In 1931, nine years before he would lead the Conservative Party and his country against the tyranny of fascism, Winston Churchill was thinking about, among other things, meat. He predicted that, in fifty years, the absurdity of growing a whole chicken to eat the breast or wing would be eliminated by growing those parts separately, without the chicken as we know it. Churchill published this and several other futuristic predictions that year in a Strand Magazine article titled “Fifty Years Hence”.

He wasn’t far off: 82 years later, in 2013, Churchill’s seemingly outlandish prognostication was realised when the first lab-grown hamburger hit the grill. It made a sizzle heard around the world.

While tissue engineering is still in its relative infancy, however, it’s the less spectacular appearance of plant-based alternatives that has propelled the fledgeling faux meat industry into the mainstream. Both animal and meat derived varieties use a similar form of biotechnology in their creation, and there are speculative, often passionate arguments as to which is superior. Regardless, it doesn’t take a visionary to see that we could be on the precipice of a culinary, ethical and industrial revolution – one driven by cellular agriculture.

“…it is possible to create animal products that do not contain animal material by altering the DNA of organic microbes like yeast.”

The Science

The above terminology, loosely defined as the production of agricultural products from cell cultures, has two classifications. Acellular products contain only organic molecules, such as fats and proteins, and do not incorporate cells or living material. Cellular products are derived from animal cells that are living, or once were. However, through cellular agriculture, it is possible to create animal products that do not contain animal material by altering the DNA of organic microbes like yeast.

Plant, Protein, Power
Photo by David Clode via Unsplash.

The technology is neither new nor unfamiliar. Animal insulin became the first cellular agriculture product when, in 1978, Arthur Riggs, Keiichi Itakura and Herbert Boyer inserted the gene that carries human insulin’s blueprint into bacteria. The technique creates a product that is both safer and more consistent than its counterpart, animal insulin generated from pig pancreases, which still constitutes the vast majority of insulin made today.

The same approach can be used to make animal food products without animals, and in fact has for close to 30 years. In 1990, plant-based bacteria that had been genetically engineered to reproduce the animal enzymes used in the production of cheese were approved for consumers, making it the first genetically engineered food product.

“Both companies have recently become household names with high-profile fast-food chain partnerships.”

Today, companies such as Impossible Burger employ an extension of this cellular technology in their vegetarian offerings by using yeast to genetically engineer soy plant molecules identical to animal-based heme, a key component in meat’s distinctive flavour.

Esoteric as this process may be, its economic consequences are tangible. Impossible Burger’s competitor Beyond Meat grabbed headlines with an eyebrow-raising surge in stock price after its IPO in early May 2019. Both companies have recently become household names with high-profile fast-food chain partnerships.

The conversation has reached fever pitch, and it’s only just beginning. More breakthroughs are on the way: California-based biotechnology company Clara Foods is currently developing the world’s first animal-free egg white.

Plant, Protein, Power
Photo by Ousa Chea via Unsplash.

A Movement Beyond

Although the reasons to embrace plant-based meat and animal products are compelling and numerous (chief among them the ethical dilemma and environmental cost of factory farming), as of yet, health benefits should not be considered one of them. The nutritional science is uncertain, and even if the laboratory origin of meatless meat may preclude certain bacterial or viral health risks related to its animal-based counterpart, both products share similar dietary profiles – a caveat by design.

To reproduce the palatability and familiarity of meat, companies producing meat alternatives mimic the qualities of meat, right down to the calorie and saturated fat content.

“Impossible Burger’s latest meatless offering contributes 89 per cent less greenhouse gases than a burger made from a cow.”

The Mounting Evidence

Regardless of meatless meat’s dietary effects on us, however, its undeniable benefit to the environment is an incentive that is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.

Methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is a significant by-product of meat and its cultivation. Emissions are highest for beef and lamb, but the entirety of animal-based foods account for roughly 15 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases – more than the greenhouse gases produced by all forms of transportation globally.

Impossible Burger’s latest meatless offering contributes 89 per cent less greenhouse gases than a burger made from a cow. Their meatless burger also uses 87 per cent less water, 96 per cent less land and reduces water contamination by 92 per cent.

