In 1798, the British clergyman Thomas Malthus predicted that humanity was doomed to famine and periodic suffering. The geometric growth of the population would always deplete the food produced, which until then had only increased arithmetically. Malthus had made a precise and correct analysis of the data of the previous centuries, but he failed to foresee the transformation of the world that began during his own lifetime.
The steam engine, invented years before, the understanding and mastery of electricity that began shortly after or the creation of artificial fertilizers, at the beginning of the 20th century, made possible a multiplication of the wealth and food extracted from the planet that today supports nearly 8 billion people. The growth of the population and of the resources consumed by each individual, however, has had an environmental impact that threatens to prove Malthus right, albeit a few centuries late.
One of the sources of these threats to the ecological balance is meat production. According to an FAO report, 14.5% of global CO2 emissions are associated with livestock. And we must add other impacts, such as deforestation to expand forage cropland, the disposal of their waste or the suffering of livestock.
To limit this impact, one of the solutions would be to reduce meat consumption, something that is taking place to a certain extent in countries like Spain. However, while it is seen if awareness serves to achieve significant reductions, the machinery that united science, technology and capitalism to make Malthus look bad is already in motion to generate alternatives with which to continue enjoying meat while reducing environmental damage. The most optimistic consider, in the long term, a meat industry without animals. Something that may sound as far-fetched as the automobile industry without combustion engines a few decades ago, something that the European Union intends to make a reality in 2035.
A hamburger for 250,000 euros
Since, in 2013, the researcher from the University of Maastrich (Netherlands) Mark Post presented an artificial hamburger in London that cost 250,000 euros, the production of imitation meats has come a long way and has become a field of investment and progress accelerated. Seren Kell, director of science and technology in Europe of the non-profit organization The Good Food Institute (GFI), explains that, despite the existence of very valid alternative proteins to meat from a dietary point of view, such as legumes , creating products that mimic the animal-based meat experience is helpful, at least in facilitating a transition to a world with less meat.
“The objectives to win over consumers are taste, price and ease of access,” says Kell. GFI’s goals include the reduction of animal suffering and climate change and seek ways to achieve them effectively. “It is about the products being something easy to integrate into the diet of many people, without the need for great creativity as a cook. So if you have products that mimic what they are used to eating, it is easier for them to change at least part of their diet based on animal protein, “he continues.
So far, some of the most dramatic results have been with plant-based meat substitutes. At the moment, with meat grown from cells extracted from animals and multiplied in bioreactors, the aim is to create products similar to hamburgers or sausages. However, in Israel, one of the most advanced countries in these technologies, the Redefine Meat company has produced complete fillets, trying to recreate their texture and flavor, with 3D printers in which the raw materials are soybeans, peas , beet or coconut oil. Are meats they will be on the menus of some European restaurants in the coming months. In Spain, the Navarran company Cocuus is working on the development of similar products.
Of the around 3,000 million dollars that, according to GFI, attracted the companies dedicated to meat alternatives in 2020, about 2,200 million went to those that work with plants. In second place, with just over 500 million, were companies that produce proteins by fermentation, like the process that makes beer possible, using microbes that transform waste from the agricultural industry.
five billion cows
Bosco Emparanza, CEO of MOA foodtech, one of these companies, explains that its microbes are capable of transforming vegetable waste from the agri-food industry into cheap and nutritious protein. “We have worked with Barilla to transform pasta residues and produce protein. Now, they were used to give them to pigs or cows, but we give it to a microorganism that converts it into protein in a much more efficient way, “using 98% less water and generating 85% less CO2 than the cows,” he explains.
Marco Bertacca, CEO of Quorn Foods, another company dedicated to fermentation, has calculated that if the 8,000 million tons of carbohydrate waste produced by agriculture per year could be processed with these technologies, “the same amount of protein that we would obtain” would be obtained. of 5,000 million cows […], three times more cows than there are on the planet right now.” Achieving the conversion of a small fraction of this waste would mean a significant change in reducing the carbon footprint of food production.
