Impossible Foods burger

Going meat-free: what are the options?

Image credit: Impossible Foods

With our growing population, knowledge of ethical practices and a need for good, nutritious food, it seems like meatless is the way to go. So what’s new in the field?

As our population soars, there is more pressure to keep us fed. By 2050, the global population is estimated to reach 9.6 billion. According to World Resources Institute, food production will need to rise by 61 per cent from current levels to keep up with demand.

Analyst firm CB Insights reports that 30 per cent of calories consumed by humans globally come from meat products. Raising livestock contributes massively to greenhouse gas emissions: a CSIRO study published in Nature Climate Change says livestock digestion produces 1.6-2.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases each year, mostly methane. Another 1.3-2.0 billion tonnes of nitrous oxide come from producing feed for them. Our need for meat means an increasingly negative environmental impact.

Introducing more alternative proteins, which are heathier and better for the environment, would eventually lead to fewer animals slaughtered and a decrease in numbers of livestock. This would free land for food crops and lessen soil erosion and water usage. So who are the big players in the meat alternatives industry?

‘Clean’ meat

Otherwise known as cloned, cultured or lab-grown meat, clean meat is made using cultured cells. This is done by taking stem or muscle cells from an animal’s tissue sample and putting them in a growth medium, or a ‘soup of nutrients,’ which simulates the animal’s processes in a bioreactor.

According to a report in Scientific American, one tissue sample from a cow can make enough muscle for 80,000 quarter-pounder burgers.

However, with this practice, animals won’t be eliminated completely from the equation, as cell and tissue cultures don’t live and reproduce forever. If the world is to mass-​produce lab-grown meat, we would need a constant livestock supply. But numbers will reduce dramatically, as well as encourage cruelty-free and ethical meat-eating. The environment will greatly benefit, too.

There are the environmental costs to consider, such as the electricity to keep the labs running, but the benefits will most likely outweigh the impact of operating them.

Today, foetal bovine serum (FBS) – which is extracted from cow foetuses in abbatoirs – is costly but vital to the cell culture process for lab-grown meat.

Companies like Memphis Meats – which produced its synthetic meatball back in 2016 and in 2017 introduced a world-first of cell-cultured chicken and duck – has managed to bring its costs down from $18,000 a pound to $2,400 by January 2018. It is trying to eliminate FBS in its meats. The company Just has managed to grow cell-cultured chicken without it.

Lab-grown meat is still seen as a luxury product, but the price is likely to reduce as it becomes common practice.

Also, ‘clean’ meat can eliminate antibiotics from meat production, helping with the global problem of antibiotic resistance.

Biotech companies, such as California-based Calysta, are also developing methane-based meat-like products. These are still at an early stage, but once it’s safe for human consumption this sort of protein could also help improve the environmental crisis.

Insect protein

Unpalatable for some – almost 40 per cent of people say they won’t eat it – insects are healthy, environmentally friendly and sustainable, and word is spreading of their benefits to mankind.

So you don’t see the wiggly legs and faces, manufacturers are making consumption of bugs more palatable by creating flour from crickets, mealworms and other insects.

There are farms around the world that specialise in insects for eating. The flour is used by companies for snacks, protein bars and products such as insect-enriched pasta. Exo is a well-known seller of cricket-based protein bars.

The benefits are huge: according to CB Insights, greenhouse gas emissions are 100 times lower raising crickets than rearing beef cattle, crickets’ protein proportion is higher than other meat, and production is more efficient because they eat less.

Start-ups include All Things Bugs, which raised funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture and Darpa to develop a finely-milled cricket powder that can be used as a base ingredient in recipes.

San Francisco-based Bitty Foods, which has raised $1.2m in disclosed funding, produces snacks with insect powders, like cricket chips.

Meat-free ‘meat’

By using a plant base to make ‘meaty’ foods, it’s hoped this sort of product will entice meat eaters away from their usual fare and give more choice to vegans and vegetarians.

Impossible Foods, a company covered in our ‘Christmas dinner in 2050’ feature a couple of years ago [E&T vol 11 issue 12], has received the most funding out of any meat substitute start-ups, with over $390m in disclosed financing.

It focuses on its ‘ground beef’ plant-based product, which ‘bleeds’ like meat. And it tastes good, too. The company discovered an iron-rich molecule found in animal proteins, called heme, and uses this in its product to make it taste ‘meaty’. In future, the tech could be applied to other meat-free substitutes, such as pork and seafood.

Beyond Meat is another big player in the plant-based ‘meat’ products, making burgers and ‘chicken’ strips.

Facts and figures

Meat and its alternatives

From CB Insights’ 2019 study ‘Our Meatless Future’, here are some stats you might not know about our meat-eating habits and what alternatives are up and coming:

■ World average meat consumption is now 43kg per person per year, a rise of 20kg since 1961.

■ The six largest meat companies have a combined $60bn in market capitalisation. Hormel, the largest, is valued at $23bn.

■ In 2016, according to the UN, about 55 per cent of the world’s population lived in urban areas and this will rise to 60 per cent by 2030. Urbanisation, population growth and a larger middle class all boost meat eating. Protein consumption will grow 3 to 4 per cent a year.

■ Seafood alternatives are up-and-coming. 90 per cent of worldwide fish stocks are overfished, depleting our supply and threatening species. The creation of sustainable fish alternatives has garnered a lot of interest, and many start-ups have received millions in funding to produce ‘seafood’ made from legumes like chickpeas and lentils, and from algae. For example, New Wave Foods produces pea protein and algae-based ‘shrimp’, and French start-up Odonotella has launched an algae-based ‘smoked salmon’ product.

■ In 2017, China – the biggest consumer of meat – made a $300m deal to import clean meat from three companies in Israel, as part of an effort to persuade consumers to cut their meat consumption by 50 per cent.

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