COMMENT:

There really is a major shift going on at the moment in which vegetarian and vegan food practices are in the ascendancy. And it's very political. In fact, as if to underline this shift, the restaurant that's directly across the road from the Prime Minister's Wellington residence in Thorndon has just announced that it will no longer serve meat.

The rise of vegetarianism

The Hillside Kitchen and Cellar is one of the city's top restaurants, and it's where Jacinda Ardern sometimes meets journalists for interviews, including foreign ones. Now they'll have to have their conversations over lentils rather than lamb.

Owner and chef Asher Boote has explained the striking of meat from the menu: "The growing conversation around these things is huge and the stats are that more and more people are eating a lower amount of meat or no meat, so we are just moving with the times really" – see Ewan Sargent's article, Top Wellington restaurant is taking meat off the menu.

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There are plenty of signs of an increasing vegetarian market in New Zealand. Local operator of the Lord of the Fries chain of vegan restaurants, Bruce Craig, has witnessed the growing interest in meat-free diets, and is expanding his own chain, saying "he hoped the country would move with the times to develop plant-based protein" – see Aimee Shaw's Vegan fast food operator Lord of the Fries set to open 13 more NZ stores, expand to India.

The same article also reports: "The movement towards plant-based protein has attracted some heavy hitters. Canadian film-maker James Cameron has taken the lead in supporting a plant-based future. He owns several Wairarapa farms and is in the process of converting them to produce plant-based agriculture. He has also set up a company with Sir Peter Jackson, called PBT New Zealand, which is said to use technology to help produce plant-based protein 'meat' alternatives."

This new venture by Cameron and Jackson, and other "post-meat" developments in New Zealand, are explored by Whena Owen in her recent five-minute Q+A investigation: Fake meat on the menu.

For a look at other new companies in New Zealand who are innovating around a post-meat diet , see Jihee Junn's Meat-free, dairy-free, and made in New Zealand.

And for a review of the latest "fake meat" vegan burger at the new Britomart branch of Lord of the Fries, see Toby Manhire's The meat-free Beyond Burger. His conclusion is: "It's just quite a decent burger but to be quite a decent burger and not involve any dead animals is very laudable and good." He's particularly praiseworthy of the "fake-meat" patty: "The texture works, the flavour is quietly impressive and it's even persuasively juicy."

The rise of the Impossible Burger

It goes by various names – "fake meat", "synthetic meat", "plant protein", etc – but whatever the term there's no doubt that advances in technology mean we are seeing the fast rise in vegetarian meat-like products that are designed to be superior to conventional meat. Unsurprisingly, this is being taken very seriously by New Zealand's Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), which has recently released an array of reports into the Evolution of Plant Protein, which includes a very interesting case study of The Impossible Burger. This report very clearly and colourfully explains all you need to know about the new phenomenon and why it's going to impact on agriculture in this country.

The burger company is based in California, but has some links with New Zealand, especially now that it has chosen to partner with the national airline in an experiment to provide the non-meat product to air travellers, for the first time. Before this partnership became controversial, Air New Zealand flew a number of journalists to the US to check out the new burger, and this is best covered by Herald science reporter, Jamie Morton in his article, Tasting the Impossible Burger with Air New Zealand.

Morton's article explores both the connection that Impossible Foods CEO and scientist, Pat Brown, has with New Zealand, as well as the disruptive affect it could have here. He reports that Brown is a big fan of this country, having visited many times, and says he wouldn't have chosen to work with any other airline.

He's also talked a lot with farmers here, who he says have some "ambivalence" about what he is doing. Morton asks him about the "existential threat" of his product to farmers, and Brown says he wants to work with them, adding: "If you look into the future, you can see it's absolutely inevitable that there is going to be an irreversible transition away from animals as a food production system".

Morton reports on his own tasting of the Impossible Burger, saying that he's "loved meat for as long as I can remember", but he was very impressed by the vegetarian product: "The first bite was a revelation: tasting something like a lamb burger, packing a rich, juicy texture, but with an almost-sweet aroma."

Journalist and travel-writer Sharon Stephenson concurs, saying the burger "tastes, dare I say it, better than meat", and "It was everything the PR machine promised it would be: thick juicy patties that felt and chewed like meat, that wouldn't be out of place at a back-yard barbie with a beer and a sunny deck" – see: Air New Zealand to serve plant-based burger on Los Angeles-Auckland flights.

She also reports on the environmental superiority of the burger: "It turns out the Impossible Burger uses 95 percent less land, 75 percent less water than beef, and generates 85 to 87 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. And it doesn't contain any hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol or artificial flavours."

