Rethink Food: Opinion | Is the Burger Nearing Extinction?

I liked my patties thin and then I liked them thick. There was the Cheddar period, followed by the Roquefort interregnum. Sesame-seed buns gave way to English muffins as ketchup traded places with special sauce or even, God help me, guacamole, which really was overkill.

But no matter its cradle or condiment, the hamburger was with me for the long haul — I was sure of that.

Until now.

A few days ago I tripped across news that McDonald’s was testing a vegetable-based patty, coming soon to a griddle near you. The McPlant burger, they’re calling it — a McOxymoron if ever I’ve heard one. And McDonald’s is late to the game. Burger King has been selling a meatless Impossible Whopper since 2019. Dunkin’ has been serving a Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich for nearly as long.

Meanwhile, Bill Gates has been telling anyone who will sit still long enough to listen about his investment in a “pretty amazing” start-up that uses a protean protein made from an especially hardy fungus for meatless patties, meatless balls and vegan versions of various dairy products. Over the past weeks, he has plugged it on my Times colleague Kara Swisher’s “Sway” podcast and in Rolling Stone.

On “60 Minutes” he ate yogurt made by the start-up, Nature’s Fynd, with Anderson Cooper, who raved, “Oh, this is good.”

This is the future: not a meatless one — not anytime soon — but one with less meat. I’m now sure of that. It’s the inevitable consequence of alarm over climate change, to which livestock farming contributes significantly. (Gates’s meatless musings were in the context of his new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”)

It’s the moral of the McPlant. It’s also the takeaway from Nature’s Fynd, whose story is not just a parable of innovation and imagination but also a glimpse into the ever more muscular push for alternative protein sources and the fleetly growing market for them.

In the relatively brief span of time since Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat introduced their now-ubiquitous burger alternatives, a meatless gold rush was born. “Private investment, public investment, researchers working in this space, start-up companies, announcements from established meat companies launching alternative protein initiatives: All of these were essentially flat until about four or five years ago,” said Liz Specht, the director of science and technology for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes meat alternatives. “And then we saw a classic hockey-stick up-swerve.”