News analysis: What is the future of meat?

18 January 2022 by

With veganism on the rise and meat substitutes increasing in popularity, Emma Lake explores the place animals hold in our future.

Cattle can be considered the villains of global warming with the methane they belch taking the blame for much of our planet's poor climate health.

It's a narrative that has sent scores of people to drop meat and take up a plant-based diet. But is it an oversimplified argument harnessed to line the pockets of the ever-expanding meat-substitute business or can ditching the Sunday roast really make a difference?

Fresh meat

The National Food Strategy, drawn up by Henry Dimbleby, has recommend the UK aim for a 30% drop in meat consumption. But the report also acknowledges that ‘careful livestock farming' can be a boon to the environment.

Glen Burrows, the founder of the Ethical Butcher, is adamant that livestock are essential to maintain soil health and biodiversity, and ultimately to ensuring we have many a fruitful harvest to come.

His business only stocks meat from regenerative farms, those that rear animals solely on pasture and can demonstrate that their practices have improved soil health and biodiversity. He explains: "It's not that cows are inherently destructive to the environment, it's how they're farmed. The method is everything. Cows that are kept as part of a regenerative system that's improving biodiversity should be part of the future of meat. "The most important thing in my view is that grazing animals are put back into crop rotations to restore soil health, because without that you have monocrop systems, and if we're not careful our soil will become an inert medium, where there's no real nutrition left in the land."

So are the benefits of grazing lifestock worth the methane excelled in those burps? Burrows argues that pasture-reared cattle are part of a closed-loop carbon cycling system, in which they ingest carbon as cellulose from plants, digest it and then emit it, for it eventually to be taken back up by plants through photosynthesis.

Therefore, he says, if the amount of cattle being reared is kept constant, so will the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. However, this is true only of pasture-raised animals – if intensive farming methods and alternative feed sources, such as soya, are taken into account the metrics change.

Neil Rankin is a chef and founder of Symplicity Foods, which is developing plant-based meat alternatives that are designed to be delicious, genuinely sustainable and not over-processed. He agrees that the regenerative farming of livestock can benefit the environment, however he says this cannot support the food needs of the global population and alternatives are needed that can be produced from responsible agriculture.

He explains: "Meat is not inherently bad. Meat farmed sustainably can be quite positive for the environment, but the problem is that on a global scale that doesn't work. Even regenerative vegetable farming doesn't work on a global scale. We're a huge population who survive on GM crops and factory-farmed meat." He continues: "I think about good and bad agriculture so, for example, good agriculture is natural agriculture, so you grow a tomato and all the energy comes from the sun and all the water comes from the sky.

"From a carbon perspective though, I think bad agriculture in plants is better than bad agriculture in animals, because bad agriculture in animals needs the bad agriculture in plants to feed it. As soon as you cut the meat out of the process it helps significantly cut down carbon emissions."

Plant-based problems

When it comes to plant-based meat substitutes, is the grass greener? Burrows is sceptical to say the least. "The public are being conned to think that a burger made from genetically-modified soya beans, sprayed with glyphosate weed killer, grown in a monoculture system is better.

"You tug at people's heart strings using an over-simplified narrative that meat is destroying the planet and tell people not to eat it and offer them a solution, and people are lapping it up – there's no logic behind it. Those crops are destroying the planet quicker than any cows are and when you've got the alternative of using grazing ruminants to restore soil health and restore the planet, it's just ludicrous."

Rankin is also concerned about monoculture farming and the practices and price of some of meat substitutes being sold. He says consumers "really need to watch out for cheap plant-based meat", adding "if it's processed and coming in cheap it's a real danger because someone is missing out".

He explains that if a product is made with processed ingredients then the workforces and processes involved should drive up the costs above that of your standard beef burger.

Cost the earth

Both Burrows and Rankin agree that if global food systems are to become more sustainable, consumers will see price increases. In response Rankin is focused on developing a product that is more natural and therefore less expensive.

