Mystery meat: tech-first meat alternatives may not be our saviour

While the traditional meat industry is undeniably flawed, scientists and others have started to raise questions around the instant adoption of meat alternatives such as the Impossible Burger. Callum Tyndall finds out whether these products are as good for us as media buzz would suggest.

Recent headlines are filled with the gospel of alternative meats, with the Impossible and Beyond Burgers appearing across institutions and almost inevitably selling in huge numbers. Competitors are sprouting up in bulk as companies scramble to get in on what may well be the trend to define the future of the food industry. The current state of the meat industry is undeniably problematic, the ecological impact alone more than enough to give pause, and with increasingly conscious consumers it was only a matter of time before serious questions started to be asked about the continuation of the status quo. 

Heralded as the answer to this moment of crisis is the seemingly ever-expanding range of alternative or vegan meats being produced. Developed with a mind towards technology and a Silicon Valley appeal, products such as the aforementioned Impossible and Beyond burgers have captured attention for their replication of ‘meaty’ flavour and texture while promising a future that disrupts the traditions of agriculture and food production. However, while these promises sound fruitful, there is a concern as whether they can be lived up to, whether the synthetic nature of these products should be in question, and whether or not the technocratic fervour around their creators is obscuring larger problems. 

The case for cultured meat

The practical benefits to cultured meat have been loudly proclaimed: faster growth to harvest time, no bacterial contamination, lower chance of spoilage, customisable nutritional values; the case for the product seems obvious. Economically, Impossible Foods’ and Beyond Meat’s valuations in the $1bn-$2bn range make it obvious as to why industry is jumping on the bandwagon, from investment to the launch of competitor products. The future of the industry seems almost certain to include lab-grown meat in a significant fashion. Frankly, what consumers want is changing and cultured meat seems a far better fit than traditional cattle.

If we can make the meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we do that?

In that vein, it’s impossible to avoid the ethical component to the matter. From the ecological damage of mass-rearing animals for slaughter to the questionable rearing practices employed by some in the industry (battery farming etc.), it is perhaps no surprise, as the information age imparts ever more information to consumers, that those consumers are taking a sterner stance on how they spend their money. Truly considering the impact of our meat production makes it far harder to stomach continuing as before.

As Tom Hayes, former CEO of Tyson Foods, said, “If we can make the meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we do that?”

The technology is still relatively new, so some of these claims are yet to be tested to the fullest extent but if cultured meat were to live up to its promises it could well prove to be entirely transformative to the way we eat. Of course, that is assuming that it can live up to those promises and attain significant commercial standing. It is also assuming that we should be so heartily buying into the pitch.

Should the synthetic nature be a concern?

Not everyone is quite so big a fan of the changes coming to the meat market. While the synthetic offerings of Silicon Valley certainly make a strong case, there are some that argue that the case is built on far shakier foundations than has been discussed. Synthetic - or genetically modified - food should not in and of itself be cause for concern. 

Such practice extends throughout large-scale food production; the selective breeding of crops alone could be argued to be a form of genetic modification, and much in the way medicine has evolved through human synthesis, food not being pulled from the ground to go straight to the plate shouldn’t be an automatic reason to panic. It is perhaps worth asking however, whether we understand enough about the machinations of the labs behind these meats to proclaim them the next miracle food.

The problem is that when we see the word ‘vegan’ on a packet, we assume that means healthy

John Pallagi, co-founder of Farmison & Co, says, "The problem is that when we see the word ‘vegan’ on a packet, we assume that means healthy, which certainly isn’t the case – the genetically engineered list of ingredients of the Impossible Burger have already caused concern with consumers [asking] ‘what’s actually in this burger?’"

“Due to the facts and history, we’re not convinced that veganism is the most sustainable or healthy way to live; the shift towards the plant-based diet could lead to nutritional deficiencies in affluent countries and protein shortages in deprived areas. There's not only issues with our health, soil fertility would also be lost and carbon sinks dug up as sustainably reared, pastured livestock are forgotten and plant food fuelled by pesticides is applauded.” 

Pallagi’s words should be taken with a grain of salt; a meat producer would obviously be inclined against veganism, but there is an element of truth to the benefit of consumer assumptions that alternative meats are receiving. In a space that is moving so fast that regulation is struggling to keep up, there is no guarantee that the lab-created ingredients being produced are as healthy as claimed. 

A financial imperative for the future

Pallagi’s concerns extend beyond the traditional meat sector. Economically, producers of meat and more traditional vegetarian/vegan options are seeing the alternative meat sector begin to gobble up their proverbial lunch. Simply put, a product that tastes like meat is going to have a large appeal to consumers who gave up the real thing on largely ethical reasons rather than an overt distaste. Alternative meats also have the advantage of drawing in those who are simply trying to reduce their meat intake. So it is worth assuming that there may be some financial interest in the concern raised over these newcomers. 

David Knibbs, director at The Tofoo Co., says, “The meat alternative sector has rapidly grown over the past few years, with almost half of UK adults choosing to avoid certain foods or ingredients. Despite the rise in demand, there are inevitably still concerns over both the health and ethical benefits of these substitutes. With so many products on the market, we would encourage people to consider how products are sourced and made when switching to a meat-free diet.”

Almost half of UK adults choose to avoid certain foods or ingredients

And yet, it is hard to ignore the fact that recent years have more than proven that Silicon Valley is not the responsible steward of the future it would like consumers to believe. And for all the utopian visions promised by the producers of these ‘miracle meats’, they are still just as driven by money as those behind conventional meats. The true cost of mass production is yet uncertain (a February study found some forms could ultimately be worse for the environment than traditional farming), regulation is yet to be clearly established, and there are big questions to be asked about what such a transition would mean for developing cultures reliant on traditional agriculture.

The promise of these products may not be misguided, but industry stakeholders and consumers should carefully consider if it has been stretched beyond feasibility. 

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