Just five years ago the meat problem seemed intractable.
People love eating meat, me included until I rejected it last year. We experience not only sustenance but immense pleasure pulling strips of charred pork from ribs with our teeth, biting into a mustard-slathered bratwurst and savoring the crunch of deep-fried chicken wings.
But commercial meat production is one of the most environmentally devastating activities on the planet, destroying forests and waterways, demanding enormous amounts of fossil fuels and filling the atmosphere with methane.
I assumed meat lust never would recede, and that our mania for burgers and the rest of it would destroy us all.
It still might. But the alt-meat industry, just a baby in 2016, is maturing rapidly.
- Market research firm Euromonitor, for example, estimates the plant-based meat sector will grow from $20.7 billion in 2020 to $23.2 billion in 2024.
- Yesterday, Beyond Meat announced it will supply plant-based meat alternatives to McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut.
- In November Unilever, which owns Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and myriad other brands, announced it planned to expand its meat-and-dairy alternatives portfolio fivefold during the next five to seven years.
- The UK’s leading manufacturer of seitan, LoveSeitan, experienced 78 percent growth in 2020 compared to 2019.
- Thai Union, the largest tuna company in the world with brands including Chicken of the Sea, announced it will debut a plant-based shrimp this year. The company plans to introduce more vegan seafood options.
- The University of California-Berkeley supports an alternative meat lab.
The market is fizzy, with announcements of fresh investments in start-ups every day. New companies emerge constantly, with teams of food scientists and corporate veterans behind them. For example Thierry Saint-Denis, the former senior director of research and innovation at multinational food giant Danone, left that gig for Nuggs, a New York company that creates chicken-like nuggets from soy protein. It calls itself “The Tesla of Chicken.”
The effervescence is real. But the market remains petite, about 1 percent of the traditional meat market. One hindrance, according to market analysts, is price.
Dennis Woodside, the president of Impossible Foods (which makes the Impossible Burger), told Vox: “The animal industry has optimized the processes for a century.” In the same article, Lewis Bollard, who researches farm animal welfare at the Open Philanthropy Project, said: “The chicken industry has managed to cut all their corners, they don’t pay their environmental bills, they don’t pay for a lot of the public health hazards they cause. They have managed to produce a product that is just artificially cheap and hard to compete with.”
Pivoting away from cheap meat, about 20 years ago, was my first step towards being planty. As a longtime journalist without a trust fund, the decision translated into a dramatic decline in meat consumption. I could only afford so much organic chicken and grass-fed beef, preferably from local outfits.
The high price of many alt-meats limits the volume of them that I can eat, too, which probably is a good thing. The products are processed junk food, surely better for me than a slab of meatloaf made from $1.99/pound ground beef, but still far inferior to a slice of lentil loaf (which I enjoy quite a bit, especially when shellacked with vegan gravy and plated with mashed potatoes).
The steep bills for alt-meat are sure to drop, as increasingly more companies invest in R&D, distribution grows streamlined, manufacturing facilities emerge and ingredient prices deflate.
Crafting alt-meats revolve around three approaches: food technology surrounding proteins, like peas and soy; fermentation; and cellular agriculture, or cultured meat.
The most common brands revolve around protein technology. Old-school products like seitan, made out of gluten, have been around for decades. Beyond Meat, founded in 2009, relies upon peas, mung beans and brown rice for protein, and cocoa butter, coconut oil, sunflower oil and canola oil for fat. Nuggs, referenced earlier, turns to soy.
Fermentation plays a key role in the Impossible Burger. A key ingredient, heme, is a molecule found in all plants and animals. Impossible Foods crafts its own heme, via fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. Prime Roots uses koji, a fungus widely used in Japan to make alcoholic beverages, soy sauce and miso, to create its bacon and meals like shepherd’s pie and kung pao “chicken.”
The entire fermentation industry’s largest-ever investment, $300 million, went to Perfect Day, which uses microflora to make proteins. The proteins then serve as the backbones of the company’s vegan dairy products.
Cultured meat companies pursue alt-meats through means other than fermentation and straightforward protein technology. In short, technicians create cultured meat by harvesting muscle cells from animals, like cows, and feeding the cells so that they multiply and gain mass.
No cultured meat products exist on the market today. Soon, however, they likely will begin appearing. The most prominent company in the space is Memphis Meats, which has investors like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill and Tyson Foods. The company, which so far has raised about $161 million, has made chicken nuggets and beef meatballs, but has yet to release the products. Other companies, like BlueNalu (which recently closed a $20 million round of funding), are using fish cells to create fish meat.
To date, about 40 companies are working on cell-based meats. Forbes projects that the cell-based meat market will hit $214 million by 2025, and that by 2040 35% of all meat will be cultured.
All of this is excellent news for planet, as well as plantys like me. Finally, alt-meats that just might appeal to everybody.
The first, and in some cases ancient, iteration of alt-meats worked for many of us. Tofu (first created 2,000 years ago in China) gets a bad rap. I love it, and different techniques help approximate meats, especially in things like stir fries. Tempeh (possibly first made 1,000 years ago in Java), a product made from fermented beans, also sings in many dishes. Simply cubed, fried and seasoned it can be a crunchy, umami-packed wonder. Seitan, first crafted 1,500 years ago in China, has been widely used ever since by vegetarian Buddhists across Asia. It’s a dense substance made from gluten, also has its uses. I’m less fond of it than the others.
Alt-meat 2.0 has the potential to move meat substitutes from niche into the mainstream. If the blossoming industry succeeds in diminishing meat consumption worldwide in meaningful ways, we accomplish another step towards survival.
I’d like us to survive. I’d also hate for our habits to wipe out the rest of life on earth, which had nothing to do with our hard-to-break desire for meat.