Whether through plant-based proteins that have been known for thousands of years or those obtained by other means and prepared to imitate meat of animal origin, there are alternatives to eat in a more sustainable way, with a reduction animal suffering and, in some cases, in a healthier way. However, as is often the case with food, being aware of what is good for us does not guarantee avoiding inconvenient decisions such as eating a quart of ice cream in one sitting or finishing that enormous bag of chips. Therefore, to complement the achievements of containment with technology, the third method of producing meat without animals is of special interest: cultured meat. With just over $300 million in investment by 2020, it’s less advanced than plant-based or fermented substitutes, but it would be a way to produce real meat outside of animals.
“I do not think that 100% of meat of animal origin is going to be replaced, because people like it and there are also very good producers, but we have to consume in another way, reducing the amount we eat, which is clearly excessive. , and taking advantage of alternatives. Cultured meat is in a very incipient phase. There will be a transition until it can be useful and we want to be part of that transition”, indicates Emparanza.
Cultured meat is obtained by extracting precursor cells from muscle fibers, called myocytes. These cells can be grown in a bioreactor to artificially create the meat that animals produce in their bodies. Crops would be useful for producing things akin to ground meat for making hamburgers or sausages, but they still have many challenges ahead. Among others, that of adding other cells as important as those of fat so that the meat is tasty or generating the necessary structures so that the meat has the shape of a ribeye. In addition, it is necessary to find substitutes for the growth factors of animal origin that are still necessary to proliferate meat in vitro and that account for a large part of the cost of production. For these and other reasons, experts such as Ricardo San Martin of UC Berkeley are skeptical that large-scale laboratory meat production will ever be economically viable. “If you have a thousand cells, there are a thousand things that can go wrong,” he said.
Doubts about cultured meat
Javier Carballo, Professor of Food Technology at the University of Vigo, believes that “properties identical to those of conventional meat will never be achieved, much less achieve a product with the texture and sensory complexity of a steak, for example ”. “People would have to get used to these new products, and forget the old ones, which is not easy, neither in the short nor in the medium term,” he adds. In his opinion, in the best of cases, after overcoming its technological challenges to obtain products similar to those of ordinary meat, “it would become one more option on the market, more expensive and not healthier than conventional meat and accessible only to a minority”, and calculates that “it could replace, also in the best of cases, 20 or 25% of human consumption of meat”. In any case, and in an opinion that he shares with other experts, optimists or pessimists regarding alternatives to meat of animal origin, he considers that “we should consume less red meat, whether conventionally raised or cultivated.”
Seren Kell acknowledges these challenges, but notes that the intense work in this area “started five or six years ago and we still have over 100 Opening around the world and new proofs of concept appear every few months.” “Questions about the scaling or origin of growth factors are not impossible technical questions. These are just technical issues that require, among other things, adequate funding,” continues Kell. From his point of view, unlike other areas such as renewable energies, where tens of millions of euros are invested, the States have not been involved on a large scale in promoting these technologies. “Some evaluations estimate that [este tipo de tecnologías] they would produce meat with 90% less greenhouse gas emissions in addition to reducing water pollution and land use. That extra land could be used for carbon sequestration projects or wilderness reclamation initiatives to improve the environment and biodiversity,” adds Kell.
In this debate about meat, which, as the recent controversy over mega-farms has shown, is highly politically charged, it will also be necessary to consider how people who live from the meat industry with animals will adapt, or even what will happen to the animals (there are currently around 6.5 million cows and 30 million pigs in Spain) that now live to satisfy our appetite. In the Netherlands, the country with the most cattle per capita in Europe, the government announced a 13-year, 25 billion plan to reduce its herd and the vast amount of manure it generates. The money will be used to relocate part of the ranchers to other sectors or switch to extensive ranching. The measure received harsh criticism from several groups of farm workers in the country.
In the coming decades, the way meat is produced and consumed will intensify. Those who trust that human ingenuity will again defeat predictions made about past trends that do not take into account new technologies will face those who prefer austerity to overcome the limit of a planet that already shows signs of exhaustion. An animal-free meat industry can be part of the solution to a problem that will require exploring all options.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.