Suddenly, everybody’s got beef with hamburgers.
At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC (think the Conservative Party conference, with less tweed and more Republican Party members), an unlikely political rallying cry was born. ‘They want to take away your hamburgers!’ cried Sebastian Gorka, a strategist formerly attached to the Donald Trump administration accused of having ties to far-right groups in Europe. ‘This is what Stalin dreamed about.’ The ‘they’, naturally, were ‘socialists’ — more specifically, a Democratic Party caucus advocating a radical ‘Green New Deal’ to mitigate the impact of climate change on the planet.
So yes, because we live in strange times, Big Macs and their ilk are now a political hot potato. In the UK too, the agenda is flipping faster than a Five Guys production line. Next week burger mainstay Patty & Bun will launch a range of delicious plant-based meat pretenders made by THIS, a company that engineers soybeans, water and peas to simulate the taste and texture of meat. ‘It’s something we’ve been cultivating for a while now,’ says Joe Grossman, founder of Patty & Bun. ‘We’re not simply jumping on the bandwagon or ticking a box. It’s about being accessible and having an element of flexibility.’
Brands are keen to avoid their plant-based options becoming too politicised. Honest Burger, which started selling Beyond Meat vegan burgers last November, tells me it has stopped doing interviews about its vegan meat, preferring that people talk about the more conventional menu. The Labour Party has previously issued denials that opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, a vegetarian, is considering becoming vegan. Lines are drawn. Fire up your barbecue grills, keep your smokers close. The burger wars have begun.
Let’s chew on this. Does anyone actually want to nix your classic burger? The idea was born of a throwaway remark made by Democratic representative (and Green New Deal figurehead) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like, let’s keep it real,’ she told a US talk show when outlining the deal’s proposals with regard to the farming sector (food production and agriculture is responsible for about 9 per cent of US greenhouse emissions). ‘Apparently, I’m a cow dictator,’ Ocasio-Cortez later told The New Yorker’s David Remnick. ‘What’s humorous to me is that we’re finally proposing a clear, ambitious but necessary and grounded policy on the scale of the problem. And so it’s hard for the Republicans to refute the actual policy on its substance.’
Conservatives rebut this with concern about encroachment on civil liberties — as well as a sustained level of online trolling. The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health delivered a landmark scientific study in January on the worldwide impact of diets on the Earth’s climate. It advocated (alongside a recommendation to eat more nuts and grains) that red meat consumption ‘if any, should be low’, and some took this as a personal attack. ‘They are actually trying to take away our burgers,’ says Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a conservative think tank here in London that has labelled the report authoritarian and undemocratic, a ‘potent combination of nanny state campaigners, militant vegetarians and environmental activists’.
‘The food you eat is about as personal a choice as you’re going to get,’ Snowdon continues. ‘If you have government intruding into your kitchen, then it has intruded all the way into your inner life. Government has got far too big if it has started to control the exact quantities of ham, beef and pork that we’re consuming.’ The burger has become a potent symbol of libertarian resistance to Big Government.
So how did this happen? The patty seems to represent the perfect shorthand for the fight between left and right (albeit largely driven by the right): the virile, red-blooded meat-eater set against the weak ascetic. The pushback against the plant-based world has hit out against vegan alternatives to meat, and outrage tracks well online. Jordan Peterson, the disenfranchised men’s rights activist and bestselling academic, has insisted that a ‘beef, salt and water’ diet lifted his anxiety and depression. Piers Morgan derided high street baker Greggs as ‘PC-ravaged clowns’ for launching a vegan sausage roll. But it backfired and the Financial Times recently reported that the company’s 15.1 per cent growth in the first five months of this year was ‘helped in part by a dismissive tweet from TV presenter Piers Morgan’.
But the drive to dissect radical environmental policy into a bite-sized counter attack centring on the hamburger has proved an effective — and deliberate — success. ‘Republicans and other right-wing figures have been angling to make meat into a partisan issue for a few years now,’ says Meghan McCarron, a US writer for the website Eater, who has written in detail on the ‘coming burger wars’. ‘Environmentalists and animal-rights activists often advocate for reducing meat consumption, banning factory farming or adopting straight-up veganism for a host of laudable practical and moral reasons.’ The Economist, meanwhile, found Democrats were more likely than Republicans to reduce their meat consumption. When the American burger is served, they say, it bleeds red, not blue.
‘It’s an effective tactic, clearly, because what we do with our bodies is so much more personal than talking about the mix of energy sources that we use to power our homes,’ says Griffin Carpenter, a senior researcher at London’s New Economic Foundation think tank, specialising in environmental policy and natural resource management. ‘It reminds me of the gun debate in the US where the idea of a bogeyman wanting to come and take away everybody’s guns is mythologised. This was put on Obama for eight years and we didn’t see that at all, but just putting the idea in people’s minds was enough. And I think that’s what we have here.’
George Motz, an American documentarian and the country’s ‘foremost hamburger expert’ (he has taught a course on hamburgers at New York University) says the politicisation of the burger is ‘an unfortunate appropriation’, a side effect of the US being pulled from both sides in a heritage-based tug of war. ‘The story of the American burger is much better than that,’ says Motz. ‘We have great pride in the hamburger because we invented it, and Americans are intensely proud of that heritage. The story goes back 120 to 130 years. When it first came here, it was served at state fairs because it was a portable food, one of the first along with the hot dog and the ice cream cone. So it was seen as an American invention.’
Indeed, The Economist has also used the burger since 1986 as a light-hearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level. It is based on the theory of purchasing power parity (PPP) — how easily you can afford a Big Mac — but what it really shows is the influence of American food culture. ‘It does capture the essence of global capitalism,’ says Ryan Avent, senior editor and economics columnist at The Economist. ‘Beef is an aspirational meat, which people eat more of as soon as they can afford to.’
Both Carpenter and Snowdon agree that the rise of alternative burgers to combat climate change is inevitable, and both look to lab-grown meat as a solution. An appetite for plant-based meat substitutes, meanwhile, has prompted a rapid rise in the valuation of companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, both of which were founded in plant-based-food mecca California. Their burgers, which track well in blind taste tests, actually ‘bleed’, with Impossible Foods using ‘haem’ (a protein created by its scientists through genetic engineering) and Beyond Meat using beetroot juice. This month Impossible, now valued at £1.6 billion, announced a tie-up with Burger King in the US. The fast-food chain is rolling out the ‘Impossible Whopper’ to more than 7,000 restaurants, doubling Impossible’s US footprint at a stroke.
Motz, who describes himself as a ‘true centrist’, isn’t ready to give up on the ground beef burger just yet. ‘I’ve met Impossible Foods,’ he says. ‘I tested it, tried it out and it’s not quite there — and I told them that,’ he says. ‘I’m not going to push back on the future — I know what’s coming — but at the same time I want to make it right. If you really want to make it taste like a burger, you want to talk to me. I don’t want to eat a science project. I want to eat real beef. Those companies aren’t doing it because they want to save the planet; they’re preying on the guilt of carnivorous millennials.’ The question is: whose side are you on?
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