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I’ve always recoiled from highly processed and packaged fake meat: you know, turkeyesque tofu logs for the holiday table, or pink, spongy “not-dogs” for the summer grill. But in last Sunday’s New York Times, Mark Bittman raised a provocative question:
Isn’t it preferable, at least some of the time, to eat plant products mixed with water that have been put through a thingamajiggy that spews out meatlike stuff, instead of eating those same plant products put into a chicken that does its biomechanical thing for the six weeks of its miserable existence, only to have its throat cut in the service of yielding barely distinguishable meat? Why, in other words, use the poor chicken as a machine to produce meat when you can use a machine to produce “meat” that seems like chicken?
Bittman’s point is spot-on. You can’t directly eat the kind of corn and soy that dominates US farmland-it isn’t readily digestible. Modern livestock farms are really factories for turning those crops into animal flesh that can be transformed into steaks, chops, wings, nuggets, and whatnot. And in doing so, Bittman points out, factory farms rack up enormous collateral damage: horrific suffering for sentient creatures, huge stores of manure that can’t be safely recycled into soil, over-reliance on antibiotics, routine abuse of labor in factory-scale slaughterhouses, and more.
It’s especially tragic, then, the meat produced in these factories is pretty flavorless, especially if you’ve tasted a truly free-range chicken against a factory one, or a grass-fed burger alongside its feedlot analogue. So why, Bittman asks, not leave the birds, hogs, and cows out of it and just directly consume the feed crops after they’ve been processed to taste something like meat? By doing do, you sacrifice little or no flavor, while sidelining a whole raft of destructive practices.
Bittman points to a company called Savage River Farms that has produced a soy-based product that mimics chicken, down to the way it shreds. Bittman says he couldn’t tell it from real chicken when he was served a burrito made with it.