The McPlant won’t solve climate change, but we’ll take it

Brandon Pytel
Nov 13, 2020 · 3 min read

McDonald’s is late to the plant-based party, but we should be happy they’re here.

On Monday, the fast food chain announced the McPlant, a “plant-based burger crafted for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s,” which customers can expect on the menu in 2021.

The announcement of McPlant seems like it’s a long time coming. Many large chains already have established plant-based meat options — such as Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, White Castle, and Burger King — which has led some to wonder what took McDonald’s so long, even accusing the chain of trend-chasing.

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But McDonald’s isn’t dumb. It’s a hyper-aware company that moves deliberately, if sometimes slowly, The Good Food Institute’s Zach Weston told Fast Company.

“When McDonald’s does something, they do it at a massive scale, so they really need an assured supply chain,” said Weston. “If they’re going to build up a supply chain for something, they really need to ensure that there is long-term demand for that item or for that category.”

McDonald’s making this move, despite the challenges associated with its size, is an example of a massive market-based shift underway. And that’s what makes the McPlant worth talking about.

One could easily equate McDonald’s to an oil magnate: polluting for decades, and only recently deciding to invest in renewables. That’s a fair argument, and it’s one I made back in July when I criticized Burger King’s foray into methane reduction technology.

But those arguments also tend to ignore any silver lining, which, like, come on, we need silver linings in this increasingly warming world. That people are even forcing huge chains like McDonald’s to change its menu is huge.

McDonald’s operates within a system that is notoriously terrible at protecting the environment. Capitalist markets focus on growth and are rarely, if ever, required to factor in the environmental or health costs of the pollution they cause.

But — and here’s that sweet, silvery lining — markets also allow individuals to use their purchasing power to force companies to change, which seems to be the case with the rise of plant-based meat.

Animal agriculture makes up at least 14% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and in a country where people are increasingly worried about climate change, that fact may be trickling down into our shopping carts. Case in point: In the last two years, dollar sales of plant-based foods in the U.S. grew 29%, according to The Good Food Institute.

That the McPlant even exists is a testament to a behavioral shift already in process. This is even better news when we think of our global food systems. A study published last week found that eating less meat, combined with other shifts in behavior, like wasting less food and changing farming practices, can give us a fighting chance to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

Of course, McPlants or any other plant-based foods won’t begin to solve all our environmental woes. And McDonald’s still sells way too many beef burgers, so maybe we shouldn’t even buy McPlants once they roll out.

But at the end of the day, the McPlant’s existence in a flawed marketplace is something we can be happy about (insert pun about Happy Meals). The McPlant offers us a little win — even if it’s a sloppy, grease-stained win — and I’ll take it.

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Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

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