It’s been several years since the newest wave of plant-based meat, made by leading companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, made its debut. Nowadays, you can get a vegan burger or taco at major fast-food chains. Even your staunchly omnivorous dad might throw a plant-based patty on the grill. Techy plant-based meat has penetrated industry and culture in a way that would have been unthinkable to vegetarians and vegans even a decade ago.
But as with any wave of change, plant-based meat has been the subject of some healthy criticism, particularly from the perspective of nutrition. It’s no secret that these legume-derived, highly processed patties aren’t a diet food: By design, they have comparable caloric values, as well as fat and protein contents, as an equivalent serving of beef. And while many nutritionists agree that a Beyond or Impossible patty is a better choice than actual red meat, some detractors urge health-conscious eaters to opt instead for more traditional veggie burgers made with whole legumes and grains.
Here’s the thing: Some people just won’t. Black-bean and other veggie burgers, as we know them, have been around for decades, and despite the obvious health advantages they have over animal-based meat—generally fewer calories, less saturated fat, no cholesterol—not everyone has come around. For some, the new-wave, realistically meat-like plant-based burgers are the first and only alternative to classic beef that they will accept. Taste preferences and tradition are hard to overcome, obviously. If not, salads would be the classic American dish, not burgers, and we probably wouldn’t have much of a processed-food industry at all.
When health leaders and influencers urge people to eschew Beyond and Impossible “meat” and their ilk for an entirely whole food plant-based diet, they’re ignoring the realities of human behavior. We’ve seen this line of thinking before, especially in public-health policy. It’s been almost 40 years since First Lady Nancy Reagan told American children to “just say no” to drugs; abstinence-only sex education advocates ask teens to avoid unwanted pregnancies and STI transmission by avoiding sex altogether. Surprise, surprise: In both cases, there’s overwhelming evidence that these moral appeals just don’t work.
Asking—or demanding—that anyone having premarital sex or abusing a substance simply stop doing it completely ignores the basic principles of human behavior and science of addiction. And if the only intervention being made is telling children to just never engage in the behavior in question, you’re essentially giving up on aiding, informing, or empowering the huge swaths of the population who are unable or unwilling to follow the flat “abstinence” directives.
The tactic is to avoid unwanted outcomes by wholly discouraging behavior that carries risk. I see this paralleled whenever someone advocates for a diet consisting entirely of whole, unprocessed foods. Sure, meat is bad for you, but plant-based burgers are only marginally healthier and should be avoided too, or so the argument goes.
But if you’re only interested in reaching those who are willing and able to make a full dietary change, you’re giving up hope on changing the behaviors of anyone else. And no matter how reprehensible you or I might find the practices of industrial-animal agriculture or eating loads of factory-farmed meat, to the rest of those people—which is to say, most of the population—it matters. To treat them as lost causes is not only moralistic and judgmental, it does nothing to address the real issues at stake: public health, the suffering of animals, and the health of the planet.
In more recent years, figures in public health have embraced harm reduction as a better solution to the problems caused by drug use and teenage sex. We don’t know any way to cure society of addiction and transmissible diseases overnight. But there are actions our governments can take, and are taking, to minimize overdoses, to reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis infection, to mitigate teen pregnancy, and to prevent all sorts of associated issues, ranging from poverty and hunger to public safety. And evidence shows that, unlike, say, the costly decades-long D.A.R.E. project, harm reduction strategies—like clean needle exchanges and naloxone training—actually work. Providing resources and education without making judgments or unrealistic demands of people just works better than any abstinence-based approach.
I see plant-based meat as a form of harm reduction, both for our health and that of the world around us. No matter how much time and money you spend, you’re not going to convert everyone to a diet of nuts, seeds, fruits, and veggies. If swapping a beef burger for a vegan one every so often is the only intervention a person is willing or able to make, fine. At the very least, they’re saving themselves the cholesterol, heart disease, and stroke risks associated with eating too much red meat. They’re also sparing the environment at least 10 pounds of CO2 emissions, 150 gallons of water, and 50 square feet of land per burger as compared to traditional beef.
Public health agencies have begun to accept the reality that an all-or-nothing approach to risky behavior won’t put an end to it, but harm reduction strategies can create real, material benefits to the health and safety of a community. It’s time for advocates of veganism to accept this principle as well. Big Tech’s plant-based meat certainly isn’t without its drawbacks, both for us and the environment. But it’s still an improvement. And with the ticking clock of climate change looming over us, we can’t afford not to take advantage of every tool at our disposal. Perfection is unattainable, but progress is not.
Brian Kateman is cofounder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy to create a healthy, sustainable, and compassionate world. Kateman is the editor of The Reducetarian Cookbook (Hachette Book Group: September 18, 2018) and The Reducetarian Solution (Penguin Random House: April 18, 2017).