Is it Time to Make Meat Obsolete?

By James Bagshawe on at

Let’s face it, vegans can have a bad rep. To the majority of meat eaters, vegans conjure up images of insufferable, preachy, pale-skinned students who smell of B.O. and mushrooms. The types that wear organic hemp clothing that was crafted by Peace Lily back at the ashram, and they will thrust their gluten-free agave lentil biscuits at you to try and tempt you to hop the fence. Sadly, these tend to be drier than the Kalahari desert and have the flavour profile of plasterboard.

There is truth to the old joke: how do you know if someone is vegan? They’ll tell you. For a group whose lifestyle choice has been very positively weighted for a long time, they have a very poor track record of winning around the majority. Aye, there’s the rub. If you look at a plant-based diet with an unjaundiced eye, there is no doubt it makes a lot of sense.

Without wanting to descend into the finer points of the debate, animal agriculture is a massive contributor to climate change and – for the vast majority of meat we consume – an animal has been raised and killed in pretty rough conditions so that you might eat it. Ditching meat is good the for animal welfare, and even better for the environment.

This is particularly important when you consider the rate at which we are multiplying. When Jimmy Carter wrote his message on the Golden Record carried on the Voyager spacecraft, he referred to the Earth as a planet of 4 billion inhabitants. That was in 1977. Today the Earth has 7.7 billion humans on it. We are growing at an alarming rate and something that seems innocuous, like whether or not we eat meat, carries huge global repercussions.

In short, it would be a tremendous boon for our planet if we made meat obsolete.

The good news is that the vegan revolution has really taken off in recent years. Twenty years ago, an agave lentil biscuit would have been a reasonable thing to see come out of a vegan kitchen. These days there are very few sacrifices to be made in diet, and the days where a £14 cauliflower steak is deemed acceptable are long gone. Recent times have instead seen the new wave of vegans have gone into the labs, determined to tackle meat eaters head on.

Many readers will be familiar with brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger. Both of these firms have substantial financial backing; with big names like Bill Gates and Richard Branson coming on board. These heavy hitters signed on because the goal of the new wave firms was to mimic the real thing. The big selling point (apart from the taste) is that the burgers sizzle and bleed. People wondered how that happened. Was it beetroot juice oozing out? Not for Impossible Burger. Turns out it is – basically – soy-based blood. Soy leghemoglobin preparation, to be precise.

To get enough of this key meat-like component for a burger, the Impossible team had to insert leghemoglobins proteins into a special type of yeast. This yeast could then be fed up quicker and return far larger yields; enough to make it commercially viable to use it as a component in their burgers. That’s a step up from the ashram.

Now, some folks would turn their noses up at the burger for this. After all, it contains a genetically modified ingredient. GM foods are scary franken-foods that we should all be afraid of, right? Well, no, not really. This is another hot topic. The real threat of GM foods is less the food itself but more the business practises of those large corporations who look to control GM patents for their own gain but that is another story.

The ideal way to make meat obsolete is to offer a plant alternative that is just as good. That is the big idea behind the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat’s chicken strips. If you get to have delicious sizzling fajitas that taste great but no animals need enter the equation to make that happen, then you get a whopping environmental gain and a smug sense of self-satisfaction that you have made an ethical choice.

There is another contender in the race to push ‘real’ meat into the annals of history and that’s lab-grown meat. History buffs might be interested to learn that Winston Churchill suggested using cultured meat – chicken, in his case – as far back as 1931, so the idea is not new. But, as with plant-based substitutes, the technology has come a long way in recent years.

The idea here is to take myosatellite cells from an actual animal and culture those in a petri dish. Sometimes these petri dishes are lined in part with pieces of Velcro that cause resistance against cell growth and so prompt the cells to produce muscle tissue. Band enough of these micro strips together and – hey presto – you have ground beef. The price is dropping at a decent pace, too. The first lab-grown beef burger produced in 2013 cost an estimated $325,000 to produce. Fast forward two years and that figure was down to just over $11.

Cost remains one of two huge drivers for the commercial viability of cultured meat or plant-based products. The other being a curious reticence by the public to embrace these alternatives as a better choice. This reticence shows just how ingrained the distrust of something ‘artificial’ goes. It’s as if eating meat was somehow a wholesome activity.

These food alternatives matter a great deal if we are to change our ways and become good stewards of the planet. For example, eating cultured meat presents a reduction of emissions of 96 per centand a reduction in land use of 99 per cent over modern agriculturally reared beef. Your average swimming pool only contains enough water to produce 312 beef burgers. The same amount of water could produce 60,837 Beyond Burgers.

If we all made the switch the consequences would be profound for our planet. Soon the Beyond Burger will be selling at Tesco for £5 for two. Expensive? Yes, but surely worth a try. God, I’m starting to sound like Peace Lily. Can I interest you in a gluten-free lentil biscuit?