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Nice to meat you

By EMEditor | 14 February 20 05:08pm | News and Views

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The food tech sector is almost invisible. The meals we eat are frequently so processed that changes in production are made out of sight and out of mind. Food technology is deep science, it’s less likely to be software engineering than genetic engineering and there’s a regulatory framework to make fintech look lax. It’s no place for startups, not under capitalised ones anyway, which most in the UK are. Which is why we rarely hear about it.

And yet bubbling away in the background is a multi billion dollar industry quietly ruminating the problems of how to make meat happen, without animals. Because actually feeding the ever increasing population of the ever shrinking Earth is becoming a serious cause for concern, or if you’re in the meatless meat industry, excitement. 

From a demand perspective, the population is rising, set to hit 10 Billion around 2050 and the ‘middle class’ is expanding at an even greater rate, more people can afford to eat meat, and they want to. On the supply end of the scales, natural resources including land and marine life are being depleted at totally unsustainable rates. Feeding the World without consuming the World is perhaps the single biggest challenge we collectively face. And it’s directly related to climate change, animal agriculture is one of the main emitters of greenhouse gasses. It’s also not great for the animals.

We could go meatless as individual choice, but that’s unlikely to happen at scale. Can tech feed us? It’s a huge sector but here’s a summary;

Insect protein. On a nutritional level, insects are great. They can be farmed in vast numbers without high technology or land use. Crickets have a higher protein level than beef and 1% of the greenhouse gas emissions. But food isn’t just nutrition, in practice it’s more about taste, culture, social habits, status and personal choice and in the EU and UK, we just don’t eat insects. 

Next in line are products that have a consumer experience close enough to meat to be almost indistinguishable. Gregs sell a well publicised and culturally embraced vegan sausage roll. Subway are advertising a vegan meatball sandwich, and Burger King are soon to launch a ‘Rebel Burger’ into the UK, a plant based meat alternative produced by the $2B valuation Impossible Foods.  According to a recent CBInsights report ‘the company’s (Impossible Foods) use of heme, an iron-rich molecule in animal proteins, has enabled it to replicate the “meaty” flavor in its plant-based products’. Another company mentioned in the CBI report is Perfect Day, ‘attempting to use gene sequencing and 3D printing to create milk without the cow. They company raised just under $35M in Series B funding this time last year’. I have no idea how that works.

Then we have the real futuristic alternatives from companies such as Memphis Meats. Lab grown meat is now in the pipeline, literally. It’s grown by taking tissue from a cow, stem cells are then extracted and grown into muscle fibres, a process taking about six weeks. These are then bundled together, processed, including adding colour and fat, and pressed into a burger or other form. It’s meat. But not as we know it. 

This is definitely an interesting approach to the problem. The end result isn’t vegan, or even vegetarian, it’s animal meat, but grown in a lab rather than a field as part of an entire cow. The environmental cost is greatly reduced, using just 1% of the existing water and land requirements as conventional agriculture. This technology is still heading towards commercial viability, in financial terms lab cultured meat is currently around 100 times the price of farmed meat, but just as electric cars were once an unviable enterprise now Tesla is the World’s 2nd most valuable car company. At scale the costs level out and the benefits are immense.

The aim is to create meat that looks like meat, tastes like meat, acts like meat and is enjoyed like meat, but without the process of farming animals. And it’s very much happening, for processed food, lab grown meat may very well become the norm. 

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