Will food science provide an escape from our unsustainable and inhumane dependency on meat consumption and animal agriculture?
Trying to stay positive about the future of farmed animals is not easy for the animal activists, ethical vegetarians and environmentalists who care about the animal cruelty and ecological damage caused by factory farms.
While some might be cheered by the decline in meat consumption in North America and Europe (which only applies to red meat, not poultry), the projections for consumption elsewhere, especially in China, are dispiriting.
One recent study found that per capita meat consumption in China has increased by 400 per cent since 1971 and is still growing. (But the Chinese still only eat 55 kg of meat per person each year, compared to 107 kg for Americans.) According to the United Nations, total demand for animal products in developing countries is expected to more than double by 2030. This demand will almost inevitably be met by increasing numbers of large factory farms, with all their inherent cruelty and damage to the environment.
One proposed way of avoiding this dark future is to replace meat with sustainable plant-based products. New processes, market trends and technical innovations in some developed countries suggest we might yet escape a massive increase in animal suffering and environmental degradation caused by the growth in intensive animal agriculture. The “fake meat” industry is not without its critics and some vegetarians and vegans warn against heavily processed food, arguing that traditional, natural sources of protein (e.g. beans, lentils,) are the best alternatives to meat. Others contend that creating highly palatable, convenient meat substitutes is the only way to draw modern meat eaters away from their ingrained attraction to sausages, bacon, burgers, hot dogs, chicken wings and steaks.
Europe appears to be leading the way in the development of meat alternatives, with the Netherlands most recently announcing the creation of a “steak” made from vegetable protein. Scientists at Wageningen University produced the steak using Shear cell technology, an energy-efficient process that researchers claim reproduces the fibrous texture of steak. A Dutch firm, The Vegetarian Butcher (which helped fund the research) is already a highly successful purveyor of meat substitutes, with more than 1000 dealers and distributors across the Netherlands.
In famously meat-loving Germany, sales of new meat substitutes are increasingly popular, showing double-digit growth. Even meat companies see the potential. “Surprisingly, German companies that are traditionally associated with manufacturing meat products are now entering this market for meat substitutes, going so far as to launch meat imitations using the same brands as their meat-filled counterparts,” says one recent report. The director of a German meat company recently referred to sausages as “the cigarette of the future” and said that he wanted at least 30 per cent of the company’s sales to come from its vegetarian range by 2019.
In North America, companies like Beyond Meat, Hampton Creek and Gardein have already tapped into the growing consumer interest in alternatives to animal-based products. Market analysts predict that alternative protein sources could claim up to a third of the protein market by 2054.
All these companies have had to overcome technical hurdles as well as consumer and media scepticism. Yet, science appears to be succeeding when product development hits a wall. For example, pea protein has presented a problem to companies seeking to use it in plant-based products because of its bitter taste. But recently, food researchers found a way to reduce the bitterness, making the taste neutral – a small development but one that opens the door to using this non-animal protein in a range of new food products. If the meat alternative industry continues to resolve such issues, they could yet end up with products that will appeal to the most diehard carnivores.
It is difficult to know whether the new plant-based food industry is the answer to curtailing the horrors of factory farming, but with global meat consumption and production still rampant, it may be the best chance we have.