Who says beef has to come from cows?
If Turkeys voted for Christmas, this year would make an interesting election, as there’s a fake in town. It looks like a turkey, smells like a turkey and tastes like a turkey, without a single feather being plucked from our avian friend’s back. That’s thanks to a wave of pioneering food technology startups, that are finding novel ways to ‘grow’ meat, fish and (of course) plants that are healthier for you, and for the planet.
The global meat industry accounts for about 14.5 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the most emissions-intensive sectors. Producing and processing animal feed coupled with animal flatulence are the two main sources of these emissions. Cows are the worst offenders, as an incredible graphic from CarbonBrief illustrates. Meat production also requires a huge amount of energy and is the largest driver of habitat loss worldwide. And an estimated 73 percent of all antibiotics are used in farm animals.
Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest processor and marketer of beef, chicken and pork, entered the alternative-protein sector in 2016 with an investment in Beyond Meat, which makes sausages, burgers and meatballs from plants. Its $150 million investment fund, Tyson Ventures, has since channeled over $40 million into food startups ranging from plant-based protein alternatives to cell-based meat.
“Demand for all types of protein is growing globally,” according to a Tyson Foods spokesperson. “Within that, the interest and desire for alternative proteins is also growing steadily, driven by people who love meat becoming interested in something new.” Tyson expects the alternative protein market to grow 12-percent-a-year over the next five years.
A typical turkey roast with all the trimmings pumps about the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as driving some 78 miles in an average petrol car. A vegan nut roast emits less than half that. This means that if 85 percent of the UK population who normally eat meat for Christmas were to switch to plant-based alternatives, a huge 131 million kilograms of carbon dioxide would be saved.
Growing a different kind of demand
Meat demand has historically been driven by affluent Western palates. By comparison, many developing countries have cultural or religious traditions that promote a meat-free diet. In India for example, about 40 percent of the population are vegetarian. Yet developing regions are now poised to accelerate meat demand and with the global population set to soar to 9.7 billion in 2050, feeding these extra mouths with animal-protein won’t be feasible.
Startups including Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are using plants including peas, mung beans and soy to make meat-alternatives. Impossible Foods takes DNA from soy plants, slots it into genetically engineered yeast and ferments it to make heme, the molecule responsible for giving meat its taste. It says its burger generates 89 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a regular beefburger, uses 87 percent less water and 96 percent land.
“Choosing plants over beef is generally the most significant thing you can do, every day, to take action for a healthy planet,” says Rebekah Moses, Head of Impact Strategy at Impossible Foods. “Yet very few consumers are aware of that.” The startup sells its products in over 11,000 stores across the U.S., including Walmart and in 40,000 restaurants within the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau and Canada. This month also marks its first retail launch outside North America, to 200 grocery stores in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Another alternative to the slaughterhouse is cell-based meat, which takes cells from animals and grows them in a nutrient-rich environment. It’s similar to the way plants are cultivated and the resulting product is a real slab of steak rather than a plant-based substitute. The process can be used to grow fish in a laboratory as well. Tyson Ventures is invested in several cell-based meat startups, including Memphis Meats and Future Meat Technologies.
But plant greenhouses use energy, chemicals and water as well. Growing Underground is innovating in hydroponics, growing crops including pea shoots, watercress, radishes, coriander and garlic 33-meters below London’s pavements.
Increased innovation and competition are making growing underground increasingly cost-efficient, so that in the near future it will offer a competitive model, says Nick Ansell, Business Development Associate at Growing Underground. He notes that soil degradation, flooding, drought and the use of chemicals are undermining the low costs traditionally associated with conventional farming and its ability to offer consistent yields, price and produce quality. You can already buy the company’s produce in UK supermarkets including Ocado, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.
“In our farm we get around 50 harvests a year, compared with greenhouse farming, which gets 10-17 and outdoor seasonal farming which gets around 5 yields a season,” Ansell says. Crops are grown from floor-to-ceiling and the process uses 70 to 95 percent less water than conventional methods. What’s more, the food is grown close to consumers in towns and cities, reducing mileage from farm-to-plate and ensuring products stay fresher and last longer.
The market signals for alternative-protein are encouraging. In Europe, the UK has the strongest appetite for meat substitutes, with a market value of about $479 million. Sales of meat-free foods in the country have swollen by 40 percent since 2014 reaching about £816 million last year. In the US, the market value of plant-based meat is already around $1 billion.
And there are signs of governments and companies getting involved to raise awareness and encourage behavioral change. In New York City, Veracruz in Mexico and East Riding, Northern England, public schools serve meat-free meals every Monday.
The main challenges will be cost for consumers, particularly in a post-COVID-19 world. Other hurdles include educating consumers on plant-based and cell-based meat.
“We are relentless in creating a product that consumers can’t distinguish from beef, so they don’t have to compromise,” says Moses. She says it’s working. In the meantime, cell-based meat might offer die-hard carnivores a win-win alternative.
We need to care for and live in harmony with the environment, says climate and gender activist Ernestine Leikeki Sevidzem.
Companies with large agricultural supply chains can do something about the water crisis by joining the Ceres-WWF AgWater Challenge.