It's this radical environmental advantage of vegetarian food that makes these new technological products threatening to conventional meat. At a recent University of Auckland "Future of Food Symposium", ecologist Mike Joy was reported as explaining that environmental needs meant that future had to be meat-free: "He said the only way to change a future without enough food for all is to remove animals from our diets" – see Farah Hancock's A future where food is off the menu.

Joy lays out the numbers, "To produce one gram of protein from beef, one square metre of land is required. To get one gram of protein from rice requires just .02 of a square metre of land." What this means, according to Joy, is we must all drop meat from our diets: "It's not a choice. We don't have a choice. We can choose between spinach and kale, but not animals because we will all starve."

And for more on how meat is farmed and killed, the Herald has recently made available a new video exploring the realities – see: MEAT the documentary about the animals we eat made available to NZ Herald readers.

Responses to rise of the Impossible Burger

This week, politicians voiced their beef with Air New Zealand's choice of menu for its two weekly flights out of Los Angeles. Three backbench MPs were particularly outspoken: Clutha-Southland National MP Hamish Walker urged the airline to reconsider serving "fake burger patties", National's agriculture spokesperson Nathan Guy tweeted to say he was "disappointed", and New Zealand First MP Mark Patterson said it was a "slap in the face" and "an existential threat to New Zealand's second biggest export earner".

When acting Prime Minister Winston Peters added his weight to the complaints, it became an international news item. CNN had the best coverage – see Bard Wilkinson's New Zealand PM has beef with the Impossible Burger. This reported Winston Peters saying he was "utterly opposed to fake beef" and that Air New Zealand should be promoting real New Zealand meat.

Some of this escalated complaint is covered by Krysta Neve, of the animal rights' group SAFE, who pointed to the origins of the polarised debate: "Beef+Lamb New Zealand took it upon themselves to comment on Air New Zealand's social media post, saying the airline should be offering their customers grass-fed, free range beef and lamb" – see: Air NZ 'bullied' in burgergate debate.

Verdicts on burgergate

Newspaper editorials and commentators have largely been unsympathetic towards complaints about the Impossible Burger. Today, for example, the New Zealand Herald explains that Air New Zealand's supply of the burger is not a "kick in the teeth" for beef farmers, but a case of innovating to remain ahead of competitors, and others should be doing the same – see: Our impossible MPs need to weigh up the possible.

The editorial complains that it's actually the politicians who are finding it "impossible to innovate and adapt" like the national airline is. The newspaper also points to the fact that in the US the Food and Drug Administration is still holding up a final clearance for the Impossible Burger, a delay that suggests the power of the cattle industry to protect itself. The paper suggests that the "grizzles about Air NZ have a similar resonance".

The Southland Times also congratulates Air New Zealand for its innovation, and says artificial meat is a "massive and legitimate challenge" that agriculture in this country can't ignore: "Let's face it, though. It's not as though lab-grown or plant-based meats are going to go away, or languish ignored, if enough New Zealanders put our fingers in our ears and go la-la-la" – see: Air NZ: the flesh is weakened?

The Press has published an editorial asking: "Does the National Party hate vegetarians?" – see Philip Matthews' Wake up and smell the meatless future. He says that the complaints are a "bizarre over-reaction" and "red meat advocates knocking Air NZ's menu choice risk looking as backward as climate change deniers."

Herald travel writer Winston Aldworth also mocks those kicking up a fuss, saying "It's odd to consider that we're still in an age when faceless MPs can rant about the evil effects of vegetarianism on the national economy" – see: Why MPs are wrong to criticise Air New Zealand's Impossible Burger. Aldworth thinks Air New Zealand have made a very smart move, and naysayers will have more to worry about soon: "wait until they start making perfect milk protein."

Science communicator Siouxsie Wiles also has a very useful explanation of the Impossible Burger, pointing out the genetic modification process involved, but saying that the actual burger "doesn't contain anything that is genetically modified" – see: How genetic modification helps the Impossible Burger take flight.

But Wiles also makes the point that farming advocates are right to be worried, because the burger "isn't aimed at vegetarians. It's aimed at meat-eaters." And this is the "risk" – that many meat-eaters will start consuming artificial meat. After all, CEO Pat Brown says: "A lot of people love to eat meat… What I'm doing is allowing them to eat a lot more of what they love, except in a way that's better for them and the planet."

Finally, to find out which politician didn't say "The Impossible Burger is the biggest single threat to the New Zealand way of life since the Asian takeaway", see Steve Braunias latest column today: Secret diary of the impossible burger. And for other satire about the Impossible Burger controversy, see Madeleine Chapman's Fight back against the fake-meat traitors and live like me, a true NZ patriot, and Tom Sainsbury's Kiwis of Snapchat: Boycott Air New Zealand!