The rise of meatless meat
According to the Waitrose Food & Drink Report 2019, a third of the UK population is now eating less meat and fish than two years ago, and 32% plan to reduce their consumption even more over the next two years. This is due in part to the fact that consumers are more aware of the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industries. An average farm animal converts just 10% of the calories it eats into meat and dairy foods. With a growing global population, world food production needs to rise by 50% by 2030, and 75% by 2050, to meet increasing demand. The world must move to other food sources to feed humanity.
During an appearance on The David Rubenstein Show in October 2019, Microsoft-owner Bill Gates praised a vegan diet and in particular plant-based ‘meat’. Speaking about global warming and carbon emissions, Gates explained how cows, and other grass-eating species, have a digestion system that emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. “Cows alone account for about six percent of global emissions so we need to change [that],” Gates said.
When asked what that change needs to be, the philanthropist focused on plant-based start-ups such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods – both of which he has invested in – and how ‘artificial meat’ has progressed in the last five years.
“It’s slightly healthier for you in terms of less cholesterol, it’s of course a dramatic reduction in methane emissions, you know, animal cruelty, manure management, and the pressure meat consumption puts on land use.”
Gates’ opinion was backed up by a University of Michigan analysis of the environmental impact of the Beyond Burger, the plant-based patty from Beyond Meat, which makes burgers based on pea protein from yellow peas and uses beetroot juice to ooze or “bleed”. The academic research found that, relative to a beef burger, production of the Beyond Burger generated 90 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, used 93 per cent less land, 99 per cent less water and about half the energy.
Meat alternatives aren’t new. Veggie burgers have been available for years, but they were mostly targeted at vegetarians. Today’s ‘meatless meat’ products, however, are different in one important way: they are made from plants that are meant to taste like meat and specifically marketed to ‘carnivorous’ customers to replace some of their meat purchases.
In 2019, as a result of the growth in popularity of meatless meat, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods announced partnerships with major US restaurants and franchises including Burger King, Subway, and most recently KFC. These new deals resulted in the companies’ valuations soaring. In May 2019, Beyond Meat went public, initially selling its stock for $25, and then saw the shares jump to an astounding $169 by August of that year — which meant the company had a market capitalisation at the time of more than $10 billion. Shares have now dropped to an average of $80 per share, however.
Following on from fast-food success in the States, Burger King’s plant-based burger, the Rebel Whopper, has finally landed in mainland Europe. In the US, the patty is manufactured by Impossible Foods, valued in November 2019 at $5bn.
However, the European version is made by The Vegetarian Butcher, a Dutch business now owned by Unilever. Available in 4,000 outlets in 17 countries, their full plant-based range is limited in the UK to Waitrose and Tesco. With the new deal signed with Burger King, The Vegetarian Butcher will now have a presence in 2,500 fast food outlets around Europe. A note of caution though, if you are vegan and want to try it – the Rebel Whopper is not actually vegan as it is cooked on the same grill as the meat patties. This is a consideration for any catering teams who want to create a genuinely ‘vegan’ offering as part of their own food innovation.
Looking further into the future, a new non-meat meat is based on thin air. This air-based “meat” comes from a company called Air Protein and is based on an idea conceived by Nasa in the 1960s as a possible way to feed astronauts in space. The basic concept is that carbon dioxide breathed out by astronauts could be converted into nutrients by microorganisms called hydrogenotrophs.
By cultivating these microbes inside fermentation tanks and feeding them a mix of carbon dioxide and various other nutrients, Air Protein claims that it can produce an ingredient that is 80% protein. The end-product has the appearance of a pale brown powder and is said to have a “neutral flavour”. It is unlikely that anybody would accept this as meat, but the company says it could be blended with other ingredients to create meat alternatives or used as a supplement in protein bars or shakes.
According to Air Protein, most meat-free ‘meats’ are based on soy or other plant proteins, which have their own land-use footprint. Their product would have the environmental advantage of being made inside fermenting units, with a much lower carbon footprint.
Developments in lab-grown meat
Another alternative to ‘meat as we know it’ that’s recently gained a lot of attention is cell-based/cultured meat’: cell-based or lab-grown products are made from real animal cells but are grown in a food production plant instead of taken from animals raised in captivity and slaughtered for consumption. Essentially, the process involves collecting stem cells from animal tissue and then getting them to differentiate into fibres. These fibres are then developed and grown into a sufficient mass of muscle tissue that can be harvested and sold as meat.
Getting lab-grown meat to look like the real thing is more complicated. For consumers to find a burger made with cultured meat as appetising as a regular one, scientists need to find a way to mimic the red juice that comes out of a steak or hamburgers. Contrary to popular belief, that juice is not blood, it is actually water mixed with bits of tissue and the colour comes from a protein called myoglobin, which is similar to the oxygen-carrying protein haemoglobin.
Firms in California have taken some important steps. Tyson Foods, one of the biggest US meat processors, has invested an undisclosed amount in Memphis Meats, another firm in this field that says it is “harvesting cells instead of animals”. But despite the promises, no-one has yet mass-produced cultured meat for sale to the general public.
