A more cultured approach
Global demand for meat is growing - this is an opportunity for alternative proteins to prove their worth says Caroline Wilschut
People love eating meat and as large swathes of the world develop a middle class – which has a positive correlation with an increase in meat consumption – the sustainability issues associated with meat are only becoming more problematic, not less.
We know that animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation worldwide, contributing to 30 percent of terrestrial biodiversity loss and 14 percent of all greenhouse gases. This is part of the reason that we founded Meatable, a cultured meat company, to give consumers a way to enjoy meat on their plates without hurting animals or the planet.
However, a recent report by food systems specialists at the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) has called out alternative proteins – saying they aren’t the silver bullet that companies like us say they will be. We understand there are concerns about this nascent industry and it’s good to address them as we help to build a new food order.
Diversifying the value chain
Cultured meat will not immediately cure every problem associated with the meat industry – we do recognize some of the points raised around environmental efficiency and protein value. Our view, however, is that the solutions proposed will take too long – catastrophic climate change will have occurred before these changes will create any positive impact.
As well, the report is analyzing a work-in-progress, rather than a finished product. Cultured meat as a sector is barely in beta mode – we need to get to a point of scalability, taste and price efficiency before these arguments can be borne out.
Cultured meat is about diversifying the whole value chain. Providing a solution to intensive, unsustainably industrialized farming by giving consumers a choice as to what is on their plate – next to e.g. insect- and plant-based alternatives – thereby helping to reduce the overall environmental impact associated with meat. This will also help to diversify the entire agriculture value chain, from reducing soy and water consumption to methane levels.
If conventional meat didn’t create these issues – there wouldn’t have been a need for cultured meat in the first instance. And at the current trajectory, we’ll start to see a global agrarian shift in meat production methods – adding cultured meat to the scale of available alternatives – by the mid-part of the decade.
Telling people to eat less meat isn’t going to save the world
The IPES report points to lowering meat demand as the ultimate solution to reducing the industry’s environmental impact and that there is currently too much emphasis on meat as a protein source. But we can see from long term trends that meat consumption continually increased at 1.9 percent per year over the last decade, with continued growth forecast to be around 1.4 per cent a year over the next few years.
Decreasing the percentage of meat in people’s diets as well as an increase of people pursuing flexitarian and partly vegan or vegetarian diets would be beneficial to solving the current problems, but not enough to solve them. The fact is, people enjoy meat – they like the taste, it’s an accessible form of protein and it carries important cultural significance. This is why we founded Meatable to help provide real meat, with the same taste, texture, and experience, but without the animal harm and much lower impact on the planet.
The only way to solve the current problem is to diversify the offering to consumers, making it easy to access high-quality and tasty products with a lower environmental impact. We envision a future where sustainably-farmed traditional products are on offer next to plant-based, insect-based and cultured alternatives. By tackling the problem on all these fronts, we have the best chance of overcoming the challenges and building a more sustainable food system.
Reducing the environmental impact of meat
Instead of telling people to reduce eating meat, finding other ways to provide it that don’t rely on unsustainable industrialized practices will be key. Yet the IPES is still critical of the proposed benefits cultured meat and plant-based alternatives will bring. It says that companies produce biased studies on the sustainability gains of cultured meat. As well, it said that the inputs often used for meat alternatives also come with their own detrimental environmental impacts and that there is a risk of power being consolidated into a few very large players.
The cultured meat industry is still nascent and data is limited, as every company in the field is evolving and improving every day. Though there are multiple independent studies out there that have tried to quantify the ‘end state’ effect of cultured meat, it is still only based on assumptions.
At Meatable, we haven’t contributed funding to any studies claiming the environmental or health benefits of cultured meat. Instead, we use third-party studies such as notable research by CE Delft, a not-for-profit research organization, which found that cultured meat can reduce the carbon footprint of conventional beef by up to 92 per cent for global warming and 95 per cent for land use. This highlights the potential benefits cultured meat could bring to the world.
Whilst cultured meat certainly requires energy and resources, the process itself is much more efficient than traditional farming. The technology we use at Meatable based on pluripotent stem cells (PSCs), provides a fast growth and maturation process that is stable to scale. We believe we can scale this process quickly and become cost-competitive with traditional meat, whilst requiring much fewer inputs including water, feed and energy, at the same time generating lower GHG emissions than conventional meat. As we develop our production process, we are concentrating on only providing energy and feed inputs that contribute to the end product. This means we can help to provide the protein source that people crave whilst putting much less pressure on the environment and without harming any animals.
The point about the sustainability concerns of plant inputs to alternative meat, such as plant-based protein products being overly reliant on chemical-intensive soy is a fair one. But companies in the industry are working to ensure this isn’t the case – for instance, plant-based meat companies are using sustainably-sourced soy from Europe which doesn’t cause deforestation for their products. In the longer term, a key part of Meatable’s strategy will be diversifying our supply chain to offer multiple feed source inputs to further reduce our impact on the planet.
Finally, this is a burgeoning industry and many different players are addressing plant-based meat and cultured meat in unique ways. Monopolies can stifle innovation and sometimes put growth ahead of the mission. But we’re fostering a new way of working that advocates for collaboration over consolidation, such as with Cellular Agriculture Europe, paving the way for this new industry.
Paving the way for a sustainable future
Indeed, we cannot go on as we have so far. The world’s population is expected to grow to ten billion by 2050 and so we need to find a sustainable way to feed everyone. That’s why we’re genuinely on the cusp of a life-changing opportunity. Our vision for a sustainable food future that includes cultured meat will see us contribute to a diversity of products, production technologies and process inputs, reducing the world’s dependence on industrial animal agriculture and its impact throughout the value chain.
There’s a lot that the industry needs to do to realize this vision and demonstrate that cultured meat can be as sustainable and environmentally friendly as the studies profess. But we’re excited and determined that together we can offer a sustainable solution to the currently unsustainable one and find a way to satisfy the world’s appetite for meat without harming people, animals or the planet. D
For a list of the sources used in this article, please contact the editor
Caroline Wilschut is Director of Commerce & Strategy at Meatable. Founded in 2018 by Krijn de Nood (CEO), Daan Luining (CTO) and Dr. Mark Kotter (principal inventor of opti-ox technology), Meatable has brought together a team of experts with unique knowledge in fields including molecular biology, chemistry, tissue engineering, bioprocess development, food safety and food science to create the new meat.
Meatable aims to produce cultivated meat, for which no animals are slaughtered, fewer GHG emissions are released, and significantly less land and water are required. And, unlike plant-based alternatives, the end-product will provide the full experience of eating actual meat, with the same texture, taste, and nutritional benefits.
For further information, please visit: https://meatable.com