Business Maverick


After the Bell: Global warming’s cheeseburger problem

After the Bell: Global warming’s cheeseburger problem

South Africans, like everybody in the world, like to eat. As the world gets richer, our opportunities to eat more grow, and most of us are genetically programmed to respond — and some of us, at least, are too lax to override our genetic desires.

I recently woke up with a backache and did what all sensible people do — I consulted an expert on back issues and followed the advice. No, I didn’t. This is the 21st century; we don’t speak to people any more, least of all “experts”. I did what everybody else does. I typed, “How do you treat a backache?” into Google. 

Google, because it’s so useful and helpful, said I should take the following steps. Step one: maintain a moderate body weight. Oh, I thought. Yes, that would be sensible. When should I do that? Next Tuesday? Perhaps when I’m out shopping I could pick up eggs, bread, milk and a moderate body weight. 

The advice was so matter-of-fact that it’s clear Google has no clue how difficult it is to maintain a moderate body weight. I have spent the past two decades trying to find the time and the energy (and the willpower) to maintain a moderate body weight, to absolutely no avail. Exercise not only makes me hungry but provides a justification for eating more because, after all, I did some exercise. I’ve also tried dieting, which, once again, seems to have the odd effect of making me hungrier. 

It’s just extremely hard to lose weight and I’m not encouraged by the fact that the world as a whole is getting fatter.  The medical journal The Lancet published research in 2014 that studied the body mass index (BMI) of adults in 186 countries from 1975 to 2014. Obesity rates, defined as a BMI of over 30, had just about tripled.

It will surprise nobody that the US is the world leader in fat people, but it might surprise you that South African women are heavier than US women; about 38% are obese compared to 35% of US women. The study found that SA had the tenth highest amount of obese people in the countries studied. 

My simple explanation for this is that South Africans eat too much meat and too much pap, and I offer myself as guilty party number one.

There is this theory that one of SA’s problems is that we inherited maize from Central America, but unlike the Aztecs, we don’t nixtamalise our pap. Because maize was developed over centuries, the theory goes, the Mesoamericans developed alongside it this age-old method to ensure the protein was more digestible and the tryptophan could be absorbed and converted into niacin. Nixtamalisation required soaking the maize in an alkaline solution. The only problem is that the Lancet study showed that the obesity rates in Mexico and Argentina were higher than in SA. 

We, like everybody in the world, like to eat. As the world gets richer, our opportunities to eat more grow, and most of us are genetically programmed to respond — and some of us, at least, are too lax to override our genetic desires. 


What do we do about this? For a moment, I was fascinated by the emergence of meat substitutes. A few years ago, a whole bunch of companies were discovering ways to produce meat substitutes that looked and tasted like the real thing. The leader of this group was Beyond Meat, which went public in May 2019. It was valued at $3.8-billion at the time, which just took off after listing, so that it became the best-performing public offering by a major US company in almost two decades.

Then it all collapsed. The company is now worth $460-million, and it’s burning through about $70-million a year. Despite Beyond Burgers being sold in fast-food franchises and a whole range of marketing, the company was first hit by the decline in the food service market during Covid, and then the expense of having to shift focus to grocery store sales. But the basic problem is that the product itself was expensive — and I mean really expensive. A single ersatz meat burger patty costs about 40% more than one from a cow. 

But this is not the end of the story. The need to reduce our consumption of meat has another dynamic too: climate change. Health philanthropist and tech figure Bill Gates noted in a recent column that each year, the world emits 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. The production of fats and oils from animals and plants makes up 7% of that. Amazing. 

The biggest problem is animal fat and Gates says as humans, we are wired to want animal fats for a reason — they’re the most nutrient-rich and calorie-dense macronutrients. I remember reading that it’s part of Khoi mythology that when you get to heaven you are greeted with a cup full of fat. But, says Gates, companies are beginning to find ways of producing animal fat synthetically, too. And the same applies to vegetable oil. Gates has invested — natch.

The most-used vegetable oil is palm oil, which is found in a host of very different products: peanut butter, ramen, coffee creamer, makeup, body wash, toothpaste, laundry detergent, deodorant, candles, cat food and baby formula. The reason why it is a climate change problem is that it grows only close to the equator and slash-and-burn agriculture is reducing the natural forests. 

That there might be a technical workaround for animal fat and vegetable oil sounds promising. But the problem is that the industries they are competing against are so huge and so developed that enormous economies of scale are built into product prices. It may be easier and more effective to do it the other way around — get people to eat less by using one of the many weight-loss drugs coming on to the market in a flurry. 

I suspect substitution might be the more difficult route and appealing to people’s egos might be easier. Just a guess. DM 



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alastair Stalker says:

    Can I suggest, Tim, that you read George Monbiot’s excellent book “Regenesis- Feeding the world without devouring the planet” before dabbling in an extremely complex issue. The fact is that there are >8 Billion people on the planet who are either already eating excessive amounts of animal protein or want to. This protein is supplied currently mainly by industrial farming of cattle, pigs and chickens, fed on either grain or soya with extremely detrimental effects on both the environment and global warming. There are already much more environmentally efficient ways of producing protein such as “precision fermentation” but we are a long way away from these being widely adopted. In the meantime, the human race will continue to rush like lemmings towards the looming Armageddon.

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