However, the full environmental impact of lab-grown meat is still not fully understood. A recent study by the Oxford Martin School looked at the long-term climate implications of cultured meat versus meat from cattle. “Per tonne emitted, methane has a much larger warming impact than carbon dioxide. However, it only remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide persists and accumulates for millennia,” said co-author Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert.
The scientists’ climate model found that in some circumstances and over the very long term, the manufacture of lab meat can result in more warming. This is because the emissions from the lab are related to the production of energy which is almost entirely made up of carbon dioxide, which persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. “If the lab-grown meat is quite energy intensive to produce then they could end up being worse for the climate than cows are.”
Even if lab-grown meat overcomes the issues of energy use, avoids controversy around animal welfare (provided the stem cells used come from a biopsy rather than a slaughtered animal) and is cost-effective for widespread sale to consumers, one issue remains – it is made from meat. If people want to move away from all meat-based products, though, we will need to look at other alternatives.
There is a surging global demand for soybeans, a key source of plant-based protein. Not only are soybeans made into food products like tofu and meat substitutes, but we also eat them in the form of soybean oil and soybean meal. Since the 1950s, global soybean production has increased 15 times over, with the United States, Brazil, and Argentina together producing about 80% of the world’s soy.
However, this growth in demand has led to the industry being accused of causing widespread deforestation and displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples around the globe. The challenge surrounding soy beans really stems from the fact that they are fed to cattle and sheep, not humans, reinforcing the issue of the 10% energy transfer for animals bred for meat. So where else can we look for healthy and sustainable plant-based protein?
Could algae provide the solution to feed the planet?
According to The Grocer in November 2019, investment in UK food and drink startups that use algae is soaring. In 2011, three deals raised a total of £314k. In 2018, eight deals raised £8.5 million according to research company Beauhurst. The global market for microalgae for human consumption was worth $590m in 2018 and is expected to hit $970m in 2025. So, what is algae and why is the market in algae blooming?
Algae is a catchall term for three types of organisms who share a characteristic of living by oxygenic photosynthesis – that is, using the sun to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars whilst bubbling out oxygen as waste.
The oldest two types, cyanobacteria and microalgae, are one-celled microorganisms. They oxygenated our atmosphere billions of years ago and still produce more than half the oxygen we breathe. They form the basis of the marine food chain and were recently discovered to be the source of omega-3 present in all fish. There are thousands of species of microalgae on the planet and they are thought to be responsible for half of the world’s atmospheric oxygen.
Seaweeds (or macroalgae) are the third category of algae. Seaweeds are multicellular and take in minerals from water through their cell walls. Seaweeds are rich in omega-3 oils (known to reduce inflammation and triglyceride levels) and vitamins A, B complex, niacin, calcium, magnesium, cobalt, selenium, iodine, iron, and fibre (which lowers cholesterol levels). In Japan, seaweed is served in approximately 21% of Japanese meals with 20-38% of the Japanese male and female population aged 40-79 years consuming seaweed more than five times per week.
Algae requires less land, less water and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than animal protein. It also grows continuously and can be harvested in greater numbers than other sources of plant-based protein.
The World Economic Forum recently calculated that producing one kilogram of beef-sourced essential amino acids requires 148,000 litres of freshwater and 125 square metres of fertile land. In contrast, producing the same amount from the microalgae Nannochloropsis oculata raised in an open pond with brackish water requires only 20 litres of freshwater and 1.6 square metres of non-fertile land.
However, there are a number of obstacles to overcome before mass market adoption can happen. Of the 20,000 known algae species, only four have currently been cleared for human consumption in the European Union: freshwater species chlorella and spirulina, and marine species odontella and tetraselmis chuii. Approval for more algae strains is both complicated and expensive, and this is said by some in the industry to be slowing down sector growth.
Algae is also very expensive at wholesale compared to soya protein – around $20 a kilo versus $1.50 for soybeans. However, with the increase in consumer demand, production capacity is growing and should therefore have a beneficial effect on costs. As with lab-grown meat, supply would have to grow very quickly and supply would have to be highly scalable to drive down costs and prices. At this point, surging demand could drive prices back up. And what would be the environmental consequences of over-using algae to an unsustainable level? For example, palm oil is in many ways more sustainable (and was originally intended as a solution rather than a problem) than its alternatives due to how efficiently it grows but it is cultured at the cost of rainforests etc.
Some of the innovators in algae-based foods include Innocent, who launched “Bolt from the Blue” in May 2019. The latest addition to the Innocent Plus juice range gets its vibrant blue hue from spirulina, which the company says provides an extra dose of vitamins E, B1, B2, B3 and B6.
Beyond Meat’s Beyond Sausage uses an alginate-based casing, which “is obtained from algae. It is a natural product and 100% plant-based. Alginate is used in some fresh turkey and seafood-based sausages to deliver a similar pop and texture as animal-based casings.”
According to Heather Mills, the founder of plant-based food company VBites, “…the future belongs to algae. It’s rich in protein, grows like wildfire and creates just a pinprick of the waste associated with animal-based and other protein sources.” Only time will tell whether algae can save the day…
In the meantime, allmanhall’s team of procurement experts is working with its supplier base to source the best plant-based ranges currently available, to ensure that we meet consumer demand for both innovation and sustainability.