It used to be that going to a restaurant was a painful experience if you were vegetarian, let alone, vegan. One cannot exist in any respectable manner for too long on a diet of iceberg lettuce and French fries. But over the last decade, vegetarians and vegans have found respite in the totem veggie burger now available at restaurants including Denny's, Chili's, even Burger King. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes (clad in faux feathers), vegans proudly marched into mainstream eateries, brazen and hungry for (mock) meat.
Stumble into virtually any vegetarian establishment or order the gratuitous veg menu item at a non-veg eatery, and while you may have no difficulty satisfying your hankering for a meaty-tasting meal minus the meat, you'll be hard-pressed to find something that didn't originate in a laboratory.
Many vegans have shown their support for the potential of lab-grown meat that could, in theory, decrease the suffering of billions of animals. By isolating the 'meat' and growing only that which will be eaten, foregoing the rest of the animal—no cages, slaughterhouses or environmental impact from methane and animal waste need reckoned with—is a pretty novel idea that's worthy of acknowledging from both animal rights and environmental perspectives. For meat lovers there's an interesting attraction there, too: If scientists can isolate the meat, they can certainly isolate the best-tasting cuts.
We're not anywhere near a disappearing act for the billions of animals sitting in cages right now. So instead, there's the next best thing: The Veggie Burger. The Baconless Beacon of Hope. Want meat flavor and texture without the cholesterol, cancer and animal suffering? Eat enough soy burgers and soon you'll be hard pressed to tell the difference. For vegans and vegetarians, the mock-meat is panacea. Many vegetarians sustain themselves on frozen veggie burgers, French fries and (if for no other reason than nostalgia), the occasional plate of iceberg. Fair enough.
But the majority of mock meats (and soymilk and ice cream, etc.) contain genetically modified soy (and corn and canola) just like what's being fed to cows, chickens and pigs. And there are a lot of reasons why that's not good news. Ninety-four percent of soy grown in the U.S. is GMO. And the California Department of Food and Agriculture estimates that more than 70 percent of processed foods contain GMO ingredients. (Beyond soy, corn and canola crops are heavily genetically modified and often found in mock meat products as well.)
Lack of long-term human and environmental testing has made genetically modified food one of the most heavily debated issues in modern human history. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation with no regulations on GMOs. Multinational chemical companies now dominating our once bucolic agricultural industry routinely cause small, family farms to go under. Animals traditionally raised on diets of hay and grass are now fed GMO corn and soy to fatten them up faster, despite the myriad health issues that develop from the unnatural diets. (The factory farms just give them antibiotics to 'treat' the illnesses.) GMOs are designed to be pesticide—and pest—resistant. The process by which cells are modified includes turning the whole plant itself into a pesticide, literally. And that modification can actually 'turn on' other genes that can lead to slews of health problems we're only beginning to make the connection to: severe allergies, organ failure, hormone imbalances, weight gain, behavioral and developmental issues, to name a few.
And because GMOs make up a significant portion of the diet fed to our nation's livestock, the health problems we're seeing in meat, egg and dairy eaters are significantly on the rise. They're on the rise in people eating large amounts of GMOs—no matter where they originate, including mock meats.
The pesticides, which are paramount to the proliferation of GMOs, are used in excess. For any wildlife lover there are significant casualties to consider: honeybee deaths (Colony Collapse Disorder) have been connected to several pesticides, as has the significant decreases in butterfly populations. Frogs and fish are developing mutations (including frogs that switch gender), and scores of other animals—from birds, bats and foxes to oceanic creatures—are showing serious reactions to pesticides.
There's no question that foregoing meat, eggs and dairy has its advantages. While humans continue to debate whether or not we're meant to eat animals, the benefits of eating more plant foods are touted by virtually every health care practitioner: antioxidants boost immunity and fight cellular damage; fiber regulates digestion, removes toxins and reduces cholesterol; plant proteins, amino acids, vitamins and minerals play critical roles in the function of organs, boost energy levels, and prevent disease. But, if the vegetarian diet is going to continue to stand in healthy distinction to the rabid industrial meat and dairy industry, can it do that while relying on the same toxic genetically modified ingredients? Is it something really worth mocking-up?
Also consider that many of the mock meat companies are owned by the corporate food and ag-industry: ConAgra owns Lightlife, Kraft owns Boca Burgers, Kellogg's owns Gardenburger and Morning Star Farms, Hain owns Yves, Dean Foods owns White Wave and Silk.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger