In wealthy countries, per capita meat consumption has been largely stagnant over the past several decades. And in many of these markets, including the United States (US), consumption is actually expected to fall in the coming years. But the story is very different in developing countries, where the amount of meat consumed has doubled since 1980, and is expected to double again by 2050.
The nature of meat production has had to fundamentally shift to keep up with demand. Much of the world’s livestock, like many other food products, is produced in factories. Consumers that want it any other way are forced to pay a premium. Non-intensive livestock farming tends to have steep input requirements, and animals raised in such environments can emit more greenhouse gases than their factory-raised counterparts. And while these intensive production methods have succeeded in keeping meat cheap and plentiful on global markets, there are costly downsides. Livestock are still responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with cows being the biggest culprits.
Obtaining meat from an animal requires a lot of food. In cattle feedlots, for example, it takes seven kilograms of grain to yield one kilogram of beef. It’s also important to consider the primary inputs like the amount of water needed to grow the grains and legumes that cows feed on. When that is factored in, the amount of water needed to produce beef looks staggering.
Environmentalists and the health-conscious are beginning to rethink whether that burger is really worth it, with even the US government recently urging people to eat less red meat. Heart disease remains the top killer in the country. On the opposite end of the spectrum, meat consumption is rising quickly amongst middle classes across the developing world, thanks to rising incomes and the reduction of meat prices that comes with intensive animal farming.
Growing meat from seeds
Artificial animal products are nothing new. Soy-based tofu and tempeh, as well as the wheat gluten-derived seitan, have long been on vegetarian and vegan menus. And on the dairy side soy, almond, coconut, and rice can all make popular “milks” and less- popular “cheeses.” Despite the popularity and potential health benefits of such products, they are ultimately alternatives rather than true substitutes because they have a taste and consistency distinct from the original. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as consumers may even view these distinctions as improvements upon the original, it means that such products are unlikely to convert animal product loyalists.
In order to win over a consumer base that’s not made up of just vegetarians, producers of meat and dairy substitutes must create products that aren’t just good. They need to be excellent— either indistinguishable from the original, or better. For animal product alternatives to have the impact that their creators hope for, such as reduced meat consumption, fewer animals slaughtered, and a healthier environment—products need to resonate with the masses, not just vegetarians. By and large, the meat substitutes that currently exist have not attracted mainstream consumers, but a new generation of vegetarian companies are trying to pick up where their predecessors left off.
The Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat has been selling its “chicken” strips for several years now in the US, initially in health food stores and now in a wider array of food shops, including the affordably priced Target. As creators of products that are GMO-free, gluten free, and even one “beef” product which is soy free, the health-conscious market is an obvious target for the company. Their pioneering of soy-free products is particularly noteworthy. Artificial meats have historically been synonymous with soy, but recently consumers have grown concerned about the potential negative health effects of too much soy.
The “chicken” is a mixture of soy and pea proteins, yeast, rice flour, and several other plant-derived ingredients. The food scientists behind the chicken pioneered an innovative, wet extrusion process that realigns the proteins in the mixture, and spits out a fibrous material with the same chew and “mouth feel” as genuine chicken. Texture has been a difficult puzzle for artificial meat creators to solve, so this new process represents a major step forward for alternative poultry products.
The taste received slightly more criticism than its texture, but reviews have been positive overall. Several critics maintained they would be unlikely to eat the chicken strips on their own, but when mixed into a dish, the Beyond Meat product passes for the real thing. This insight offers an intriguing potential market for these products in restaurants, fast food chains, and schools. Since its initial launch of products emulating chicken—the most widely consumed meat in the United States—the company has added beef alternatives to its menu.
Beyond Meat has won over a small, albeit devoted, consumer base and a broader audience eagerly anticipating future product iterations. Beyond Meat’s products are affordable at under $6 for a pack of four servings, priced competitively with pre-cooked, pre-seasoned genuine chicken products, but still more expensive than raw chicken. But as operations scale up, it is likely that these products will be able to underprice the real thing. From an early stage, the company’s founders have indicated their interest in tapping into emerging markets and displacing some of their poultry consumption. As product prices continue to fall, it becomes more likely that Beyond Meat’s products will play a disruptive role in some of the largest meat-consuming countries in the world.
A few hundred miles north is another widely talked about firm creating a new kind of “meat.” San Francisco-based Impossible Foods is formulating an intriguing “beef” patty, and simultaneously starting work on the beef patty’s counterpart, American “cheese.”
The company, funded by a number of well-known investors including Bill Gates and Google Ventures, has largely been shrouded in secrecy since its 2011 inception. But buzz has grown much louder over the past several months as the company gears up to launch its flagship product next year. The scientists behind the burger claim that they have found and replicated what they argue is a critical, and before this point unreplicable, component of red meat: blood.
