Developing new ways to produce food will be essential if we are to feed fast growing populations and combat the effects of ever climate change. The world population is projected to reach 8.5 billion in 2030, and to increase further to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.
Growing demand for food is having a profound impact on the environment in many ways, not least on the climate. There is indisputable evidence that cattle farming alone is responsible for a huge portion of greenhouse gas emissions (18%). This growing realisation among the public has led many people in the developed world to alter their diets, by reducing meat consumption or eliminating it entirely. The trend has given rise to a new phenomenon: a wave of plant and even lab-based meat and fish alternatives.
Two companies in particular have been engineering a plant-based burger that smells, tastes and looks like ground beef. The California start-up Impossible Foods, was founded in 2011, and has secured backing from huge names including Bill Gates, Serena Williams and Jay-Z with its totally plant based burgers. Its founder, Patrick O. Brown, is a former Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and professor of biochemistry at the Stanford University School of Medicine. CEO, Pat Brown claims: "The primary goal is to effectively eliminate the use of animals in the food system.”
Beyond Meat’s founder, Ethan Brown, has echoed this, going as far as saying that we are in an age of redefining the very meaning of what meat is. Earlier this year, he wrote: “If we insist meat be defined by origin—namely poultry, pigs and cows—we face limited choices. But if we define meat by composition and structure—amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins, and water woven together in the familiar assembly of muscle, or meat—we can innovate toward a solution.”
The Impossible Burger has 21 ingredients, and the Beyond Burger has 22, The main ingredients in the Impossible burger are soy protein isolate, sunflower oil, and coconut oil. For Beyond, it is pea protein isolate, coconut oil, and canola oil. Each ingredient aims to mimic those found in meat; hence the oil mimics the fat, the soy and pea protein content, the protein.
Beyond Meat’s products are now sold in the meat section at more than 35,000 grocery stores nationwide, and Impossible’s products are sold at more than 7,000 restaurants, including fast-food chains like Burger King. Beyond Meat’s IPO was the most successful of 2019 so far, giving the company a market value of $3.77bn. Impossible Foods, a private company, is valued at about $2bn.
It is not only beef that is the subject of lab-based alternatives. Bluefin tuna populations have declined severely from overfishing and illegal fishing over the past few decades and a large part of that is believed to be demand from the sushi markets. Ahimi is a raw ‘tuna’, made with tomatoes containing high levels of naturally-occurring glutamic acids, which are responsible for the savoury flavour of meaty foods. The man behind the project, James Corwell, has turned the humble tomato into an alternative to tuna, in an effort to battle the scourge of over-fishing. Made from just five natural ingredients - tomatoes, soy sauce, filtered water, sesame oil and sugar - Ahimi is also healthy, free of mercury, PCBs, and other toxic chemicals found in fish.
Hampton Creek, established in 2011, was the brainchild of CEO Josh Tetrick and Josh Balk with the goal to produce plant-based alternatives to foods that traditionally require eggs such as mayonnaise. In 2016, that evolved into something more; the goal to produce clean meat. The company, now called JUST inc, is now valued at over a billion dollars, and the goal is to find alternatives to as many meats as possible. There are thirty-five million cattle slaughtered for food annually in the United States alone, and nine billion chickens. On his Linkedin, Tetrick describes the company’s goals as “bringing healthier and more affordable food to everyone, everywhere”.
One of these alternatives being developed is totally animal free, lab developed Foie Gras, a delicacy which has come under fire for several years from animal rights campaigners. The product created from artificially fattening up ducks, to cultivate a rich liver for human consumption, could also be the latest lab-made innovation to hit the mainstream.
Mission Barns, a company set up by Eitan Fischer, with six employees and a million dollars of funding, has gone one step further than the plant-based alternatives, using isolated cells from farm animals which are then grown in a lab as they would in a cow, chicken, or pig by feeding them specially formulated media in large bioreactors. After the cells multiply and mature into tissue, the cultivation process is complete. Meat is then ‘harvested’, and sold. Not only is there little environmental impact compared to agricultural farming, it is healthier too. The process involves no antibiotics, meaning the system prevents the spread of food-borne illness and avoids the breeding of antibiotic-resistant diseases, plus, it eliminates animal cruelty. The company is working on a range of products including duck and bacon. The process is focused on creating animal fat, where much of the distinctive flavour of meat is found. It recently mixed the fat with other ingredients to create duck sausages. Creating more structured meat products, like a duck breast or a steak, is expected to take much longer.
Scientifically engineered, lab-based ‘meat’, could offer a solution to ethical debates and not least, the huge footprint agriculture is leaving on the planet, though it is not without its own price. Highly processed foods may lack the nutrient content, but with so many scientific minds uniting the goal of health and consciousness, it is only a matter of time and innovation before the two goals can merge.
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