What’s the deal with my generation and those following gravitating towards fake food?

That’s a question I’ve been meditating on for some time. My primary focus is the idea of fake meat; more specifically, a restaurant in Pittsburgh has been featured several times for serving a burger that apparently mimics beef, but isn’t actually a burger (pro-veggie advocates are surprised it’s palatable, a reality that speaks volumes about the common eating quality of artificial food). The beef world is abuzz with news that major meat conglomerates are buying the fake meat technology as fast as they can. Hedging their bets a little, huh?

Neither of these thoughts gets us to the root of the trend: why are people feeling attracted to something they know isn’t real? It’s odd to me, because I like food, and I believe good food is directly linked to good health, yet eating fake meat, cheese and flavors more resembles eating plastic than something born from the soil.

Answers lie subtly hidden in any of a million articles filling websites, magazines and newspapers regarding the production of beef. The theme nobody states but is apparent immediately upon comparison of two writings is that very few consumers can accurately define “proper” meat production. And how could they?

Consider this quote from Tamar Haspel in a February 2015 article for The Washington Post: “Almost always, when I talk to scientists and farmers about food supply issues — whether it’s farm size, organic methods, animal welfare, GMOs, climate impact — the answer is complicated. When it comes to feeding people, there is never one right answer. It depends on the farm, the area, the animal, the crop, the weather, the market and a bazillion other things.”

She goes on to say “What I wouldn’t give for a certificate of prudence, attesting to sound management, humane standards and responsible stewardship on any kind of farm.”

In other words, how the heck do you know if the beef you’re buying does any good at all? People searching for knowledge become quickly exasperated when they encounter “a bazillion” different answers from as many sources. Furthermore, each time Whole Foods is found to be working around the edges of honesty with its “responsible” beef division, credibility for even the highest regarded retailers evaporates.

The result, I believe, is to move towards anything that’s clearly identifiable, regardless of what it is. Fake meat is honestly fake. A hipster can buy in to the unreal meal knowing full well that they’re not being misled by the label, because the name itself leads the discussion with an admission of falsehood. If someone can dump enough flavor on some bean paste to make it edible, more and more people are willing to make the sacrifice and eat it simply because they know their satisfaction after the meal will not be stifled by an unpleasant surprise realization that their grassfed burger was raised in a feedlot. Lab altered soybean meal, believe it or not, is less complicated than beef.

”What got us here won’t get us there” is the business axiom that keeps coming to my mind. Yesterday’s food system featuring convenience, ready-to-eat slogans, and complete isolation from the public has turned into our own worst enemy: people became so far removed from the soil and animals providing their meals that they can no longer comprehend the transition from raw material to sustenance. Finding themselves in such a precarious situation, people look for answers, and too many solutions vie for attention. Nothing is clear in a food system that makes product over here and keeps the consumer over there. Chaos is the norm (read anything relating to food ethics and you’ll agree.) Honestly fake food offers an oasis from the storm, because nobody disagrees that synthesized something is an imitation. “Protecting” people from the rigors of farming has made them turn on farming in general. Oops.

Today we’re facing a generation of people that doesn’t know how to cook and doesn’t trust the answers they receive about food. Interestingly, though, they’re extremely interested in the integrity of food. How do we focus the energy of millions of people who want something real but don’t know what to do with it when it’s caught? That is the question every farmer should be asking themselves as the sun rises each day.

The answer will not come in the form of more isolation from the public. We need to smash the farm world and the food world back together and let the sparks fly a little bit. People should be able to come to a farm and look at an animal and realize that it will be killed and used to sustain many families, and that is OK. In fact, it’s the whole point of the food chain. Reducing the scale of production methods so farms serve communities instead of global markets makes the agricultural world attainable, and opening farms to customers allows individuals to make decisions regarding the production methods utilized on that particular farm. Information flows real time in such a close knit situation, and everyone benefits from information exchange.

Prudence doesn’t come in the form of a certificate. It comes in the form of a relationship. Relationships, friends, are the path towards food that is honestly real. We might be able to shape a future in which people put fake meat out at the curb with the plastic recycling rather than eating it.

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