Robert Swan, OBE, the arctic explorer turned environmentalist, once said “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”. Faced with massive problems like climate change, loss of biodiversity, pandemics and antibiotic resistance, it is tempting to think either that these challenges are unsurmountable, or that they will only be solved by governments, ideally cooperating with each other. The fact is, however, that the choices that we, as individuals, make can produce a significant difference. As I have indicated in my previous post, reducing the amount of meat, particularly beef, that we eat could have a major beneficial effect not just on one of these threats, but on all of them.
Confessions Of A Would-Be Flexitarian
Like many other people, I have recently decided to try and reduce the amount of meat in my diet. I have decided to have 1-2 meat-free meals per week, and to eat less beef in particular. I don’t think I am anywhere near the point of describing myself as a “flexitarian”. This term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014. It is defined as “A person who has a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish”. Obviously, this definition is open to interpretation because “occasionally” could mean once a week or more, but the overall aim of flexitarianism is to reduce your consumption of animal products. According to YouGov, 14 per cent of British people identify as flexitarian (twice the number of people who say they follow a vegan, vegetarian or pescetarian diet).
Having a weekly veggie meal may seem pretty puny, but analysis of research by Oxford University scientist Joseph Poore shows that if every family in the UK swapped a red meat meal to a plant-based meal once a week, the environmental impact would be the same as taking 16 million cars off the road!
Where The Veggies Roam
The prevalence of vegetarianism varies from country to country. According to Wikipedia (if we exclude dubious data from Latvia), the country with the highest prevalence is Belgium at 14%. Portugal and Spain are among the lowest at 1.2% and 1.5% respectively. Germany (the Land of the Sausage) is, unsurprisingly, 2%. These figures suggest, I would argue, that if we are going to rely on everyone becoming vegetarians to help address climate change we will have to wait far too long.
Another approach, and probably a more realistic one, is to accept that the vast majority of humans are currently addicted to meat, and to find ways of producing meat substitutes that are far less harmful to humanity. This is where the work of the Good Food Institute comes in. They are dedicated to developing and promoting what they term “alt proteins” as substitutes for meat. Alt Proteins are of three basic types: (1) plant-based meat; (2) cultivated meat; and (3) alt proteins produced by fermentation (traditional fermentation, biomass fermentation, and precision fermentation).
Currently, plant-based meat is the main type of alt protein globally, but this may well change in the future. Tofu and tempeh have been around for thousands of years, but until recently plant-based meat substitutes have appealed only to vegetarians and vegans. Since around 2012, products have been made which mimic meat very well, and the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger (launched in 2016) have been successful in fast-food outlets.
The environmental benefits of plant-based meat are glaringly obvious. Its production uses 72-99 percent less water and 47-99 percent less land. It also causes 51-91 percent less water pollution, and emits 30-90 percent less greenhouse gases. The use of fewer resources to produce this sort of alt protein could lead to recovery of biodiversity, and would require no antibiotics, decreasing the chance of antibiotic-resistant organisms developing.
Cultivated meat is a much newer form of alt protein, though the concept has a surprisingly long history. In 1931 the statement “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” was made by none other than Winston Churchill! The first cultivated burger was produced in 2013, and in 2016 Memphis Meats, the first cultivated meat company, was launched publicly. Eat Just sold the first cultivated meat product in 2020 in Singapore.
Using animals to convert plants to meat is extremely inefficient. It has been estimated that it takes 9 calories of food fed to a chicken to get 1 calorie back in the form of animal flesh. Yet chicken farming is the most efficient way of converting plants to meat! Livestock provides a mere 18 percent of the calories consumed by humans, but it requires 77 percent of global farmland!
Growing meat in culture is vastly more efficient. Studies suggest that cultivated meat would use land 60-300 percent more efficiently than poultry, and 2000-4000 percent more efficiently than beef. The potential benefits re biodiversity, climate change, zoonoses risk, and antibiotic resistance risk are obvious. Meat cultivation also avoids the risk of faecal contamination, not to mention the ethical aspects of factory farming.
The role of fermentation in alt protein production is complex. Traditional fermentation can be used to improve the flavour or functionality of plant ingredients. Biomass fermentation uses the high protein content and rapid growth of microorganisms to produce very efficiently large quantities of protein-rich food. The production of Quorn products is an example of this. Precision fermentation uses microorganisms to make specific functional ingredients for alt protein products.
As well as being products in themselves, ingredients made using fermentation can be used with plant-based meat and cultivated meat. For example, precision fermentation can be used to produce nutrients and growth factors for meat grown in culture. Proteins such as collagen and fibronectin, produced by fermentation, may be used for the “scaffolding” of more complex products based on cultivated meat.
An Informative Podcast
Many of the issues around artificial meat are covered in an excellent edition of Sam Harris’s “Making Sense” Podcast (#244 “Food, Climate and Pandemic Risk”). This is a discussion between Sam Harris and Bruce Friedrich and Liz Specht (both from the Good Food Institute). One of the points that they make is that, if artificial meat gets to the stage of tasting as good as (or better than) “normal meat” but it is cheaper, many of the barriers to consumers buying it will collapse.
They make the point that much more research is required urgently in this area, but, fortunately, the World’s largest food producers are starting to see artificial meat as an opportunity, rather than a threat. Apparently, Israel and Singapore are the two countries that are most advanced in both plant-based and cultivated meat: hence the reason why Eat Just had its first success in Singapore (see above). As with, it seems, everything else however, China is said to have ambitions to become the World’s number one artificial meat supplier!
One of the issues they address is the fact that the vast majority of the increase in demand for meat comes from developing countries, and how we can persuade them to accept that they should resist the urge to do what the rich countries have done in this regard. This is an interesting question, but one I don’t have time to cover here.
It seems to me certain that meat consumption in 10-15 years time will be radically different from today. As with the move to electric vehicles, and the swapping of heat pumps for gas boilers, radical and speedy change is essential if the climate catastrophe is not to accelerate towards an even worse scenario. Otherwise, the recent heatwave affecting the west coast of America, and the current extreme flooding in Western Europe will be but a taste of awful things to come. It is worth noting that yesterday the Met Office issued its first ever extreme heat warning for the UK.