Feeding ourselves has long had the biggest impact on our planetary ecosystem, and it is one of the biggest contributors to warming the atmosphere and disrupting the climate. Changing natural landscapes into cropland or pasture greatly reduces their biodiversity, and typically increases generation of greenhouse gases in myriad ways.
Among them are fertilizer manufacture and use, methane-farting cows, and the replacement of natural plants which absorb carbon dioxide throughout the year and sequester carbon for decades by contrast with crops which absorb CO2 only during their growing seasons and sequester nothing.
Depending on what’s included in the calculation, agriculture accounts for roughly a quarter of all human-caused greenhouse gases. This share is poised to rise, as the world’s population increases by a billion souls this century, and as declining extreme-poverty increases per-capita meat consumption.
Growing crops to feed animals in order to eat the animals (or their eggs or dairy products) exacerbates agriculture’s negative impacts, because it’s an inefficient way to use arable land, a resource we are already over-using. Meat, however, is the original miracle food, and it’s unlikely that consumption of it will go down as the world’s population grows and becomes wealthier. In fact, the UN predicts a doubling of meat consumption by 2050.
Humans go way back as meat-eaters: meat is a dense source of complete protein, along with vitamins, minerals, and calories. Compared to, say, elephants who get their energy and protein from eating plants, humans devote much less time to getting enough to eat (thanks in part to the miracle of cooking), and devote much less of our body mass to digesting low-food-value vegetation, two big advantages. Pity the poor elephants who consume about 800 pounds of vegetation a day and spend about three quarters of their time doing it.
Today, humans slaughter and eat about 70 billion land animals/year; we are far outnumbered on the planet by animals we plan to eat. Not everyone is comfortable with such wholesale killing of our fellow animals, but we’re good at compartmentalizing: barbecue beats karma.
It would be a very good thing indeed if the benefits and pleasures of eating meat could be universally obtained without wreaking havoc on our planet and climate and thereby wreaking havoc on ourselves, not to mention on our karma. Solving the meat problem surely qualifies as a great unmet need, and accordingly it has attracted a full measure of visionaries, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and investors.
They are pursuing various ways to generate meat benefits without using up so much land and water, mowing down so many ecosystems, and heating up so much atmosphere. Thus far, their efforts to create alt-meat fall into three broad categories. Here’s what they’re up to.
Making high protein foods from plants is not a new thing since vegetarians and vegans have been a reliable market for them for a long time. Over the past decade, however, there’s been a new push to engineer plant-based meat surrogates to appeal to people who are not vegetarian but might want to spare the planet or seek health benefits by eating more plants and less meat.
For this market, the emphasis has been on making products that look, taste, and feel as much like real meat as possible. Today there are many companies offering burgers, nuggets, sausages, cheeses, etc made from grains, legumes, mushrooms, nuts and other non-animal protein sources.
Companies such as Impossible and Field Roast have achieved broad distribution through major food retailers, and in some cases onto restaurant menus. After an initial surge, demand has flattened some. But turning plants into edible semblances of meat is a pretty broad and deep business category now. Plant-based meat replicants are not perfectly persuasive, but for many they are good enough at least some of the time.
Innovations such as fermenting plant protein with mycelium, the underground digestive system of mushrooms, have potential to improve flavor, nutritional value, and digestibility. Precision fermentation can also provide added ingredients, such as Impossible’s hemoglobin, which gives their burgers a meaty mouthfeel, taste, and color, and is created by a yeast which has picked up a hemoglobin gene from soybeans.
Making meat-like food from plants still requires a lot of land and water devoted to growing crops, but the acreage is less than the acreage required to support the animals whose protein the plant products are replacing.
Cultured meat makers take cells from actual animals and persuade these cells to replicate in vats full of the necessary nutrients and other substances. Such companies have been able to grow pretty realistic solid meat products, even though actual meat is more complex than just fibrous protein.