Leguminous plants contain leghemoglobin in their roots. This is a protein compound, which as its name suggests, is similar to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in vertebrate red blood cells. From leghemoglobin, the Impossible Foods scientists have isolated heme, and they are using the red iron-containing compound as “blood” in their recipes. The implications for taste have been impressive and the importance of appearance cannot be discounted either, with a raw “burger” even leaving behind a bloody-looking pool on a plate.
It’s unclear as to when exactly these burgers, which also sizzle and grill much like red meat does, will enter the market. It’s also unclear as to how much they will cost. Last year, each patty cost about $20 to produce, and the costs associated with heme isolation at scale are significant.
Other “Meat” Products
According to estimates, Americans ordered a total of 9 billion burgers in restaurants and food service outlets in 2014. And when the number of burgers consumed in American homes is factored in, that number increases by several times, with some estimating total consumption to be closer to 50 billion burgers each year—a staggering figure in a country of 319 million.
The American love affair with the hamburger, the steep resource requirements of cows, and the fact that they are the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, makes it obvious as to why so many people are trying to create the perfect meaty, yet non-meat burger. And while companies like Impossible Foods maintain that this can be done effectively through the use of only plant-based materials, others believe there is a better, and more “authentic” possibility.
A team of researchers at Cultured Beef—led by Dutch university professor Mark Post, and funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin—unveiled a lab-grown beef burger in 2013. Nicknamed by the media as the “Franken-burger” and the “Quarter Million Pounder,” the burger was indeed both a major step forward in creating synthetic meat, and an extremely expensive endeavor.
The first step in their process is extracting a small amount of muscle tissue from a living cow. From that sample, muscle stem cells are identified and isolated, and their growth and regeneration encouraged by the growth medium in which they are placed. In that initial iteration, the growth medium included fetal bovine serum, which comes from the blood of cow fetuses, but the team has been working on eliminating that ingredient in order to make the process more scalable and ethical. Next, the scientists build a few “anchor” points around which the cells can organize themselves, and then proceed to apply nutrients to the cells. Once there are enough cells, they can be harvested to form a beef patty made out of the exact same components as any other beef patty—cow cells. The regenerative properties of stem cells means that a small sample of muscle tissue has the ability to produce a lot of beef. According to the team, a single tissue sample has the ability to create 20,000 tons of beef.
This meat has ignited debate amongst moral vegetarians, or those individuals who stopped eating meat because of environmental concerns or due to an opposition to animal cruelty, as to whether they would consume the product. In order for most vegetarians to consider doing so, however, the process will have to eliminate fetal bovine serum as an input. According to many, that ingredient still makes the product unethical. Producers are toeing an interesting, almost contrarian line, luring in vegetarians with the promise of an alternative meat, while promising omnivores that it is identical to the meat they know.
Cultured beef, also sometimes referred to as in-vitro beef, is not without its challenges. The 2013 unveiling was more of a proof of concept rather than a finished product, and the taste was not widely lauded. The product’s composition of exclusively muscle cells meant that fat, a crucial flavor-lending component to any burger, was missing. But more concerning than its taste, which the team has actively been tweaking since the product release, is cost. At the product’s unveiling, the burger cost close to $300,000 to produce. But this number has been falling and will continue to fall. According to statements by the Cultured Beef team leader Mark Post in March of this year, the beef could be produced at $80 per kilogram, and in the coming decades it will be priced competitively with traditional beef.
This longer wait gives producers of plant-based meat substitutes plenty of time to get formulas just right. And if they succeed in doing so, they could crowd out the need for cultured beef altogether.
Both plant and animal-derived alternative proteins share a crucial strength and weakness. On the positive side, the engineering of meat products gives producers the opportunity to create a perfect “meat”,one in which nutrition has been optimized. Trans fats can easily be eliminated, mineral content increased, and protein levels altered. And producers can ensure that all of their products are uniform and consistent, eliminating quality issues. But on the negative side, each approach is relatively far from producing more complex types of meat. Burgers and chicken strips are easy pickings compared to a filet mignon or lamb chops. It’s probable that both approaches will focus on creating minced meat-based products for the foreseeable future.
Humans love meat. It’s written in our evolutionary history, cultures, and bodies. But a constantly growing population, limited resources, and a fragile earth make the future of traditional sources of protein uncertain.
People don’t like being told no. Simply suggesting they should not eat meat will not work if the product they seek is still affordable. But if people are given viable alternatives, they are much more likely to reduce their consumption of animal products. These alternatives don’t just need to be comparable to the original products—they either need to be indistinguishable from them, or even better than them, in order to attract a wide consumer base.
A wide consumer base is ultimately what every producer of meat alternatives seeks —not just vegetarians, and not just the eco-conscious, but the masses in the developed and developing worlds.