ONE of the consequences of having to produce meat to feed billions of people around the world is the rise of factory farming, where animals are reared in cramped cages, pumped full of antibiotics and fed hormones to make them grow faster. They’re slaughtered the moment they’re big enough to be processed for their meat.
This method of meat production is cost-efficient but inflicts tremendous misery on the animals. If you have any doubt about that just Google “battery farming” or type in those keywords on YouTube and you can see for yourself what it’s like.
It also inflicts enormous damage on the environment. According to the United Nations, meat production accounts for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. To get a sense of how bad that is, that’s a higher figure than what’s attributed to all the world’s transportation vehicles combined!
The good news is that advances in technology will soon make it possible for us to have meat without having to rear and kill animals. Actually the technology is already here but it’s just not quite ready for prime time yet. But it will be — very soon.
There are two ways to have meat without animals. The first one, the conventional approach, is to have vegetarian meat made out of plant material. Of course, mock meat has been around for a long time. Go to any Chinese vegetarian restaurant and you can find plenty of fake meat options on the menu.
They even look like real meat but they don’t taste anything like it. Real meat lovers wouldn’t touch mock meat with a 10-foot pole. If you want to have really successful mock meat, it’s got to be similar enough to real meat so much so carnivores will actually want to eat it.
Impossible, you say? Well, a company in the US, aptly called Impossible Foods, has developed a plant-based burger patty that’s said to be indistinguishable from the real thing. In taste tests conducted by the company, which includes offering free burgers to construction workers, it was found that many who tried the burger couldn’t tell that it was not actual beef.
Founded by Patrick Brown, a former biochemistry professor at Stanford University, the company sought to create mock meat that appeals not just to vegetarians but also to the meat-eating mass market. Brown has famously said that his target market are not vegetarians but meat eaters.
To achieve this feat, his team of scientists did research for five years to figure out what made meat taste like it does. The answer is something called “heme”, a compound that contains iron and is found in animal flesh. Apparently, it’s heme that gives red meat its taste and colour. They needed to mimic that.
The heme found in animals is called myoglobin but there’s a plant-based version called leghemoglobin, which can be obtained from soy plants. When added to the mock meat, it makes it smell, taste, and look like real meat.
Impossible Foods is a serious venture that has raised US$182 million (RM780 million) to date. It’s building a factory that can churn out up to four million burger patties per month once the site is fully functional by the end of this year.
If you’re one who prefers seafood over meat, don’t worry. There’s a mock seafood start-up called New Wave Foods that’s looking out for your business too. In line with its slogan, “We disrupt seafood, not oceans”, New Wave is taking a plant-based approach to producing “seafood”.
Its first product is a mock shrimp made from algae oil and pea protein. The company says that it will be ready to launch this product commercially by the end of next year.
ANIMAL-LESS MEAT INDUSTRY
The newer, more radical approach to animal-less meat is one which involves growing actual meat in a lab. This sounds like science fiction but the technology is already a few years old. It was in 2013 when Dr Mark Post, a Holland-based researcher, introduced the world to the first lab-grown hamburger patty.
With the world’s press in attendance, Austrian food scientist Hanni Rutzler was invited to sample the burger. Her assessment: “intense taste” but “not that juicy”.
That single burger cost a whopping US$325,000 to produce. Rapid advances in biotechnology have brought that price down dramatically to the point that a lab-grown meat is on the verge of being commercially viable.
A company called Memphis Meats says it’s able to produce chicken meat, duck meat and beef meatballs from animal cells in a lab. It estimates that its products will be able to go to market by 2021.
Another company called Hampton Creek, which is known for vegan mayonnaise (no eggs are used), says it too is working on lab-made meat. Dr Post, the guy who introduced the lab-grown burger in 2013, also has his own little start up called Mosa Meats which is working on the same concept. With all these rival companies spurring each other on, it looks like we could have a viable animal-less meat industry sooner rather than later.
And just as there’s a seafood counterpart to mock meat, there’s also a seafood counterpart to animal-less meat. Appropriately named Finless Foods, this company is looking to make cultured tuna from fish cells.
Says the company: “Money is being poured into creating efficient aquaculture systems, to grow fish in tanks on land for human consumption. While this is a move in the right direction, if we’re going to make this system as efficient as possible we need to rethink things from the bottom up.”
They add: “Aquaculture is a system of inputs and outputs, why would we have our expensive food inputs create energy for the fish only to have that energy diverted into things we don’t need, like swimming or having a heartbeat? Why can’t we have a system that only puts energy into growing the parts that people want?”
Why not indeed? How the company plans to do this is by using a combination of established and cutting-edge cell culture techniques. “We’ll then design a cheap and efficient growth media for this cell line that will allow our cells to grow quickly,” the company says. “Once we have this, we will lay the cells out on a structure that’ll shape them to both look and have the texture of real fish meat, because it will be — on a cellular level — real fish meat.”
Whether you’re into mock or animal-less versions of meat and seafood, you’ll soon be able to buy all these remarkable products. Some of the items will be ready as soon as the end of this year and some might take a few years more. But they’re coming.
For sure, in the initial years, the prices of these items will be higher than the real thing. As such there won’t be mass adoption. Early adopters will be those who care about animal welfare and the environment — not those whose main consideration is price. So, it will be a niche market for a while.
Over time though, costs will naturally drop and when it reaches a point where it’s actually cheaper than the real stuff, that’s when you’ll have your tipping point. Only then will a mass consumer market for these products emerge. When this happens — it may take decades but it will be within our lifetime — it will be truly world-changing.