Farming in a Fermentation Tank
By Leslie BallentineFeatures New Technology Production Business/Policy Canada
Meat, dairy and eggs are getting bad press these days. Everyone from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to Bill Gates has declared animal proteins unsustainable, at least as we currently produce them. Plant-based alternatives to eggs, and meat could be good for the environment, backers argue, because they could reduce the consumption of animal products, which requires large amounts of land, water and crops to produce. They could also benefit people’s health, especially in heavy meat-eating countries, they are humane, and would reduce disease threats such as avian flu, they say.
Meat analogs have been in supermarkets for years. Turkey producers have been competing against faux turkey, a vegetarian substitute for holiday meals, for nearly two decades. These early versions of meat substitutes have never really taken-off in the marketplace though. That may be about to change.
Food scientists say the biggest challenge in creating a convincing meat alternative is the texture. With extensive processing it is now possible to manufacture a fairly convincing substitute using different grains, fungi and plants.
Gates has invested in Beyond Meat®, a Columbia, Missouri-based start-up that has made faux chicken strips and beef crumble now available in Canada at Whole Foods. Other investors include the Twitter co-founders and the Humane Society of the United States. The company website declares that “Beyond Meat is real meat, made from 100 per cent plant protein.”
California-based Hampton Creek Foods has begun a start-up called Beyond Eggs®. No relation to Beyond Meat, the company claims these engineered “eggs” from plant proteins are a “cheaper, healthier, safer, cleaner alternative.” The company, which also has the backing of Gates along with a co-founder of Yahoo and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, has commercialized two food products — an egg-free mayonnaise, coming soon to Walmart and Cosco, and a powdered “egg” product for baking that sells at 18 per cent less than the real thing. The firm is now developing a scrambled egg substitute that is reportedly very close to real eggs in both texture and taste.
In 2012, Hampton Creek Foods founder Josh Tetrick said, “We want to create a whole new model that makes the (old egg production) system obsolete.” As he explained it, producing emulsified plant products cuts out the need for grain to be transported to feed to birds for them to then produce eggs and will reduce carbon and waste emissions as a result.
For whatever reason, the desire to replace animal proteins with proteins derived from plants is spreading, although the market is still minuscule. Mintel, a market research firm, reports that sales of meat alternatives grew eight per cent from 2010 to 2012, when sales hit US$553 million. But there is also another approach: growing meat in laboratories instead of fields and barns. Dubbed “test-tube meat” by the media, this technology has been fronted by investors ranging from Google co-founder Sergey Brin to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). In 2013, the world’s first in vitro meat burger was taste-tested with much media fanfare and mixed reviews.
Researchers working on the technology, still hugely expensive, face plenty of technical hurdles too. Similar to those used in a modern pharmaceutical factory, bioreactors are used to grow meat from stem cells and theoretically would reduce the number of animals needed to feed people.
Another start-up in Columbia, Modern Meadow, is in fact already trying to commercialize “test tube meat.” Also partially funded by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, the process would extract stem cells from muscle tissue of cows, pigs or chickens, and culture them. The growth medium currently being used, derived from fetal animals, is expensive and would push the cost to about $240 per pound of meat, according to a Trends in Biotechnology report.
Reactions to the idea cross the spectrum, with the “yuck-factor” cited as the biggest barrier. Some animal activists nix the idea because it still involves using animals and environmentalists question the degree of environmental value it offers. Farmers aren’t keen on the idea either.
Here’s the point: with today’s consumers looking aghast at “unnatural” food products, now is the time for animal agriculture sectors to take back some of that bad press and promote real food.
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