The Future of Meat May Not Require Animals
So, you’ve sworn off meat. Or maybe you’ve sworn to eat less meat. Factory farming is terrible for the environment, you’ve read. Or maybe you’re worried about animal cruelty. Both valid concerns, but here’s the thing: Meat production will soon stop requiring breeding livestock; in fact, it may stop requiring animals entirely.
Cultured meat refers to meat grown in a laboratory from a sample of an animal’s muscle stem cells. That sample is then placed in a medium that accelerates growth. The whole process takes roughly six months to grow 180kg of meat, instead of the two and a half years it takes to grow a cow that can yield 180kg of meat. The idea of lab-grown meat dates back to the 20th century, though it wasn’t until 2013 that the first lab-made beef burger was made, cooked, and eaten publicly.
In the seven years since, start-ups focusing on cultured beef, pork, poultry, and seafood have proliferated, often with funding from big-name investors, like Bill Gates, all with the aim of finding a much more cost-effective means of production and a higher-quality taste. The 2013 burger was reportedly overly dry and too lean; it also cost more than US$300,000 to produce. In 2018, one start-up, Memphis Meats, had brought manufacturing expenses down to US$600 for a quarter-pound of meat, reports Scientific American. While still wildly outside the range of affordability, it’s exponentially closer — to the point that some are predicting cultured meat will become a viable option at the grocery store (assuming the American Food and Drug Administration approves it) within the next couple of years. Memphis Meats and others will face tough opposition from typical meat producers, who claim lab-grown meat isn’t actual meat.
But reconsidering what meat is is also part of its future. Meat is chiefly nutritionally valuable for its protein content. And alternative protein — meatless meat, that is — is being developed very quickly thanks, in large part, to space travel ambitions; long-haul space travel — of the kind required to reach Mars — would require astronauts to generate sustainably their own food in closed, climate-controlled environments during flight and after. One way to generate protein in this kind of environment is to synthesize it — in some cases from thin air.
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Well, not entirely from thin air, though that is the marketing touted by Air Protein, a start-up working to commercialize protein created as a byproduct by microbes fed on carbon dioxide — meat without animals, so to speak. It has the benefit of producing something consumable (one assumes) from sheer waste (CO2), as well as the benefit of requiring few resources in terms of time and space. Air Protein is not the first to try to build a new, microbe-based protein industry, however; a company called Quorn tried to market protein from an exotic fungal extract a few years ago — but came to a stuttering halt when the company tried to market the protein as “mushroom-based,” reports Popular Mechanics, a claim consumers felt was too close to a lie.
Still, the response to Quorn’s attempt suggests the real barrier to an evolved future of meat consumption is marketing. Biologically speaking, tastes can change with enough exposure — it’s our expectations that don’t. Research shows that we typically have already made up our mind whether we’ll enjoy the taste of something based on our perception of it before we even put it in our mouth — which is, perhaps, why the most successful meatless meats today are the ones that are entirely plant-based — but look and taste like meat.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are two of the biggest names behind plant-based, meat-tasting and -looking meat alternatives. Both have raised significant sums of funding, have enjoyed trial runs with their respective burgers at two of the biggest fast-food chains in the world — Burger King and McDonald’s respectively, and have entered grocery markets in the U.S. The Impossible Burger even adds genetically modified heme iron — which naturally occurs in beef, but is added to Impossible Burgers after being synthesized from soybean and yeast — to its plant-based burger in order to mimic the bloody rawness and taste of real beef. Most, but not all, of the innovation in this field comes from start-ups based in the U.S., where beef consumption is high; Impossible Foods, however, just launched this week a new Impossible Pork product, which is aimed at the European and Asian markets. Other startups in the U.S. and Israel are focusing on alternatives to chicken and fish farming. And an Udaipur-based startup — GoodDot Enterprises — is seeking to make vegetarian mutton and chicken a thing in India.
That said, some have raised concerns over the nutrition of these faux meats. While they may not contribute to cancer, heart disease, and kidney problems, as overconsumption of red meat does, plant-based burgers, for instance, tend to contain high amounts of sodium — which, with overconsumption, can contribute to heart disease, kidney problems, and more.
Still, if the main draw for consumers is the comparatively ethical and eco-conscious production of these meats-without-animals, their nutritional value may be of secondary concern. Interest in plant-based diets have steadily increased in recent years, as more and more dietary advice eschews meat; data from Google Trends suggests curiosity about veganism has quadrupled since 2012. So, if you are one of the growing number of people who really have sworn off, or sworn to eat less, meat this year, you’re not alone. And unlike previous generations of veg or semi-veg converts — you don’t have to leave behind meat entirely.