Sceptics rightly point out that presently, plant-based meat is a niche industry, accounting for less than 1 per cent of the traditional meat industry’s volume. Unless the demand for and the scale of plant-based meat production grows significantly, its environmental impact will be negligible. That said, meat for the table is only half the story. The food industry is not the only one that relies on products originating from animals.

Plant, Protein, Power
Photo by Ren Ran via Unsplash.

Plant-based Consumers

From crayons to cosmetics, animal products and by-products are used in a host of commercial and consumer goods. Up to 36 per cent of the average bovine is used for non-consumable applications. Until recently, cellular agriculture’s primary focus has been food production, but considerable investment from both private and public sources is helping to drive the technology towards universal viability. A $300 million trade deal between China and several clean-tech companies, many of which are involved in cellular agriculture, is one of the latest high-profile developments providing a boost to the industry.

It’s still Adam Smith’s world, however. Consumer demand is the most powerful market force, and yet, consumer preferences are changing as millennials begin ageing up the ladder of influence.

“Flexitarians” embrace some of the health and ethical benefits of vegetarianism without abandoning meat altogether. The movement has never been more popular and continues to gain momentum and mainstream recognition. Flexitarianism requires less commitment than vegetarianism or veganism and, because of its easy appeal, might be the mindset that tips the balance.

Companies like the Canadian-based Haven, manufacturers of a completely natural, plant-based vegan mattress, and Indonesia’s Avani Eco, which manufactures 100 per cent biodegradable bags from vegetable root, typify the wave of companies helping to build a plant-based marketplace geared towards increasingly flexitarian consumers.

The expansion of one market usually necessitates the contraction of another, and a conversation on the economic implications of a meatless-meat world would be incomplete without addressing meat itself.

Plant, Protein, Power
Photo by Amirali Mirhashemian via Unsplash.

An Industry on the Ropes

Predictably, meat is fighting back. Producing over 19 per cent of the world’s beef, the United States, the world’s largest supplier, is in the midst of a battle sparked by plant protein. Driven in most cases by the Cattlemen’s Association, a powerful meat industry lobby group, nearly 30 US states have proposed bills to prohibit companies from using labels such as meat, burger, sausage, jerky or hot dog unless the product comes from an animal slaughtered in a traditionally recognised way. The state of Mississippi has already gone a step further. In a sweeping new law, plant-based, insect-based or products containing cell-cultured animal tissue must not be labelled as a meat product in any way.

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The spirit behind these new laws is at least a façade of consumer welfare. The legislation is meant to prevent confusion or dissemination of distorted health claims, and there may be some merit to it. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found in a similar claim issued by the dairy industry against nut beverages that consumers were often misinformed about the nutritional content of plant-based drinks labelled as milk.

Regardless of the motivation behind the ongoing legal saga, any intentioned or unintentional framing of a meat vs plant argument likely misses the point altogether. Ironically, in the not-too-distant future, cellular technology’s greatest asset and, conversely, the most significant contributing factor to the potential collapse of the meat industry, will in all likelihood be meat.

“In emerging economies, meat-centrism can be an aspirational goal.”

Fifty Years Hence

Surprisingly, meat grown in the lab from animal cells rather than soy protein or an equivalent is predicted to be better for the planet than even its plant-based cousin, with none of the ethical drawbacks of conventional meat that sway many consumers. Another powerful industry might also join the fracas, potentially changing the meat-alternatives landscape at least where research is concerned. Organs and tissues grown from human cells could change the field of medicine in profound ways, and exploration of these possibilities, both practically and ethically, are ongoing.

That said, the demand for meat is currently growing and is only expected to grow further.  More meat was consumed in 2018 than ever before. Meat’s success, for the most part, is a synthesis of the new concentrations of wealth and the export of the Western consumerist diet. In emerging economies, meat-centrism can be an aspirational goal.

Regardless, today and tomorrow’s battle for the world’s protein is a clash of cultures – not technology – but technology is making the transformation accessible and perhaps even transparent. In the same way that digitisation did not diminish the demand for news as it eliminated the need for billions of trees, cellular agriculture may too end the ethical dubiousness and environmental damage of the meat industry. In a manner that Winston Churchill himself undoubtedly would have approved of, cellular agriculture might do it all without significantly diminishing the world’s appetite.