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EST. 1915

Emerging technologies in meat alternatives (or something. This didn’t go quite as expected.)

Updated: Oct 5, 2018

As industrial scale farming comes under fire more and more for reasons ranging from its treatment of animals to its gross inefficiency, alternatives have begun to spring up in very interesting forms. Two of the more prominent alternatives, are cultured meat and improved veggie burgers. While they might have been less than desirable at first, researchers and chefs have made great strides in both of these areas recently. Whether your concerns are for the animals, the environment, or the efficiency of the process, there are plenty of reasons to look into alternatives to industrial farming.

Concerns regarding animal treatment should be fairly clear. In industrial farms, animals are kept in very small, very dirty spaces and effectively force fed, often given growth hormones to try to yield more meat per animal. One, often overlooked, effect of these conditions is antibiotic resistance. Animals kept in these conditions are prone to infection and therefore, must either have antibiotics administered or farmers risk losing yield to disease. The FDA has estimated that the sales of antibiotics, specifically for this use, went up by about 23% between the years 2009 and 2014. As a result, due simply to natural selection, this antibiotic rich environment will allow antibiotic resistant bacteria to come about, posing a danger not only to the sustainability of industrial farming, but to people as well by consumption.

Environmental concerns related to industrial farming are slightly less obvious than animal-related concerns. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, industrial farming represents a greater threat to the environment through greenhouse gases than cars, producing in the neighborhood of 40% of all methane emissions and 65% of all nitrous oxide emissions. This poses a threat even at current production levels, but UN estimates point to a production increase of nearly 10% by 2030.

Both of the major concerns described above, stem from the inherent inefficiency of the process of farming animals. It takes significantly more food, water, and land to raise an animal than is required for just the meat. When animals are butchered, a lot remains as waste and those wasted parts required just as much feed, water, and energy as the recovered meat did. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has reported that livestock consume seven times more grain than people do in the United States alone and that the ratio of calories in fossil fuels used to calories in meat gained is 25:1, compared to just 2.2:1 for corn. The amount of water required to produce 1 kilogram of animal protein could produce 100 kilograms of grain protein, taking into account the water needed to grow the animals’ feed.

With these motivations behind them, several projects have gained traction in the past few years. These projects are attempting to find more efficient processes for creating meat or products to replace it. Specifically, one project spearheaded by Mark Post of the University of Maastricht, is attempting to grow meat in culture. Another project, led by Pat Brown of Impossible Foods, is creating a believable veggie burger called the “Impossible Burger” that tastes, smells, and even bleeds like a real beef patty.

In order to make a veggie burger that is so much like the real thing, Pat Brown had to tackle the question, “Why does meat taste like meat?”. He was able to trace the taste back to something called heme, which is found mostly in meat, but is also produced in small amounts by certain plants, including soybeans. After finding a way to mass produce heme, he just needed to find a suitable patty to use it with. Through much experimentation, a recipe was created that uses protein from wheat, potatoes, and soy, fat from coconut oil, and pieces of a type of yam called “konjac.” The burger this produces not only stays true to the real thing, but tastes good enough that several high end restaurants, including the Public, a Michelin star restaurant in New York, have put it on their menus.

Mark Post’s project to grow meat in culture has much broader aims than the “Impossible Burger.” With the techniques he is developing, it may soon be possible to mass produce actual meat with far less resources, directly replacing some of the demand for industrial farming. By growing the meat in a sterile environment, it is also possible to almost eliminate the need for antibiotics and to completely eliminate the need for growth hormones. Meat grown with current techniques is completely lean, with no fat whatsoever and must be mixed with fat in order to taste right. In the future, Post’s team aims to grow the meat and fat together to simplify the process as well as making various other changes to better facilitate large scale production. In the past few years, they have managed to improve the process to the point that the cost to grow the amount of meat needed to make a hamburger has dropped from $330,000 to just $11.

Ultimately, both of these methods for replacing industrial farming are far from achieving their end goal; however, the progress that has been made is promising. It is exciting to think that within a decade it may be possible to buy a product that is biologically meat, but has never been part of an animal. This one issue has effects that reach into many facets of everyday life, from food, to climate change, to antibiotic resistance; industrial farming touches everyone and these methods have potential to ease some of our concerns.

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