A recent report by the global consultancy AT Kearney predicts that by 2040, 60% of the meat we eat will be grown in vats or replaced by plant-based products that look and taste like meat rather than slaughtered animals. But is imitation meat a real solution for our environment? Why can’t we just eat far less meat instead, and find alternative sources of protein without having to fake it?
The world is searching for alternatives to meat because the conventional meat industry has been proven in scientific studies to have a huge environmental impact, from the emissions driving the climate crisis to animal welfare issues and the destruction and pollution of wild habitats – you can read more on AT Kearney’s report and these impacts in The Guardian here.
Avoiding meat and dairy is a relatively easy way for consumers to reduce their individual impact, and while veganism isn’t the simple answer to the planet’s woes some want it to be (read more here), companies such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Just Foods that use plant ingredients to create replacement burgers, scrambled eggs and other products are growing rapidly.
Walk into your local supermarket and you are likely to see an array of processed vegan products that never used to be there – from plant-based meatballs, burgers and goujons to fake ‘turkey and stuffing’ and ‘chicken nuggets’. Vegan and vegetarian menus in restaurants and hotels are starting to be the norm rather than the exception, and vegan-only places to stay such as the UK’s first 100% vegan hotel in the Highlands of Scotland are sprouting up all over the world – read more here.
Companies are also working on growing meat cells in culture, to produce real meat without needing to raise and kill animals. No such products have yet reached consumers, but AT Kearney predicts in its report that cultured meat will dominate in the long term because it reproduces the taste and feel of conventional meat more closely than the vegan meat – which, some feel, doesn’t taste very nice at all, let alone like meat. Infact, for many people, eating meat is absolutely delicious (whilst fake meat is often truly not) and hugely satisfying (because we need far less of it than fruits and vegetables to make us feel full) – which may explain why we eat more of it than is healthy.
The human desire to eat meat is complex, and goes way back to our caveman days. Energy dense with lots of calories and protein, it was the original ‘brain food’, playing a critical role in boosting the energy humans needed to feed the evolution of our big, hungry brains and help us move on from being monkeys. It has had massive cultural significance in many countries, and there’s a clear correlation between wealth and meat consumption – while industrialized Western nations consume an average of more than 220 pounds of meat (around half a cow) per person per year, the poorest African nations average less than 22 pounds per person. You can read more about why humans eat meat here.
The concept of imitation meat is also nothing new. As Bee Wilson, author of The Way We Eat Now: Strategies for Eating in a World of Change points out, for as long as there have been people too poor to buy meat – and vegetarians – there have been fake meats of one kind or another. In the UK, the Welsh Glamorgan sausage made from cheese, leeks and bread crumbs became popular during the second world war when meat was rationed, while in Russia, home cooks used to make an aubergine puree that goes by the name of “caviar”. The difference with today’s fake meats is that food technology has enabled them to be strangely realistic in both texture and appearance, from “flaky’” fish to burgers oozing with beetroot juice – read more here..
An overly meaty diet has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, but these were things our distant ancestors never had to worry about, because they didn’t live long enough to fall victim to chronic disease and were only trying to survive day by day. Concern for our health is one of the main reasons we are now buying vegetarian replacements to meat in such quantities, but fake meat isn’t necessarily healthier meat. Many nutritionists see vegan alternatives as just another set of overly processed industrial foods that are often higher in salt than meat products, packed with additives and preservatives, and lacking in the iron and B vitamins animal meats contain, and urge us to eat all processed foods mindfully. The Impossible Burger, for example, packs in 20 grams of saturated fat (coconut oil), four grams more than the Heart Association recommended daily intake! You can read more in The Guardian feature here.
Meat eating habits around the world are slowly changing. Even Australians, some of the world’s biggest meat eaters, are converting to diets with less meat – read more here. But the use of vegan meat replacements and a drive for cultured meats isn’t the gigantic step forward our planet needs. Instead, let’s eat less meat and look for alternatives that are both authentic and healthy. A dream carbon solution for people who love to eat meat is eating more seaweed in your diet, for example – research has shown since 2015 that a diet that contains small amounts of seaweed will reduce methane emissions from belching cows by 80% – read more here.