Going Cold Turkey: Will We Save The World With Meatless Meat?
By Laxmi Haigh
Long gone are the days of plant-based meals being confined (at least in the mainstream mindset) to tofu and beans. This is not because vegetables have suddenly shifted form or learnt to sprout extra pockets of flavour. No, we have learnt how to love and nourish vegetables through cooking, embedding flavour layer on layer. And in the swinging plant-based food scene, the vast range of meat analogues, or ‘meat alternatives’, have been the breakout investment decisions of the 2020s. You name the meat product, and I bet there’s a pretty good alternative out there: steak, burger, calamari, gyros and more. It’s like being a kid in a plant-based candy shop.
However, the story of the meat alternative is not as new as you may think, and drivers for their consumption have always been wide-ranging—as they remain today. But one stands out in the 2020s— sustainability. This article will dive into the rich history of the meat alternative product, explore some of the mind-bending technologies we have today and ask the ultimate question: can we save the environment with meat alternatives, or, as some have dubbed them, meat 2.0?
A rich history of meat and dairy alternatives across the world
There is no doubt that the rise of the plant-based diet has been phenomenal in recent years: gaining steam and even going mainstream. Euromonitor research suggests that 23% of consumers globally are limiting their meat intake, typically driven by concerns around health, sustainability and animal welfare. It may come as no surprise that a lot of green-minded consumers are eschewing meat for reasons rooted in our changing climate. Indeed the world is on a dangerous path: spewing far too many greenhouse gas emissions, consuming far too many precious and finite materials from the earth and, ultimately, not doing enough to shift this unsustainable status-quo.
Changing your diet to protect the planet may seem like a pretty 21st-century motivation. Yet plant-based diets, and especially meat alternative products and ingredients, have a long and rich history—albeit driven by disparate motivations. Almond milk was on the menu as far back as the 13th century, used by Christians as a milk alternative during lent. The religious link to meat and animal product alternatives is clear: Mahatma Gandhi was famously vegetarian, the Seventh-day Adventists were among the first to use seitan in America in the 1800s and many sects of religions still do not typically eat meat, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and more. But aside from moral reasons to skip meat or dairy, the cost was also a driving historical factor. As The Economist reports, an Austrian recipe from the 1600s referred to almond milk as ‘lard for poor people’, and examples of nut- and seed-based milks can be found in multiple recipes over the ages in Europe. And interestingly, the advent of tofu—one of the most notable Asian ingredients—was rooted in ingredient scarcity. Again spotlighted by The Economist, the Tang dynasty between 618 and 907 AD developed a taste for cheese imported from Europe. Yet dairy milk was far less ubiquitous in the area, so the Chinese applied the ‘cheese-making technique’ to an easy-to-access ingredient: soy. This resulted in their own ‘bean cheese’, or tofu, as we have come to know—and love.
Meat now dominates diets in the West. The average American eats about 11 times more meat than the average Bangladeshi. Why? Because of dollars, pounds and euros. With the rise of industrialisation in the 19th century, meat-eating consumers had a lot more disposable income to spend on food, and meat—that was an ingredient long considered a treat for many populations that were even fleeing famine—was top of the menu. Aside from having more money to spend on food, meat in America, for example, became especially cheap compared to other rich countries, such as Japan. Chicken became the cheapest of all as industrial operations lowered the price and pushed up demand. The demand for chicken quickly outpaced beef. Americans now collectively eat about 21 million chickens per day.
The modern era of meat imitations: all the taste (debatable), none of the cruelty (indisputable)
There is a long and complicated history of meat-eating in the west that we have to skip over to get to the current day: 2022. While western diets are still overwhelmingly meat-heavy, there has been a radical shift in what consumers pop in their shopping trolleys: ‘modern’ meat alternatives make up a larger and larger share. Globally, the retail sales of plant-based meat reached US$7 billion in 2020—a boost of 27% compared to the previous year. The impact of the covid-19 pandemic only served to further shift consumers’ preferences away from meat. The pandemic also had an interesting impact on food value-chains: virus outbreaks in meat factories led to a loss of US$13.6 billion in the US beef industry alone. On the other hand, plant-based meat companies enjoyed record investments.
Just like in the 13th and 16th centuries, modern consumers are driven by both moral and price considerations—and now, the environmental badge of disgrace afforded to meat and dairy is certainly a major deterrent. But we cannot overlook the impact of modern technologies and ingredient flair on meat alternatives’ consumption. In mimicking meat, formerly marketed as ‘vegan’ products can now be successfully marketed to meat-eaters. The family of ‘modern’ meat alternatives tout remarkably realistic meat textures and taste, achieved through a range of mind-bending techniques. Consider meatless burgers that ‘bleed’, plant-based steaks marbled with ‘fat’ or fish-free fish and chips complete with tiny bones. We have entered into the era of meat 2.0: all the taste (debatable), none of the cruelty (indisputable).
