Vegetarian meat is like electric cars

Patrick Sanwikarja
3 min readApr 2, 2022

Let’s talk about vegetarian meat. Of course there is no such thing, but you know what I mean. Plant-based meat substitutes, like burgers and “chicken” filet strips, made from stuff like soybeans and peas. I see it more and more in the supermarket, and also regularly buy it myself. And I’m not the only one — there is a growing demand for it, which is a good thing, right? People are trying to eat less dead animals, and more food made from plants.

Yet not everyone is happy about it. First of all, people point out that these plant-based meat alternatives are often highly processed and contain large amounts of added fat and salt (which is true). Secondly, I see vegetarians and vegans on social media arguing that if you want to eat less meat, you should simply eat vegetables and legumes instead. Don’t replace meat with something that may look and feel like it, but tastes worse.

The last part is also true — the actual taste can’t quite equal that of the animal counterpart. Modern meat substitutes are coming close in terms of looks and texture, but it it still doesn’t taste like the real thing. But I don’t agree that plant-based meat is not a good alternative, and we should simply eat more vegetables. That oversimplifies the transition we are in.

Because that’s what this is about: the transition from a diet in which we get proteins mostly from animals to getting our proteins mostly from plants. Like any transition, there have to be steps between A and B. It is naive to think that everyone can simply switch from one side to the other side in one single bounce. Cold turkey is not an effective recipe for behavior change on a global scale.

The same is true for transportation: this transition needs easy steps. Electric cars have become very popular, with Teslas outselling gas fueled cars. One might think that the transition from fossil fueled cars to electric cars is well under way. But I don’t think that is the actual transition. Electric vehicles are not the end state, but merely a step between A and B. The real transition is from using gas powered cars as our main mode of transport to using a variety of transportation options, with the focus on public transport and human-powered transport.

In other words: in the future, everyone should be using mostly bikes, buses and trains to move around. Sure, there will be cars, and they will be electric, but we won’t design our infrastructure around them. It just doesn’t make sense, the same way it doesn’t make sense to keep eating meat the way we do now. I couldn’t find a better way to illustrate this than these two tweets (click to see the full pictures):

Simply swapping one thing with another ‘more sustainable’ thing isn’t going to change everything. But that doesn’t make it all bad. Electric cars aren’t ‘bad’ and vegetarian meat isn’t ‘bad’ either, as long as we understand that we need them as intermediate steps, to move the transition to a more sustainable economy forward.