Meat & fish alternatives for a sustainable world
January 13, 2021, 9 min to read
The food industry is at the forefront of this issue as it currently accounts for 26% of total greenhouse gas emissions (including 31% from livestock and fisheries), 70% of global freshwater usage, and 50% of global habitable land usage. Land is suffering from soil erosion and resistance to agrochemicals. Sea water is increasingly polluted by plastic and chemical pollution while overfishing threatens aquatic ecosystems. There is no doubt that there must be a paradigm shift. Agriculture has constantly evolved to feed a growing population and now - more than ever - the industry is faced with the necessity to find innovative ways to produce food more efficiently. Consumers are also driving the change by being more informed and demanding than ever before. We need to produce healthy food in both an affordable and sustainable way.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, meat demand is expected to grow by 70% by 2050 despite calls to reduce its consumption. Today, close to 30% of the calories consumed globally by humans come from meat products (mostly pork, chicken, and beef) for a market estimated at $2.7T by 2040. Eating meat is associated with a higher socioeconomic status and convincing consumers to abandon its consumption is a big challenge - especially as the middle class is exploding in Asia. So how can we convince consumers to eat protein alternatives that have a lower environmental impact? A good start is by enticing meat and fish eaters to consume plant-based alternatives that look, feel, and taste similar.
Developing these products is not just a necessity but also a lucrative opportunity. The plant-based protein market alone will grow from $5B today to $85B within a decade which means an average growth of +28% a year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, meat processing plants in the United States had to close down due to a high number of infections. This led to an increase of plant-based meat consumption of 264% in the 9 weeks leading up to May 2020, at the height of the lockdown. Plant-based meats, including Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, are becoming more accessible as they are increasingly available in supermarkets & fast-food restaurants. McDonald’s is the latest chain to have announced its McPlant in November 2020. In parallel to plant-based alternatives, cell-based meats and fish have also garnered significant traction. Early December 2020, San-Francisco-based Eat Just officially received the approval to sell cultured chicken in Singapore. Although this technology still faces obstacles, it appears to be a potential solution to solve a global challenge. We are at the beginning of a technological food revolution led by startups from California.
The rise of plant-based meat alternatives
Veggie patties have been widely available since the 1980’s but they have struggled to convince non-vegetarian consumers to abandon beef meat in their burgers. These past 10 years, startups have been challenging this status quo by developing meatless options that look, feel and taste like meat. The main objective is to appeal to meat eaters with more environmentally-friendly options. Veggie patties are now rebranded as plant-based meat with two main startups leading this trend in California: Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
Beyond Meat’s meatless patties and sausages are a blend of pea, mung bean and rice protein with coconut oil, potato starch as well as beet juice to give it’s meat-like color. Backed by high-profile backing from Kleiner Perkins, Bill Gates and meat-producer Tyson Foods, Beyond Meat is commercially available over 6,000 stores across the United States including Walmart, Costco, and Whole Foods. Beyond Meat is soy-free, gluten free, kosher certified and contains no GMOs. The University of Michigan conducted a peer-reviewed Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to compare the environmental impact of the Beyond Burger with a ¼ lb US beef burger. The results are significant as the Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has 99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% impact on land use. The Stanford School of Medicine also found significant positive impact on lowering cardiovascular risks as plant-based meat has no cholesterol or trans fat.
Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat’s main competitor, was founded in 2011 by Stanford biochemistry professor Pat Brown with another approach in terms of recipe. Unlike Beyond Meat which uses pea protein, Impossible Burger uses soy and potato protein as well as heme, an iron ion giving a meaty taste. Impossible Foods initially targeted restaurants instead of supermarkets to generate interest. They notably partnered with Burger King to launch the Impossible Burger and with Starbucks to feature their Impossible Sausage. Fast food distribution has become a key strategy for the democratization of plant-based meat. Often associated with junk food and obesity, these chains are leading the change by making meat alternatives affordable for consumers. Beyond Meat has leveraged this strategy as well by making deals with Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC across China. The startup is also said to have co-created the McPlant although McDonald’s didn’t confirm it. In 2020, Impossible Foods unveiled the Impossible Pork to address the Chinese market which is the world’s largest consumer of pork and which suffers a domestic supply shortage. This latest product is also designed for both halal and kosher certification although it is unclear whether it can break religious or cultural barriers.
Cultured meat: the future of food?
