Increased environmental awareness is causing big changes in consumption habits. More numbers of electric and hybrid cards on the road, restrictions on disposable or single-use products, and improved recycling rates in many countries are all examples of how society is able to adapt and modify its habits for the good of the planet.
Many of these environmental questions are shedding light on our food production models, and there are initiatives that seek to mitigate the carbon footprint caused from the production and distribution of the food we eat. Trends such as embracing the consumption of proximity products and eating ecological (organic) produce have increased in recent years, in step with the growing concern about the emission of greenhouse gases resulting from the production and consumption of animal meat.
Intensive animal farming: an environmental problem
Because humans are omnivores, meat products have traditionally been a basic element in the the human diet. However, industrialization and globalization have stimulated pervasive meat consumption on a global scale. The resulting production model relies on intensive animal farming, which has become one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
According to UN data, close to 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to animal farming. This figure is comparable to total emissions produced by transportation the world over. A significant portion of these emissions stem from indirect processes such as the quantity of resources required to feed farmed animals (using vast expanses of land and inefficient use of water), in addition to the direct emissions produced from the animals’ digestive processes. By way of example, the production of one kilo of beef uses 15,000 liters of water and emits 27 kilos of CO2 equivalent gases.
In parallel, the world’s population has risen exponentially, tripling in size in only 70 years, and meat consumption has increased in emerging economies like China, India, and the Middle East. As a result, the intensive animal farming production model is proving to be environmentally unsustainable.
Vegetarian alternatives to meat products (hamburgers and steaks) using vegetable products like soy, mushrooms, and legumes have been around for decades. Now the “vegetable meat” industry is looking to appeal to frequent meat eaters by trying to reproduce the appearance, taste, and texture of the original product.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are the two leading-edge companies involved in the production and distribution of vegetable-based hamburgers. In May 2019, the North American-based Beyond Meat became the first meat alternative product company to be listed on the stock exchange. On the same day, its share price shot up 163 percent.
The fundamental challenge for these dietary alternatives is not only simulating the look and taste of real meat, but also ensuring that they offer a viable nutritional substitute: meat is a source of fundamental nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, and B12, in addition to being rich in protein. Where “vegetable meats” do surpass animal meat is in their contribution to sustainability: according to a Beyond Meat-sponsored study, the production of one of their hamburgers uses “99 percent less water, 90 percent fewer contaminating emissions, 45 percent less electricity, and 93 percent less land.”
In vitro meat
One product that just might match the nutritional properties of conventional meat while also avoiding the vast majority of its associated emissions is “artificial meat” by which we do not mean vegetarian-based products. In this case, the ingredients are actually of animal origin. “Cultured meat” is created in laboratories using an animal’s stem cells and stimulated in a bioreactor. They expand massively and create muscle tissue that closely resembles conventional meat.
The problem associated with this kind of product is the cost. Currently, it has not yet had large-scale production nor has it been offered to the market at an affordable price. The first hamburger to be produced via this technology debuted in 2013 thanks to a five-year-long project during which €250,000 was invested representing a market price that would be equivalent to more than one million euros per half kilo of this cultured meat.
Although it is not yet possible to verify the viability of the large-scale production of cultured meat, there has been a reduction in its production costs. The general public’s reception of “molecular hamburger” is still yet to be seen.
The dangers of a meat-free diet
Animal meat contains necessary nutrients for early-age human development, and it is believed that its consumption was fundamental to the evolution of the species, resulting in today’s homo sapiens. Suddenly swearing off meat consumption raises questions about the nutritional viability of a meat-free diet, in addition to the potential socio-economic ramifications that could arise if all economic activity associated with meat consumption ceased.
The experts agree that what is important is to have a varied and balanced diet that provides all the required nutrients. So, it is possible for a vegetarian to have a perfectly healthy diet and an omnivore to have a completely imbalanced diet, or vice versa. It is also worth noting that vegetarian alternatives to meat are not necessarily more healthy or less processed. In fact, the Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods products have the same caloric content as their meat equivalents.
Furthermore, drastically eliminating the consumption of animal products would represent a risk to the economic sustainability of the animal farming sectors and to many areas of the world that depend on livestock and agriculture for their livelihoods. In addition, it could threaten some of the benefits delivered by the sector, pastoralism for example, which are vital to the balance of certain ecosystems.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) points out that the solution involves reducing the amount of meat in our diet — given that developed nations eat much more meat than is necessary — and substituting it for non-animal products: greens, legumes, and cereals. Alternative products that are meant to simulate and substitute meat could be a good start at modifying our diet, making it healthier and with less impact on the environment.
Still, substituting meat products with alternatives could have a mere minimal impact if the trend is not supplemented by the implementation of measures to make the agro-food industry more efficient by introducing state of the art technology and new processes aimed at reducing its environmental impact, as international agencies have warned. Thus, a food production model that is more sustainable for everyone and environmentally-friendly could be achieved.