One company has even used DNA from a Mammoth to create an extinct species meatball as a publicity stunt. The FDA has approved several cultured meat companies as food providers. There are also companies working on persuading mammary cells to make milk proteins and sugars in vats. One such company is working on human breast milk, and another is also working on cow’s milk.
Of course, milk from actual breasts has about 100 ingredients, not just one protein and one sugar, but the lab milk pioneers believe they can at least improve on formula for babies, and perhaps provide a feedstock (from cows, sheep, and goats, not women) for real cheese that’s much friendlier to the planet than maintaining herds of gas-happy ruminants.
Cultured meat is still very expensive to make, and it’s not yet clear how far down the price curve innovation can move it. Cultured meat processes are borrowed from the pharmaceutical industry’s methods for developing therapeutics, but applied to different species: the market for cultured beef steaks is a lot bigger than the market for cultured white mouse steaks.
The economics of pharmaceutical development don’t work at all in the food business. A critical component of the growth medium, fetal bovine serum, sells for $1,000/liter, and fetal bovine serum is also a by-product of the meat packing industry, a source that would disappear if cultured meat replaced on-the-hoof meat. A serum-free growth medium will be essential to scaling cultured meat, and it’s not a simple puzzle to solve.
If it can clear its hurdles and get its price down, cultured meat has a lot of potential, since it could provide viable substitutes for all major current sources of animal protein, including land animals, fish, crustaceans, eggs, cheese and even (see above) extinct species. The hurdles are formidable, however, requiring a lot of progress in the development of stem cell lines and growth media.
Meat by microbes
Persuading microbes to make meat-like proteins is the third avenue of attack. Single-celled organisms (bacteria, yeasts, fungi, algae) are fast and efficient replicators, and we have a long history of persuading them to feed us: consider cheese, beer and wine, yoghurt, fish sauce, kimchi, and bread. Fermentation (a term that is now applied broadly to microbes working for us) is used today to improve plant protein foods to make them more meat-like, to create ingredients to be added to plant-based and cultured meat-adjacent products, and to directly create high-protein biomass, in which the microbes bulk up to become the food itself.
One company is using a fungus found in Yellowstone hot springs to grow high-protein breakfast patties. Who knew? Unlike the cultured meat process, fermentation does not need amino acids in its feedstock: single-celled organisms can make everything they need from simpler ingredients, making them easier to feed. The resulting biomass can be higher in complete protein than meat itself, and some fungus-based products have a fibrous texture similar to meat.
The big question is how fast and how far these alt-protein sources can scale. The short answer is “all the way if the market is there.” That is, some combination of plant-based, cultured, and fermented products has the potential to entirely meet the world’s demand for meat-like protein over the next few decades, if people are willing to buy and eat it instead of the meat they buy and eat today.
The other implication is that the disruptive impact on the global meat industry—which sells about $1.7 trillion dollars a year of meat and totally dominates the economies and cultures of many places around the world—could be immense. The factories that would generate these alt-meats would require less than 1% of the land used to raise animals and the food to feed them, and they can be located close to consumers of their products, cutting transportation costs and further reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In Italy, members of Parlamento Italiano are already discussing imposing a ban on cultured meat to protect the traditional way of life of Italian farmers and ranchers. Anyone who has ever spent a week in Montana can remember how ubiquitous cattle ranching is, and how central to the local identity it is. If Montanans found that the market for beef was rapidly disappearing and with it most of their economy and culture, they might well reach for their six-shooters rather than become yeast wranglers.
The upside, however, would be immense: in addition to the direct reduction in greenhouse gas generation, it would become easier to protect remaining wild areas from conversion to agricultural uses, and, in time, easier to re-wild parts of the planet that desperately need it.
A transition of this magnitude would be on par with a transition from fossil fuels to renewables for generation of electricity, and a transition from internal combustion to electric motors for transportation. Hugely consequential, hugely complex.
Animal-free meat doesn’t need to entirely replace animal meat to have a large impact. If it could largely meet the doubling of demand for meat the UN predicts for 2050 that would still be remarkably beneficial. The rest would be gravy. Grown in a vat, of course.