Unlike plant-based meat, cultured (or cell-based) meat is real meat produced by self-reproducing cells in a lab thus avoiding the need to breed, raise, feed and slaughter animals. It is done in three main steps that can take only 4-6 weeks:
- Identifying and collecting myosatellite cells, the stem-cells of muscles, from a tissue sample of an animal after a biopsy.
- Feeding the cells with micronutrients to grow and develop naturally.
- Cultivating the cells in a bioreactor - a large vessel similar to a fermenting tank - in which they will grow to form muscle and connective tissue like they would on an animal.
Founded in 2015 by cardiologist Uma Valeti and cell biologist Nicholas Genovese, Berkeley-based Memphis Meats is a pioneer in developing cultured meat. The startup is known for having created the world’s first cell-based beef meatball in 2016 followed by the world’s first cell-based chicken and duck in 2017. Memphis Meats has raised over $180 million investors including Bill Gates and Richard Branson, as well as leading meat producers Cargill and Tyson Foods, to bring this emerging technology to market.
The main hurdle currently faced by the cell-based industry is the cost of production. It initially cost $18,000 to produce a pound of lab-grown meat, mostly because of the cost of the micronutrients feeding the cells, but by 2018 Memphis Meats managed to drop the price down to $2,400. The goal is to reach the $5 to $10 price point needed to be competitive against traditionally produced meat. The startup aims to commercially launch its first products in the next couple of years by initially focusing on high-end restaurants. Other risks include the public’s perception of lab-grown meat, resistance from the farming industry or regulations that are yet to approve these new products. In December 2020, Singapore was the first country to officially approve the sale of cultured chicken produced by Eat Just after a two year-long process. Better known for its plant-based eggs, Eat Just ran over 20 production runs in 1,200-liter bioreactors to prove the consistent and safe manufacturing process of their cultured chicken. This major achievement should pave the way for further approvals thus helping to build a more sustainable and healthier food system.
Cultured meat has two main advantages related to both the environment and health. According to the Good Food Institute, cell-based meat reduces land use by 95%, water use by 96%, nutrient pollution by 94%, and greenhouse gas emissions by 74-87%. Cultured meat is also produced in clean facilities which reduce the risk of contamination by pathogens which can lead to serious foodborne illnesses while also eliminating the need for antibiotics. Scientists could also control variables like fat, proteins, and vitamin content to prevent heart diseases or diabetes.
However some researchers argue that cultured meat could in fact be more harmful for the planet than traditional beef products. Researchers at the University of Oxford pointed out in a report that large-scale cultured meat industries would emit high carbon dioxide pollution which persist for hundreds of years in the atmosphere while methane emitted by cattle disappears in approximately 12 years. Developing clean energy is key to a sustainable growth of the cultured meat industry.
Plant-based meat and cultivated meat are only at early stages but it is key to focus on the different impact that they can have at scale to make them sustainable options. Livestock plays a key role by making soils more fertile as animal manure provides organic matter, nitrogen, and other nutrients. Removing cattle would thus have a direct impact on agriculture overall. By far the largest consequence will be socio-economic as livestock contributes to 40% of the global value of agriculture and supports nearly 1.3 billion people. It plays a major role in poverty reduction, food security, and agricultural development. Cultivated meat factories would make obsolete jobs that traditionally couldn’t be outsourced. Rethinking food production requires supporting impacted communities in rural areas that are dependent on the livestock industry.
Startups are leveraging food technologies to create sustainable alternatives beyond meat. The fishing industry is facing an increasing global demand which leads to overfishing and oceans suffering from pollution. New Wave Foods uses pea protein and algae to make sustainable alternative shrimps that will be available in early 2021. The startup was accelerated by San Francisco-based biotech accelerator IndieBio, which also counts Memphis Meats as an alumni, and is backed by Tyson Ventures. Cell-based processes can also be leveraged to help save endangered species such as the bluefin tuna which Bay area startup Finless Foods have cultured.
We re just at the beginning of a food revolution which is receiving growing interest from consumers and corporations alike. British multinational Unilever announced a $1 billion plant-based fund in November 2020 after several initiatives in the field including the acquisition of the Vegetarian Butcher in 2018. Meat producer Tyson Food is repositioning itself as a protein leader and supports both plant-based and cell-based alternatives including Beyond Meat, Memphis Meats, and New Wave Foods. Specialized VC-funds like New Crop Capital are supporting a new generation of startups determined to feed the future with healthy, sustainable, and affordable food. There are however numerous challenges ahead such as the socioeconomic impact on farming and fishing, ethical concerns on lab-grown meat, and cultural barriers to break.