle degrade the soil and the flora because the other natural systems that would complement bovine herds are gone. The contribution of carbon to the atmosphere from cows is far more than the intestinal gases emitted from both ends of the cow, although bovine methane is a recognized contributor. The feedlots at the end of a cow’s life are another ethical and environmental travesty with huge environmental consequences.

The pursuit of healthier beef for human consumption has a larger impact on the environment than the standard ranching models. Standard models allocate three acres per cow while grass fed cows require nine acres per cow. Three times as much land is required to raise a healthier-for-consumption cow, which hastens degradation of the land and quickens deforestation.

Reducing the amount of beef in the human diet is the non-negotiable requirement in addressing climate change. Those societies that eat large quantities of beef will be forced to cut back their consumption, some to zero. The present model is unsustainable, and as the droughts spread across the land and deepen, cattle ranching will become untenable. One way or the other, the falling consumption of beef is coming. Most people would prefer the voluntary cessation of beef without environmental devastation than the climate-induced model, one would think.

Into this great shift in diet from beef to more sustainable foods, wades the meatless meat products. Their argument is that they can give beef eaters what they crave without the actual beef, and the world is saved. While everyone welcomes the reduction in carbon, the argument overreaches.

First, we are not going to save the world through fast food franchises or through frozen meatless meat patty bundles in the freezer section of the grocery store. The absurdity of the positive impact of the food product is undeniable. Perhaps these burgers can be a small part of the solution, but they will not be the solution.

Second, highly-processed infers many steps from the point of bringing in the raw materials to transforming the ingredients into the food product. These products are complicated and the production process is complex. Quantities of energy are burned to create these burgers at scale, and that is carbon producing. Limit the manufacturing to a few regional plants and the carbon price of transporting by truck or rail go up exponentially.

Third, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers are soy products. Soy farming is a mono-culture farm product, meaning the soil is degraded and becomes unusable unless large quantities of artificial fertilizer are added. Corporate model farming produces far more carbon than the dynamic, multiple-culture farms where different crops rotate and complement each other, one crop taking nitrogen out of the soil and another locking nitrogen into the soil.

Further, all soy grown in the United States is GMO. The closest producer of non-GMO soybeans is Brazil, and the carbon cost of shipping between continents is astronomical. Shipping is, far and away, the most polluting form of transportation on the planet. GMO in the case of soybeans refers to soy plants that are immune to glyphosate (RoundupTM). The entire field of nearly ripe soybeans are sprayed with glyphosate. When the plants turn brown and dry out from the chemical, the field is harvested, giving the farmer a higher yield per acre. Meanwhile, glyphosate has been definitively linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma by science and the link has been upheld in court.

The meat eaters of the world will have to change their diet, or the planet will change their diet for them. Technology will not save us or our burgers. Only by changing our habits and making carbon-conscious choices will we save the planet.

These meatless meats are high-tech vegetable patties. Strip away all the hype and hyperbole, and what is left is one set of tradeoffs for another set. Try a meatless burger and if the product is tasty, enjoy the experience. However, much deeper and complex changes are necessary if we are to save our planet from climate change.

Lessons of the Book Search

In the process of researching a new article-maybe-book, a down-the-rabbit-hole investigatory thread emerged. The origin of the thread begins with the novelist Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), a 20th century author of deserved literary repute. Mr. Wouk was also an Orthodox Jew, proud and practicing his faith so personally that he wrote a non-fiction text “This is My God.” His book is a well-written introduction to a Jewish theistic God concept, which is an accessible recommended read. In his introduction, Mr. Wouk explains  that his book is in response to a derogatory text promoting agnosticism. The hunt began.

The book that invokes Herman Wouk’s ire has almost disappeared from library shelves in the first decades of the 21th century; in contrast, Mr. Wouk’s book is still in print and easily available. Homer W. Smith was a biologist in the first half of the 20th century who wrote three books of some publishing success. The third was “Man and His Gods,” published in 1955 and running at 485 pages before the index. However, what makes the book stand out is that the Forward is written Albert Einstein. The book sold well in its day.

