The ‘alt-protein’ revolution is coming, and we should embrace it.
On May 2, US food tech company Beyond Meat went public to a stunning reception. By the close of the first day of trading, its share price had surged by a 163 percent – the best debut session of any IPO in over a decade.
Among Beyond Meat’s portfolio of revolutionary plant-based products is its flagship The Beyond Burger, which is designed to look, cook, and taste like ground beef. While it became the first plant-based meat company to go public, it certainly won’t be the last.
New technologies have sparked investment in the food space in recent years, driving over $7.5 billion in venture capital in 2018. The market for alternative meat products has captured the attention of venture capitalists, who see its potential to disrupt the $200 billion global meat industry.
Burgeoning consumer demand indicates meat substitutes are primed more than ever to go mainstream and the industry has taken notice: Big Food conglomerates are jumping onboard, as is Nestle and Burger King.
Whatever one’s ethical stance on meat is, its mass production is environmentally devastating. With advances in food science, meat tech companies’ solution is to engineer convincing and cruelty-free alternatives.
Will it usher us toward a post-meat future?
Greening our p(a)lates
One only needs to consider the costs associated with the meat and dairy industry to understand what has driven appetite for its replacement.
The link of meat to obesity, high carcinogen rates, and concern over antibiotic resistance encompass rising public health risks. Along with a resurgence in animal welfare campaigns, there is a growing recognition of the emotional, cognitive, and social complexity of nonhuman animals.
Perhaps the most significant factor is factory farming. Animal agriculture is the second largest greenhouse emissions contributor and the leading cause of biodiversity loss and wildlife extinction. The scale of the slaughter is staggering: tens of billions of livestock are killed annually by the global farming industry.
Studies have concluded that eliminating meat and dairy consumption is the single biggest way to reduce environmental impact. That future governments will consider subsidies for healthier foods and a meat tax appears inevitable on the current trajectory.
It isn’t surprising then that The Economist declared 2019 “the year of the vegan” and forecasts a plant-based future. But does everyone have to go vegan to save the planet?
Meat without murder
For millions, eating meat is culturally ingrained and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It has also been gendered: Carol Adams explored the intersection of meat and masculinity in The Sexual Politics of Meat, where she details how the relationship between meat, patriarchy and the media manufactured it as a symbol of masculinity to boost sales.
Challenging the assumption that meat is ‘normal’ is a social project. What we define as ‘natural’ wouldn’t exist without modern technology, and so virtually no modern food is natural.
While the myth that meat is a required source of protein is easily debunked, countering the belief that eating meat is a pleasurable act is much harder- even if that pleasure comes at the cost of tremendous suffering.
The nature of the problem is global. As those in developing countries become richer, the demand for animal protein is increasing. By 2050, the FAO predicts that global meat consumption will increase by 72 percent.
According to Jacy Reese in The End of Animal Farming, biotechnology will ultimately render slaughterhouses obsolete. With scientists and entrepreneurs leading the way, Reese’s techno-utopianism outlines how scalable solutions can be achieved by developing safe, cheap, and indistinguishable meat alternatives.
The proliferation of meat tech startups is an early sign that we might be on the precipice of an industry-wide arms race to reinvent the future of protein, one which doesn’t require animals to be sacrificed on the altar of our hunger.
Presently, the ‘alt-protein’ revolution is split between two camps. First, are plant-based proteins, vegetable-derived simulacra that attempt to mimic the taste and texture of meat. Impossible Foods uses soya heme to approximate the ‘bloodiness’ of a burger, while Just Scramble uses mung beans as an egg substitute.
The other is ‘clean meat’ or in-vitro, which is real biological meat harvested from living animals and grown in a lab by utilising culturing techniques. Profoundly innovative and speculative, this paradigm-shifting approach holds the most disruptive potential to transform the future of food.
The first lab-grown burger was unveiled in 2013 by Mark Post, co-founder of the Dutch startup Mosa Meats, which has raised close to $10 million to bring cultured meat to market by 2021. Chicken-focused US startup Memphis Meats has also promised cultured products in supermarkets by 2021.
Dao Foods plans to cater to China’s soaring alt-protein demand. Ahimsa Meats, India’s first lab meat project, obtained funding last month. Chilean startup NotCo uses artificial intelligence to discover plant-based combinations of ingredients that combine to create a replica of an animal product.
There are concerns. For investors, the economics are all too enticing: in both its plant-based and lab-cultivated forms, the products are deeply proprietary. Might it herald in a new era of corporate food titans who own the intellectual property to our food?
Given the civilisational stakes, alt-proteins provide the best opportunity to marry a consumer desire for meat with the effort to ensure global food security, a nutritious diet, and limit the environmental burden of food production.
For Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, animal agriculture is one of humanity’s greatest crimes. And maybe like in comedian Simon Amstell’s vegan-mockumentary Carnage, which depicts a post-meat utopia in 2067 where humans no longer consume animal products and live among them as equals, we might shamelessly look back at this moment in history as one of industrial-scale barbarism.
While meatless burgers will not single-handedly bring about that utopia, it could be a momentous step in the right direction.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
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