Playing God Could Save Our Planet: The Future of Animal Products for a Growing Population

Will the rise of veganism lead to a decrease in meat production? Surprisingly, the answer is not clear cut. While the number of reported vegans in Britain has increased fourfold in the past four years, this does not account for the vast majority of the population outside of the developed Western world. As the global population rises, living conditions improve in many developing areas of the world, and as the price of meat drops, meat consumption has continued to show an overall increase. The UN reports a 3 749 991 tonne increase in primary livestock production from 2016 to 2017. However, this trend has likely decreased in the succeeding two years.

The developed Western world is seeing an interesting shift in dietary trends. Where meat was for thousands of years considered a luxury, it is now vegan diets which are seen as the staple diet of the well-off mums and their private-school daughters. Where the poor where characterised by a thin physique, those in lower socioeconomic groups now have higher obesity rates than their wealthier counterparts.

The combination of changing social trends, an increasing population, and increased environmental awareness forecast a change to our diets and dress. One of the principal parts of this lifestyle includes animal products, which leads to the pressing question: what is the future of animal products in the commercial world?

One growing possibility which can be used to replace traditional meat production is known as ‘clean meat’. This method involves a delicate and potentially frightening process of growing meat. Muscle tissue is extracted from cows in a supposedly painless process. Stem cells are then cultured in a lab with nutrients and growth-promoting chemicals for three weeks until there are more than a million stem cells in the dish. The samples are separated and placed into smaller dishes which then coalesce into small strips of muscle tissue about one centimetre long and a few millimetres thick. After being collected into small pellets and frozen, they can be defrosted and compacted into a patty once enough of these pellets have been grown. To add flavour and colour; beetroot juice, breadcrumbs, caramel, and saffron can be added before being cooked.

The first clean meat hamburger to be eaten in England was in 2013 with a group of food critics who claimed that the meat tasted “close to meat, but not that juicy”. The hamburger was created by a Dutch Institute with funding from Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google.

A handful of companies such as California-based Memphis Meats have been experimenting with clean meat for commercial production. There are several prominent issues, however, which prevent stem cell-cultured meat from reaching the market. One outstanding factor is cost. The original cost for Memphis Meats to produce one pound (0.45 kg) of clean meat was $18 000 (approx. £13 500). By January 2018 they had reduced the cost to $2 400 per pound. Part of what makes stem cell meat so costly is the need for fetal bovine serum (FBS) which is extracted from cow fetuses and is extremely expensive.

Another obstacle faced in clean meat production is the so-called ‘yuck factor’; many American and British consumers would struggle to consume a hamburger grown in a lab. Helen Breewood, who worked to create the first clean meat hamburger mentioned previously, claims that “a lot of people consider lab-grown meat repulsive at first. But if they consider what goes into producing normal meat in a slaughterhouse, I think they would also find that repulsive”.

While clean meat is not yet in commercial sale, companies like Memphis Meats have big ambitions, like bringing clean chicken and duck into sale by 2021. Even if the technology allows, the ‘meat’ must pass regulation checks and ethical concerns before we will be seeing vegetarian meat on our plates.

Another more familiar concept is that of ‘fake meat’ or ‘vegan meat’. Companies like Quorn already have massive popularity in the UK market, but some businesses want to take the idea of fake meat even further. Two standout companies who are pioneering the road for meatless ‘meat’ are Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Each company’s ethos is worth analysing before we bring them into our everyday diets.

Beyond Meat believes that meat does not need to originate from an animal. They claim that “meat is made up of four building blocks: protein, fat, trace minerals, and water. Beyond Meat finds these same building blocks in the plant kingdom to rebuild meat from the ground up without sacrificing on taste or texture”. This gives them the opportunity to emblazon ‘REAL MEAT’ on their packaging, with a sub-script of ‘100% plant protein’. Their website also boasts that their products can be found in the meat aisle. This could pose an ethical question: whether meat-like products should be allowed to brand themselves as meat. Some devoted vegans would claim that this is disrespectful to the animals, whilst meat-lovers pledge that this is misleading to consumers. The FAO defines meat as the flesh of animals used for food, meaning that in principle, any products containing the word ‘meat’ could be branded as false advertising. In the US, the FDA must first find sufficient evidence that consumers are purchasing the pseudo-meat products on misleading advertising. Unfortunately for extreme carnivores and herbivores, this has not yet lead to any changes.

The taste difference between meat and plant-based ‘meat’ is growing less and less distinguishable. Another popular US company, Impossible Foods, has found an innovative way to satisfy consumers with a meaty texture and taste. They create their unique taste using heme, which is the non-protein part of haemoglobin, and which the company believes is the principal component in meat which makes the flavour so enjoyable. The company genetically engineer yeast cells to produce soy leghaemoglobin, a molecule found in the root nodules of legumes. The yeast is grown via fermentation and the soy leghaemoglobin is extracted from the fermenter. This red liquid is then added to a plant-based mixture which mimics the texture of meat. More beetroot juice and flavouring can then be added to enhance the flavour, and even allow the burger patties to ‘bleed’.

If the concept of lab-grown steaks and bleeding veggie burgers is not unsettling enough, many argue that insects must become a part of our protein diets if the population is to sustain itself. There is ample evidence to suggest that insect protein is more sustainable and perhaps even healthier than regular meat production. Raising crickets results in 100x lower greenhouse gas emissions than beef production per gram of protein. Crickets also require significantly less feed and space, and crickets have higher proportions of protein than beef and chicken. Despite the overwhelmingly convincing evidence to encourage at least one of the 1400 species of consumable insects into our diets, the ‘yuck factor’ is perhaps even more severe for insects. Nearly 40% of people in the US say that they won’t eat insects, but some companies like Exo and Chapul have found a more palatable way of incorporating insect protein. They produce cricket flour which they use in their protein bars so that consumers are less concerned about the look and texture of insects in their food.

Some more niche forms of protein are currently in research. This varies from producing a methane-based protein to using gene sequencing to create milk without the cow. There is also a growing market for seafood alternatives, given that shrimp has a carbon footprint ten times greater than that of beef and the fact that 90% of global fish stocks are overwhelmed.

It is impossible to turn a blind eye to the issue at hand. The environmental mark which livestock production leaves is irreparable. Removing meat from the human diet would reduce 60% of the food-related greenhouse gas emissions, but this is perhaps not a viable option for many. The issue is complex; and political, ethical, economic, and cultural spheres tend to merge until it is unclear where the next step should be taken. For example, lab-grown meat boasts to expel only 4% of the greenhouse gases produced in conventionally farmed beef, yet it comes with its own high costs for electricity and heating.

The world population is expected to grow to 9.6B by 2050, meaning a 61% increase in food demand. In countries like China, protein consumption is expected to grow 3-4% per year due to a growing middle class. This only emphasises the desperate need for a unified stance for tackling climate change by the horns; quite literally. Thankfully, China introduced an ambitious plan in 2017 to cut the country’s meat consumption by 50%.

Even if we eliminate meat consumption entirely, there is a heavy toll on global economies and businesses. The meat sector is the largest employer within US agriculture and countries such as Brazil rely heavily on cattle exports to sustain itself. The hope lies in that fact that the global population is unlikely to ever cut livestock production to such extreme lengths. Even as necessary cuts to livestock companies occur, these will be gradual and new jobs will open up within the alternative protein branches.

Whether we are playing God by engineering our own meat or pulverising insects in an attempt to overcome the picky Western consumer, the conversation about the future of animal products in our world will go on. In order to ensure the most stable future for the next generation and for our fellow animals we must innovate and change. Now there is food for thought.