He says: "The plant-based industry is not perfect and that's why we're doing what we're doing to try and come up with a solution that is a bit more natural and home-grown.

"We purchase sustainable vegetables from the UK. Occasionally the mushrooms come from Poland because of seasonality, but we don't go further than that. We use European flour, we're trying to get homegrown miso and we're making sure we understand the entire lifecycle of every element and then try to control the lifecycle ourselves.

"The more natural ingredients you use, and the fewer processes involved, the less energy used and the lower the cost to the environment. I think that's the root to go down, but I don't think that product exists on the supermarket shelf at the moment."

The appeal of cows

Cows do offer something of a quick climate fix, hence their appeal to strategists. The methane expelled by cows is naturally removed from the atmosphere, so eliminate cattle from the planet, and in little more than a decade it will be like they never existed. Compare this with the carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels, which takes centuries to be cycled, and you can see why a reduction in livestock appeals to policymakers.

The National Food Strategy reads: "Imagine a landscape with a herd of cows grazing on the left, and a power station on the right. As the cows keep burping, their total contribution to the amount of methane in the atmosphere keeps growing – but only for 12 years. After that, the methane they burped out in the early days will start to fall out of the atmosphere. As long as the herd stays the same size, its total methane contribution will stabilise, as new methane goes up and old methane vanishes from the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide emitted by the power station, by contrast, will keep building up because it lingers in the atmosphere for centuries.

"If we actually reduced the number of ruminants on the planet (or the methane produced by each ruminant), over time the quantity of methane in the atmosphere would reduce.

This would have a cooling effect. If all the ruminants on Earth mysteriously vanished tomorrow, it would take roughly 12 years for the methane they have already produced to leave the atmosphere almost completely. "After a couple more decades, the temperature of the planet would have cooled to the same temperature as if those animals had never existed. There is no comparable vanishing trick that can be performed with carbon or nitrous oxide."

Lab-grown meat

Tim van de Rijdt, chief business officer at Netherlands-based food technology company Mosa Meat, sees the future as lab-grown meat, which he believes will be on supermarket shelves soon.

What needs to happen before cultivated meats become available to retail consumers?

"We need to bring costs down, and we need to scale up our production. Mosa Meat has made significant progress on both fronts, for instance we reduced the cost of our cell culture media (the nutrients in which the cells grow, and the most expensive step in the process) by 88 times for our growth media and 66 times for our fat differentiation media. We also opened our pilot production facility earlier this year, where we are scaling up our production of beef.

"We also need regulatory approvals to be able to sell our cultivated beef to consumers. Each country or region has its own regulatory process for novel foods."

When do you think this could happen and how big a market do you anticipate there being?

"We are aiming for a first market introduction in the next couple years. It is very difficult to commit to a timeframe because there are factors outside of our control."

Do you anticipate there being marketing hurdles to making cultivated meats appealing to a mass market?

"Our meat is real meat, just made in a different way. Consumer surveys already show strong support, even though cultivated products are not on the market yet. In many countries a majority of consumers express support for or interest in cultivated meat. However, we need to keep educating consumers on the advantages of this process."

How much control could manufacturers have on elements such as fat content?

"At Mosa Meat, we have teams developing both fat and muscle (the two components of meat). Therefore, the quantity of fat in our final beef burger can be adjusted, and this will also be the case for other meat products in the future such as prime cuts."

How sustainable and environmentally friendly is the production process?

"An independent Life Cycle Analysis study conducted by CE Delft predicts that cultivated beef will emit up to 92% less greenhouse gases, 93% less air pollution, use 95% less land, and 78% less water than conventional beef."

Could this technology easily be used across pork and chicken cut as well as beef?

"Yes, this technology can be used across animal proteins, including pork, chicken and fish. Mosa Meat is starting with beef because it is the most carbon-intensive. We are focused on developing the highest-quality beef, and once we have achieved this we plan to use the same technology to make other animal proteins as well."

Photo: frantic00/

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