For some time, it has been apparent that rearing livestock as a food source to meet global demand is incredibly inefficient. It both depletes our resources and creates waste; the scale of which is not only increasingly becoming alarming, but will continue to rise year by year. Some current figures look like this: 80% of the farmland in the world is used to support the livestock industry; to produce a pound of hamburger meat requires more than 4,000 Btus of fossil-fuel energy; the methane cows produce makes up 51% of global greenhouse gas.
To further matters, the UN predicts that by 2050 the world population will have risen from 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion, bringing with it an increased demand for meat. A 2012 study by the University of Exeter concluded that in order to meet such demands, and avoid calamitous climate change, the western world must reduce the amount of meat it consumes by around 50% by 2050.
This is a real and troubling issue, and although both the facts and arguments have been widely published and available for some time, it is only in the last decade or so that it has become a more mainstream environmental issue. Of course, the logical conclusion one will arrive to, is to forgo eating meat entirely. This is the simplest method to halt the environmental strain the meat supply chain appears to cause. One can also certainly make the argument that one can readily survive on meat free, or meat-reduced diet. Veganism has become an increasingly popular lifestyle choice over the years, attaining an almost “chique-like” status, with celebrities and exclusive restaurants alike. Yet for many, our carnivorous appetites are proving more difficult to satiate. Although meat-free, meat-like substitutes are nothing new, they have not been as readily embraced and lauded due to their lack of, well, meatiness.
When Mark Post unveiled his lab-grown burger in August 2013, it was hailed as a remarkable achievement of bioengineering. Yet when cooked and served up, it received lackluster reviews in the taste department. In a similar vein to Post’s operation in the Netherlands is Modern Meadow, based in Columbia, Missouri. Although the US based start-up is in all actuality a business—not limited to the purely academic sphere—it predicted, along with Post, that it would be at least 10 years until in-vitro meat was sanctioned under the respective legislation, and could be mass-produced.
A more realistic alternative is Beyond Meat, which is also based in Columbia, Missouri. The firm produces a meat substitute consisting mostly of soy and pea proteins and amaranth. A distinctly unusual feature of Beyond Meat is that, compared to its competitors, it strives with its chicken substitute to imitate chicken in both the texture and structure (down to the strands of fiber) to an almost indistinguishable level. The four-year-old company recently landed a deal with Whole Foods, and was named PETA’s company of the year. Beyond Meat’s chicken substitute, as well as being strong contender in the taste department, uses comparatively fewer resources pound for pound: 1.1 pound of ingredients and 2 liters of water, per pound of synthetic meat compared with 7.5 pounds of dry feed and 30 liters of water to produce a pound of cooked boneless chicken.
To conclude; there are certainly some interesting alternatives to livestock. Yet it remains to be seen whether lab grown meat will become an accepted mainstream alternative, or whether we will all be adopting meat-free substitutes into our diets voluntarily. What have been gaining some momentum are phenomena such as “Meat Free Mondays”, essentially not eating meat once a week. While growing in popularity, do such occurrences really ease the demand or make a difference? What more should be done?
What’s your opinion on the meat production industry, and are you willing to give up meat for a more sustainable alternative, such as Beyond Meat’s “chicken-free-strips”? Will the meat supply chain look a lot different in 10 years?