As Dr. Einstein stated, Professor Smith attempts “to portray man’s fear-induced animistic and mythic ideas with all their far-flung transformations and interrelations.” One of the major arguments of the book is that Western religions are a magnet for all destructive fears that have haunted humankind. Further, these religions are also a significant broadcaster of these pernicious narratives that promulgate terrible results such as war and widespread unhappiness. The book is a thoroughgoing condemnation of religion and its application up through the beginning of the 20th century.

One can clearly understand why Herman Wouk despised this text.

There is no doubt that Professor Smith was extraordinarily well-read. Besides the Bible and biblical scholarship, he was intimately familiar with Enlightenment philosophers, the volumes of Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Darwin along with his milieu of detractors and supporters, Medieval magic and literature on the Devil, literary criticism, Christian theology and metaphysics. He saves some of his highest praise for the eleventh edition of Encylopedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911. (p. 483)

“Man and His Gods” is an archetypal text of its time. The writing is long-winded, and the grammar is complex, which was typical of the academic presentation of the day. Reviewers of that decade would declare that the book was erudite and well-written, whether or not they agreed the provocative argument.

The thesis is that knowledge and rationalism trump religion and superstition. Most of the text is a review of the religions of Western world and the Ancient Near East through history using the lens of 20th century rationalism. Professor Smith hoped to put the final nail in the coffin of superstitious religion with this book. He did not.

A funny thing happened though, which is why there was a hunt. “Man and His Gods” has nigh disappeared. In a dash of irony, I believe that the book would have certainly slipped away totally, despite a forward by Einstein, if Herman Wouk had not mentioned the text by name in his introduction. If Mr. Wouk had simply dropped a few sentences explaining his angry motivation for writing his book, time would have accomplished his goal for him.

I went searching for the text. My university lists a copy of Dr. Smith’s text in its catalogue, having purchased it in 1956. According to their records, the book was never checked out of the library. After I and the university librarian perused the shelf, we both concluded that the book had been stolen, probably decades ago. The Library of Congress (Card no. 52-5512) has a copy, buried in one of their offsite repositories. Having access to an academic national search function, someone located a copy at SUNY-Buffalo. Ten weeks after an initial request, I was holding the book.

The book did not meet my needs though. I was seeking a text that explained and promoted agnosticism in the 20th century. Dr. Smith’s text is the other side of the coin, exclusively attacking theism and orthodox religions. He states that rationalism is the better/best way, yet he offers no arguments for this stance. While the book may have made a splash at the time of publication, this lack of a positive argument may explain why the book disappeared from the great discussions on religion, culture, and individual relevance.

Having read through the book only to find the book only to find disappointment, I am reminded of a quote from the end of Ecclesiastes. “The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:9) Homer W. Smith taught me two lessons: first, erudition easily falls into hubris and second, pre-determined conclusions can produce a myriad of ever-escalating mistakes and misreadings.

Mr. Wouk’s book also taught me a lesson: Anger is a tool and it should never be a reason.

The Last Storm

Thunderstorms rolled through Tuesday afternoon, possibly spawning tornados. Strong winds bent and broke healthy trees, sending them careening through powerlines, houses, and even several cars. People died. Because of two trees down on two different streets, I was trapped in my neighborhood and my wife, stranded in Grand Central Station, had a staggering five-hour journey to our area, but not our home. She did not make it to our house until after sunrise the next morning.

My bona fides: We lived through Superstorm Sandy on the south shore of Long Island in 2012, living in our flooded house without electricity for fifteen days. In our new location north of New York City, we lost power for eight days from the second nor’easter of the year to rip through the area and now, we just had four days without power from a line of powerful thunderstorms.

My heightened sense of fear of life without electrics paid off. My house has a built-in generator with its own emergency electrical panel and is powered by a huge propane tank. In the aftermath of Sandy, I had to walk a mile and a half to the closest powered gas station (courtesy of the National Guard) and stand in a long line to get my two gallons of gas for the generator.

My propane generator powers a few things such as the water well, the refrigerator, two outlets, and lights in the kitchen. My stovetop uses the same propane tank, leaving me the ability to cook meals. I can function, even though my cell phone and tablet are poor substitutes for a dedicated desktop connected to the internet.