Meatless pioneer Impossible Burger’s burger range famously ‘bleeds’: this strange science comes from the plant protein heme, an iron-rich molecule that somewhat resembles blood. Meanwhile, Israeli start-up Aleph Farms has been a leader in ‘slaughter free’ steaks grown in petri dishes from animal cells. Now the company has secured millions of dollars in funding to expand its operations and 3D printing facilities—and it’s eyeing ‘thicker and fattier cuts of meat’. Redefine Meat is also working in the 3D meat-printing space: its beef cuts use ink made from legumes and grains to mimic fleshy muscle textures, plant fats, and natural flavours and colours to copy the ‘blood factor’ and juiciness. The startup has said it hopes to become ‘the world’s largest meat company by offering every single cut that a cow does’. Finally, don’t forget the fish: Plantish creates whole-cut substitute fish from plant proteins. The company deconstructed salmon—famously hard to replicate—and mirrored its fine layer by layer make-up using plant proteins. This innovative creation caught the eye of the investor world and secured the company the largest seed round to date in the alt-seafood market. These products, and more, are well and truly mainstream. Pop into McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and even some top-tier restaurants and spot them on the menu. The meat alternative space means business.
Better for us, better for the planet?
Remember that 21 million chickens a day statistic? Modern global meat habits which rely on industrial meat production have decimated the environment. This might sound dramatic, but industrial meat production accounts for the extinction of thousands of species. To grow the crops needed to feed hungry cattle, and to rear billions of animals, humans slash and burn biodiversity–rich habitats—such as the Amazon. Less than one-tenth of the world’s soy production—infamous as a driver of deforestation—is used to feed humans, for example, the vast majority being used to fatten farm animals. Between 2010 and 2020, a space of forest land larger than the size of the Netherlands was lost to agricultural purposes. The system is also full of loopholes, so even companies that pledge ‘deforestation-free meat’ cannot necessarily be trusted. Big beef is responsible for the Brazilian Amazon’s demise.
Industrial meat production is also a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, which are warming the world’s climate at a rapid—and dangerous—rate. When forests are destroyed in the name of meat, billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide are spewed into the atmosphere. Trees are also natural carbon sinks, meaning that when we cut them down, they can no longer soak up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and help us mitigate climate change. The use of toxic synthetic fertilisers on farms also releases emissions and toxins into the ground and freshwater. Overall, animal agriculture is responsible for a large proportion of all greenhouse gas emissions, with researchers estimating between 57 and 87%.
Now, what of our growing taste for meat alternative products? Well, it’s good news on this front. Many of the big brands in the space tout their ‘green’ profile: Impossible Foods’ tagline is even ‘Eat Meat. Save the Planet’. And indeed, its soy-based burger emits 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and uses 96% less land and 87% less water. However, the way that many of the brands lead with their green credentials has drawn criticism. One FoodPrint paper notes that even if they are meat-free, they are still heavily processed: ‘They might have a lower environmental footprint than industrial meat, but performing better than the most polluting products in the food system is a low bar to clear.’ Indeed, processed foods still rely on industrial food production processes which come with environmental harm, such as monocropping. Monocropping is when large areas of only one species of crop are farmed, which makes maintenance and harvesting easier, but it usually requires synthetic fertilisers and it damages the soil, making future farming harder. Processed foods also usually contain more salt and sugar than less processed alternatives—also the case with many popular meat alternatives.
Simple, and ethical, is best
Ultimately, meat alternatives are better than industrially farmed meat. That’s for sure. But if you really want to eat the most planet-friendly diet, researchers note that less-processed plant-based protein options score far higher: beans, pulses, vegetables—even algae and insects. Sometimes, simple is best. But there is no denying that meat alternatives play a role in shifting meat-eaters’ diets away from meat. A major reduction in the levels of meat eaten around the world is a must to reach our goal of a safe climate—and meat alternatives have their part to play. So every now and again, go and enjoy your flesh-free chicken nuggets. You’re making the right choice.
Laxmi is an experienced sustainability writer with a background in academic research, journalism and science writing. After spending the years after her MSc as a journalist reporting on sustainability trends in the food and packaging sector, she moved to the NGO space. She now leads the Editorial team at Circle Economy, an impact organisation based in Amsterdam.