Cows don’t exactly pose an apparent threat to the future of mankind. At first glance, they look pretty innocuous. That is until one takes a deeper look – food production accounts for just over one-quarter of global emissions, and 58% of that comes from livestock, BBC reports. Cows are particularly harmful because of what it takes to maintain them – they require about 20 times more land and produce more than 20 times more greenhouse gas than growing certain plants.
Before you balk at phasing out beef, a recent report by the Word Resource Institute says it’s not so extreme. In fact, Americans would only need to cut back burger consumption by half.
The report is based on the amount of food it will take to feed the world by 2050 when there’s expected to be about 10 billion people on the planet. If meat consumption in high-consuming countries decreased to about 50 calories a day or 1.5 burgers per person per week, it would almost completely cancel out the need for agricultural expansion even in a world with 10 billion people.
This reduction will keep in line with the ongoing decline in beef consumption that’s been occurring in the US over the past 40 years. Since the 1970s, per-capita beef consumption has already fallen by one-third. What accounts for this nationwide meat-eating devolution? Ethical and health concerns aside, the more likely reason is that the demand for meat has been outsourced to a new, burgeoning market: meat alternatives.
The future of ‘meat’
A report by the global consultancy AT Kearney predicts that 60% of ‘meat’ will either be grown cellularly in vats or supplanted by plant-based meat alternatives by 2040. While the former is still in development, plant-based meat currently dominates the alternative food market. These alternative products typically are made up of pea-based proteins, as well as tofu, seitan, mushrooms, or jackfruit.
Businesses such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have become wildly popular for their selection of plant-based burgers and other products. Since Beyond Meat went public in May it’s raised over $240 million, and its shares have nearly tripled. Beyond Meat’s success is indicative of a rising trend in the alternative meat industry nationwide. The meat substitutes market is projected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to USD $6.4 billion by 2023.
Major fast-food franchises continue to jump on the bandwagon, some of which more recently include Chipotle, Burger King, Tim Hortons, TGI Fridays, and Arby’s, according to a recent survey by The Spoon.
A Frankenstein-esque alternative
If you find plant-based foods extreme, cellularly derived meat usurps the traditionally defined connotations of ‘meat’ entirely. Whereas plant-based alternatives are void of any animal products, cellularly developed meat is quite literally, well, meat.
Cellular agriculture uses cultures to construct cell-based products outside of a living organism. This includes real, animal-derived products such as meat and dairy, as well as external components like fur or leather. Because of this, cell-based meat falls into a category of its own, exempt from the ‘faux’ meat industry. As Kristopher Gasteratos, the founder of the Cellular Agriculture Society reported to Morning Brew, “It’s not an alternative product,” it’s literally meat.
Lou Cooperhouse – the president and CEO of BlueNalu, a startup tackling seafood production through “cellular aquaculture” – likens the process of creating the meat to infants born out of Vitro fertilization. The final result is identical, but it’s achieved through a surrogate medium. Because the ideation of cell-based meat is highly regulated, this opens the door for scientists to optimize the meat products to reduce the negative health impacts of consuming traditionally farmed meats. Of course, the major draw from an environmental standpoint is cultured meat’s ability to mitigate agricultural land use, a necessity of raising livestock.
A long road ahead
On the consumer marketing side, things are a bit less clear cut. Lab-based meat companies, in particular, have their work cut out for them. While the authenticity of producing ‘real’ meat makes them the most promising candidate for rattling the meat industry, they’ll need to translate the science into more consumer-friendly terms if they want people to see past the ‘yuck’ factor.
Plant-based alternatives, too, face major hurdles in how they are advertised to the public. Meat industry goliaths have taken offense to the way that these products are marketed.
Many states across the country, most recently being Mississippi, have lobbied against the illegality of meat-alternative products being labeled as “meat or meat food products.” Proponents of the labeling restrictions argue that the distinction is necessary so that the consumer can differentiate between traditionally derived meat and new meat alternative products. The law, having been in effect for only a few weeks, has already drawn a lawsuit from a trade association for plant-based foods. One of the association’s members claims enforcing such labeling limitations violates the First Amendment.
The brandishing of vegetarian alternative products with ‘meat’ included on the label may also be perceived as a threat to the agricultural industry. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has enlisted the ending of “false and deceptive marketing” of ‘fake meat’ as a top priority for 2019.
The marketing stipulations of ‘meat’ alternatives may be ill-defined, but the consumer demand is there. It seems the meat-alternative industry has a long road ahead to delivering a message that resonates with a broader consumer demographic … and the ‘steaks’ are high.