That steak might look pretty good, but it represents our past more than it does our future. A new dawn is on the horizon, one that will see the normalization and mass marketization of plant-based and cell-based meats. But what exactly are they? What does it mean for us a species, and why is it fast becoming a new option for our dinner tables?
Before we begin, there are few contextual facts that are useful to have front of mind when discussing this topic…
– Global warming is real. As was reported earlier this month, last year (2018) was the fourth hottest year on record. The other four years in the top five were immediately preceding.
– Global meat consumption has nearly doubled over the past 50 years as we’ve gone from eating 23kg per year/per person to 43kg.
According to The New York Times:
– Farming is responsible for the equivalent of 574 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States each year and 56 million metric tons in Canada. That’s about 8 percent of each country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
– In the United States, 42 percent of agricultural emissions come from animal agriculture. Two-thirds of those gases are directly emitted by ruminants: animals like cows, buffalo and sheep that use bacteria in their stomachs to ferment food. That allows them to eat foods, like grasses, that humans can’t. It also creates a lot of methane when they burp and pass gas. Some non-ruminants?—?like pigs, horses and mules?—?also release methane, but not as much.
– Worldwide, livestock accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
There are a few ways in which we can proceed here. Either we slow population growth and eat less meat, which is most likely not going to happen, or we find a solution to industrial farming. There are move in the latter direction already. Witness the rise in popularity of the Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat. Its website says it’s being served at 10,000 locations globally. Notably, A&W has been one of the first fast food chains to adopt the vegan option to their menu.
Science and business have taken a big step forward towards finding that solution to our current food system problem. If you can replicate the sensation of eating meat at a fraction of the cost and environmental impact, then doing so seems only logical on a moral but also business level.
Making a burger at this scale is only the tip of the iceberg. The current production level of meat is a big problem; it’s inefficient and expensive. Food scientists are trying to find ways towards fixing this issue.
I first learned and became interested in this topic after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals. In it he discusses – in vivid detail, mind you – the current food industrial complex. The lives of broiler chickens, pigs and cows has come under much scrutiny as the public at large has become more aware of the less pleasant realities these animals endure. As more and more of the general public come to this realization, the further an urgent call to action is needed.
Unfortunately for us the consumers, there’s really only two ways animal welfare change can happen. Either we accept that eating meat harvested and slaughtered in a more humane habitat is going to cost us a lot more, or we look towards technological alternatives. Plant and cell based meat is a solution.
**If you’re curious to learn more about the state of food animal welfare, check out the Eating Animals documentary, narrated by Natalie Portman. It’s currently playing on Netflix.
So what are plant- and cell-based meats?
As per Food and Wine Magazine:
“Attempts to create plant-based substitutes for meat have been around since the days of tofu: Companies like Beyond and Impossible are simply leveraging new research to make their products more like real meat than ever before. Specifically, much of Beyond Meat’s innovation is built on work conducted on pea proteins at the University of Missouri (along with a bit of beet juice to create a “bleeding” effect). Meanwhile, Impossible Foods was founded by a biologist, Patrick Brown, who attempts to unlock the power of heme in his burgers (that are otherwise made from things like wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein). Heme is a component of animal blood that supposedly lends Impossible Burgers their meat-like characteristics.”
Plant based meat has become an increasingly popular choice for those who want a vegetarian option?—?the success of the Beyond Burger signifies that. Local butchers have been quick to jump in on the trend. Meridian Farm Market has joined the fray and begun offering Beyond Meat patties at all of its locations located throughout the Lower Mainland. Spud, the online grocery delivery company and Vegan Supply have also started selling the brand with both detailing on their websites that they sell out fast.
In addition, this past May, local vegetarian chain Meet became the first non fast food restaurant in Vancouver to offer Beyond Meat burgers to their customers, with What’s up Hot Dog quickly following suit. Earls restaurants began offering the Impossible burger in all of their US restaurants last year, but as of now have yet to launch them in Canada. It’s only a matter of time before they and possibly many others do.
For me personally, it seems unnecessary to want to create a veggie version of a meat burger. A true veggie burger is fine by me. However, as I’ve come to understand, many vegans and vegetarians (and those who choose to eat less meat) still clamour and desire for the sensations and flavours of what real meat tastes like. This to me is where both technologies can serve a greater purpose of supplying both sides of the coin.
Cell-based meat, however, has shown a massive influx of energy in the past few years as major players have tried to position themselves in the market. Silicon Valley company Just recently launched a promotional video detailing their hope to have cell-based meat commercially available by the end of 2019. Others looking to make their mark are Mission Barns, Wild Type, Super Meat, Higher Steaks and bluefin tuna-focused Finless Foods.
In spite of the recent growth of this market, the technology and end products are still very much in the early stages of development. The ultimate goal is pretty obvious, get it so that cell-based meat is available everywhere and at an affordable cost. The technology is there, once it’s honed and perfected, growth should be of no issue.
Companies such as the Good Food Institute have looked to help close the current gap between the information a startup needs to help scale their business to those who are close to getting their products to market. Earlier this month they announced the 14 winners of a $3 million dollar grant project that will aim to help fund and develop research for plant- and cell-based meat.
Here’s a bit of the press release as per Spoon:
“Back in September, GFI called for applicants for a $3 million grant to fund research into plant- and cell-based meat. Yesterday, the company named the 14 winning scientists, each of whom will receive up to $250,000 over the next two years to fund their investigations. The chosen projects are pretty evenly divided between cell-based meat (six companies) and plant-based meat (eight companies). Some topics were broad, like how to scale up cell-based meat production, how to improve texture in plant-based meats. Others were quite specific, like a project exploring the potential of red seaweed as a meat substitute, or a Norwegian research center building out a ‘farmyard’ of animal tissue for cell-based meat.”
**If you want to learn more about cell based meat, Bruce Friedrich, the head of the Good Food Institute recently gave a great interview on The Ezra Klein Show.
The goal here is to setup a base for new and old companies to lean on. Once a foundation is forged, growth and development can rise with the availability of new information. The industry is on the up and up. Consumers looking for new meat alternatives should see this as a viable solution to many of the issues a book like Eating Animals presents.
But even in the face of technological advancement, pushback will ensue. For many, the idea of eating lab grown meat strikes as fantasy not reality. Skeptics and government pushback, most likely from the meat and dairy sectors, will definitely happen.
As per The Conversation:
“Despite the controversy, proponents of cell-based meat are running high on optimism. New companies seem to be announced almost every month, while existing firms are expanding. Mosa Meats, for example, recently announced new funding and plans for a pilot “meat brewery”. Equally, the transformative potential is being discussed by governments and food businesses alike, including in the most recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”
Bottom line: The meat industry isn’t going away anytime soon, but alternatives are emerging. Many of these have the financial backing needed to flourish (Bill Gates has invested in both Impossible Foods and The Good Food Institute). The lure of healthy eating – while also of benefit to the welfare of animals and the environment – shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Plant- and cell-based meat options showcase a real initiative for change. The meat and dairy industries could and should be scared. Their roles on our dinner tables will change. They can either adapt and be better or accept that competition is coming their way.
This topic has plenty of growth and challenges ahead. I, for one, look forward to one day digging into a replicated pork chop.