Many of the most beloved dishes around the world feature beef, poultry, or pork as the center-stage ingredients, with different cuisines having their own versions of beef stew, steak, meatballs, and burgers. But these delicacies come at a high price: the resources required for feed, the high water usage, and greenhouse gas emissions mean meat has a giant carbon footprint.
It's hard to imagine a world without meat, but the current environmental impact of meat production is staggering and some say unsustainable in the long run. To address these challenges, some entrepreneurs are now attempting to use biotechnology to create a new future of food that they hope will minimize the inefficiencies and environmental burden of traditional meat production.
Using alternative sources such as lab-grown meat or plant-based proteins, startup companies like Modern Meadow and Hampton Creek want to wean people off the meat they've become so accustomed to for more humane and sustainable substitutes. So what will this biotech-inspired food really consist of, and more importantly, how will it taste?
For many people in modern societies, food is more than just sustenance — it has an emotional component as well. Both culture and childhood habits influence our eating preferences as adults, and beyond taste, food also has to be visually and mentally appealing.
“People want meat to be natural, they want meat of a known origin preferably — in many cases it's not, I can tell you," said DLDsummer15 panelist Peter Verstrate, a food scientist and consultant based in the Netherlands and working on cultured beef. “Meat is a touchy subject, so consumer acceptance of this product and replacing a product like meat with something that comes out of a lab, that will be a tricky thing."
In August 2013, Verstrate and Mark Post of Maastricht University unveiled the world's first lab-grown burger at a news conference in London. At the DLDsummer15 panel “Biofabrication", Verstrate described how he used adult stem cells extracted from a biopsy of cow muscle tissue. The stem cells are then proliferated and turned into muscle cells, a process that takes about three to four weeks.
He believes that using stem cells to grow muscle is one way to keep up with the growing demand for meat — for instance, world meat production is predicted to double by 2050 — while lowering the industry's negative impact.
“The production of meat today — we eat about 300 billion kilos of meat every year on this planet — is actually a pretty big problem," said Verstrate. “It impacts our ecosystem, it impacts global warming. About 20 percent of global warming is caused by the production of meat, which is more than transport."
But Verstrate and other food biotech entrepreneurs are facing an uphill battle. Lab-grown meat and novel plant-based foods need to be adopted by the masses that are already accustomed to the cost and the flavor of conventional meat.
To address flavor issues, many companies are starting off with foods that look and taste familiar to the average consumer. Los Angeles–based Beyond Meat makes plant-based chicken strips, ground meat, and meatballs that mimic the real thing in texture and mouthfeel. Their products are made with pea protein, oils, and soy fiber that have been meticulously heated, cooled, and pressed to create something that comes as close to cooked animal tissue as possible.
Similarly, data scientists at San Francisco startup Hampton Creek searched through billions of different plant-based proteins to find a vegan egg replacement. They ran these proteins through predictive computational models to figure out whether they would foam up or how they would behave when mixed with water. So far, the company's tinkering has led to ordinarily egg-based foods sans eggs, like mayonnaise and chocolate chip cookie dough, which have received rave reviews on taste.
Other startups want to transcend our ideas of tech-inspired food, from mock beef or chicken, to something less restrictive. Headquartered in Brooklyn, Modern Meadow focuses more on animal materials — growing leather in the lab, for instance — but it also has a food program that grows edible protein from muscle cells.
“In a very narrow sense, you might think about that as meat, but what we're beginning to learn in association with R&D chefs is that we're able to grow a very pure form of protein that could be then shaped into different types of food products," said DLDsummer15 panelist Suzanne Lee, creative director at Modern Meadow. “So we're just at the beginning of exploring what this new landscape of food and materials can deliver."
There's no telling yet whether the future of food will consist of lab-grown meat, plant-based protein, or something else entirely. But as the environmental impact of meat continues to grow, just as the search for clean, renewable energy sources to replace dwindling fossil fuels has already kicked into high gear, so too will research focused on finding sustainable meat alternatives.