Anna: Kudos for a thought-provoking post. As an off-and-on vegan for the past ten years myself, I rooted you on and clapped my hands pretty much throughout reading your arguments denouncing synthetic meat substitutes. That is because I myself have always found such meat substitutes to be somewhat sickening. Actually, the best I have ever had were in China at the Buddhist temples where they would make the best fake beef, pork, or even seafood, and in really great vegetarian Chinese restaurants in the U.S. you can get the same stuff. But like most Chinese food - especially in the U.S. - I am absolutely certain that I am chugging down all kinds of chemicals with names I do not understand, whether expressed in Mandarin or in English. My parents here in the U.S. are big fans of boca-this and boca-that, but I have never been able to see much nutritional value in eating boca products on a daily basis. Indeed, I am pretty certain is must be pretty bad for our bodies to do so.
When I became vegan, I started off as a macrobiotic (ah, the influences of living in Southern California!!). With its focus on balancing whole grains, beans, and vegetables, macrobiotics always felt really great for me, my body, and my relationship with the land. The downside: it was always a lot of work every day to figure out how I was going to keep eating what I'm supposed to be eating in the way I want to eat it in a world where everyone around me was eating simply whatever.
Now, to the point: I think Molly's comments are really on to something, which is that the energy-costs of producing one boca burger versus one beef patty are really not so clear, and I think we mustn't jump to conclusions about one being more "natural" or more energy-efficient than the other. While (as Pollan has said) much of what we eat when we eat processed foods is corn and soy, that's also what cows eat, too. Your average agribusiness-produced beef patty is the product of so many pounds of corn and soy, and gallons of water - lots of inputs overall (the # are available somewhere), with lots of outputs, too, including methane, and the feces, etc., etc. How much corn/soy/water/energy goes into a boca burger versus a beef patty is not clear, but I'm pretty certain both are pretty darn wasteful of resources. So rather than comparing them, why not just outright denounce them both. We ought to also denounce what is really driving people to choose between these two, which is, in my opinion, our society's very strange fetishism of protein. Don't even get me started on protein drinks, and protein-this-and-that. The first thing people always ask vegetarians/vegans is "do you get enough protein?" But I think that most Americans consume way too much protein. In my opinion, we can nix both beef and boca and still live pretty healthily: whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables. Yum!
Minkster is right that boca burgers are not an energy-efficient food for Alaskans, and kudos to him/her for achieving such a locavorious diet. I would think that even here in NYC that we would do well to hunt and eat more white-tailed deer, squirrels, and other abundant wildlife. We've got fish, crabs, and bivalves here in NY harbor, too, but I wouldn't eat them because they are laced with mercury, PCBs, other dioxins, etc..
In the end I find myself in Megan's camp: I've refrained from eating meat for ten years. It is a habit, and I just can't go back. When I was in China I broke my rule and ate beef, duck, goose eggs, swan eegs, snake, fried bees, and lots of other animals and animal-parts, but let me tell you that my stomach never appreciated these forays into cross-cultural understanding. If I wasn't so concerned with my own bodily health (such as my genetic predisposition towards having high cholesterol, or my lactose intolerance), I know I could use less global energy by consuming local milk, eggs, and meats from our farmers market rather than buying California-made almond milk, or Whole Foods brand tofu, etc.. And I could definitely teach my stomach to get used to meats again. But I am first and foremost just not convinced that eating meat would be good for my body. My choices might be worse for the world, but they are better for me. So my dilemma really is: which is more morally right? To treat my body as a temple yet do so at the expense of distant peoples, environments, and habitats, or to compromise my own health while trying to protect the health of others?