Meat That Grows on Trees — The Rise of the Impossible Burger
The first time I tasted one, there was a rush of nostalgia. I tasted the soft bun and the symphony of pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, and onion. But what struck me most was the give and light smokiness of the patty. It was as if I was eating at a barbecue of my past, but without the guilt.
An hour earlier, the patty, which looked like ground meat and had cooked like it too, sizzled in a skillet on my stovetop. I watched in amazement as its exterior changed from light pink to seared brown — exactly as I’d remembered burgers of a more animate origin doing in my childhood. It all seemed impossible. But that’s when I knew that plant-based burgers had leveled up.
Biotech Companies and Lab Grown Meat
Although the meat industry in the United States is worth $20 billion, serious competition is on the horizon.
Companies like Future Meat Technologies and Mosa Meat aim to bring lab grown meat to the general public. Yes, you heard that right. Both companies have successfully grown muscular tissue and fat cells from small samples taken from farm animals. They’ve molded that lab grown product into burgers that they say are delicious.
Early versions of their lab grown burgers were expensive (five years ago they cost over $300,000), but the meat has gotten more affordable. Prices have dropped to just over $11 per burger, although the Dutch researcher who developed the burger doesn’t think it will be available on a large scale for another two decades.
Meat Substitutes Done Right
Biotech companies seeking to mimic meat are gaining momentum in Silicon Valley and in kitchens around the country. And although you might not think that ingredients like soy and pea protein and coconut oil and amaranth would combine to create a compelling burger, millions of dollars and years of research will do that. And hey, if it can fool food critic Mark Bittman, it can probably fool you, too.
Two well-known biotech companies, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have attracted high profile support, the latter raising $275 million from the likes of Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures.
Plant-based meat substitutes have become more accessible—and tastier—than their earlier veggie burger counterparts. But their creators still strive to tempt meat-eaters to try plant-based substitutes. From the meticulous recreation of specific compounds that evoke a meaty ‘smell,’ to the years-long concocting of the heme molecule (responsible for the red color and metallic taste of blood), it’s evident that these companies are trying to woo eaters in both camps. And it’s working! U.S. markets have seen an 11 percent increase in the sale of plant-based meat substitutes from those who continue to consume animal protein.
Taste factor? Check. Growing popularity, affordability, and accessibility of these products? Check. Environmental stewardship? Check. Plant-based alternatives are much gentler on the environment. For example, Beyond Meat “chicken” strips need only a pound of ingredients and a little over half a gallon of water while raising chickens requires 518 gallons of water per pound. Plus, an acre of farmland yields an average of 45 pounds of edible meat, while that same acre can produce 192 pounds of legume protein.
Meat and the Environment — Water Resources
Although more people are choosing to go meat-free (in the past three years, 600 percent more people in the U.S. identify as vegan), global meat production (317 million tons in 2016) is soaring and expected to grow as trends in meat consumption increase (the UN reported that worldwide meat consumption doubled between 1961 to 2007 and is set to double again in 2050).
Unfortunately, the meat we consume strains Earth’s resources and affects freshwater reserves through runoff pollution that damages ecosystems, flora, and fauna, including coastal ecosystems and coral reefs in particular.
Agriculture is already causing water scarcity—it’s estimated that the industry accounts for 92 percent of our global water footprint and that the practice drains 70 percent of freshwater from aquifers, lakes, and rivers.
In the United States, animal agriculture accounts for a whopping 30 percent of our total water usage. While that may seem like an abstract statistic, consider the amount of water it takes to produce the animal protein of your choice: chicken requires 518 gallons of water per pound, beef 1,847 gallons per pound, sheep 1,248 gallons of water per pound, and pork measures in at 718 gallons per pound.
With growing populations that put a strain on food resources, communities will need sustainable food production systems that use less water. One idea is to move toward a plant-based diet because growing plants results in more protein per acre using less water than it takes to produce meat (216 gal./lb. soy and 108 gal./lb. corn).
Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere account for global warming trends and climate change, and the agriculture industry is responsible for 18 percent of carbon and methane emissions, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). That contribution is significant—a 2017 study found that three American meat companies (JBS, Cargill, and Tyson) produced more greenhouse gas emissions in the preceding year than did the entire country of France.
Plus, animal agriculture, which utilizes 80 percent of the earth’s farmland, contributes to diminishing biodiversity as communities around the globe tear down forests to create farmland. It’s gotten so bad that a recent study reported that over 58 percent of the globe’s surface had lost the factors of biodiversity that had made it habitable by people in the first place.
Animal agriculture and meat consumption has impacted the environment—but fortunately, there are alternatives to your favorite meals. Explore the possibility of lab grown meats or indulge in a plant-based meat substitute. Your stomach—and your planet—will thank you!