Still, the loss of electrics throws us into a crisis and overlays our days with an ever-creeping sense of helplessness. Our neighbors are good people at heart and just as helpless. We shared a shot of bourbon as we commiserated over the fallen tree, our cars trapped on both sides. We shook hands with Tony, the contractor working on the house next door, who brought over his chain saws and set his crew to cutting up the tree and moving it out of the road.

The area in which I live is used to trees falling on powerlines. Most of us own generators, which are highly inefficient machines that generate small amounts of electricity while spewing toxic emissions and producing an ear-splitting amount of racket. Our wells require power to bring water into the house. We have temporary measures to ease us through the outages.

My immediate history is not bad luck; it is climate change. Following the science closely because of my job, the models predicted these vicious bouts of weather. Weather events, such as hurricanes hitting Long Island are expected, but the violence of these events is ratcheting up, such as the rain bomb of the Houston hurricane and the wind shears over Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. One hundred and five hundred-year storms are hitting some areas every eighteen months. The most extreme models of climate change are proving to be the most accurate. These events are not my or anyone else’s bad luck; these destructive storms are the outcome of years of spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

I ran into a representative from my local electric utility at a state convention last week, two weeks after the storm. With a brief description, she was able to pinpoint where I lived without me surrendering even a partial address. I asserted, and she confirmed that the present infrastructure was not designed for and had poor resiliency to cope with the climate patterns of the past several years. My experience and the utility’s experience are confirmations that these early effects of climate change are already profound, requiring billions of dollars in infrastructure investment and sweeping changes in human behavior.

I cannot escape these changes. Funny thing about climate: no matter where you are reading this essay, you are experiencing climate change and sometimes, its devasting effects. Like me, you depend upon electricity as an uninterrupted service. When one cell tower goes down, connectivity plummets, bringing work to a stuttering halt. Daily functioning stumbles and work-arounds prove themselves to be fantasies.

This is your life as well; I have a generator at least.

I am Rabbi Glenn Jacob and I am executive director of New York Interfaith Power & Light. Our mission is to inspire and engage people of faith and religious communities to actively steward and sustain our natural environment. In one unified voice of the world’s religions, we lead the battle to bring clean renewable energy to our communities, lobby for energy legislation, and teach others how to bring the many varied voices of our country together to save the planet. Please join us.

Philosophy of Learning 3 (common sense)

  1. לְהַשְׂכִּיל –(to discern) common sense

The old tired cliché is common sense is neither common nor sense. Some go so far as to argue the entire idea of common sense is a fallacy. Definitions of common sense are as varied as the ideas of what common sense might encompass, which is the source of the confusion. One might easily argue that the rubric is a phenomenon that everyone can perceive but no one can comfortably define for everyone else to agree. As Justice Potter Stewart wrote in a Supreme Court decision, it is hard to define pornography, “but I know it when I see it.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964) We know common sense when we hear it, which is not only too ambiguous to be useful but also counter-productive. We are left without a definition; nonetheless, the rubric exists.

Common sense can be found in all sorts of human endeavors but no matter where common sense is identified or claimed, two elements must be present. First, there must be a convincing argument. The argument does not have to convince everyone but the argument must have accepted assumptions, a logical progression from point to point, and reasonableness. The first element must be well-structured argument whose conclusion cannot be challenged because one of the assumptions is false.

The second element is all other competing arguments must be disproved. For a common sense point to be valid, the presenter cannot just have the best argument. The presenter has to demonstrate conclusively that the other arguments fail to prove the point they are attempting to make, or unmake as the case may be. This second element is a much higher bar of proof than most other human endeavors.

If one of the two elements is not present, then one holds an opinion rather than a proof. Even if a presenter offers a persuasive argument with gifted tongue and keen insight to sway the most skeptical, unless the presenter meets the higher bar of disproving the other arguments, then all of the bombast is for naught. A good argument is not enough.

From the other side, if all that one can do is prove that the other arguments are inadequate but can offer nothing in their place, the presentation is also a failure. Disproving everyone else is an accomplishment but by itself, this type of argumentation fails. The absence of competition does not convey success because common sense is neither a race nor a battle of wits.

Common sense is rare because both elements together are difficult to create. Common sense is a type of truth, a rarity of human truth that is also universal. Most human truth is flawed because anything mortal is imperfect. Common sense is a high goal but as we can attest, this truth can be achieved.