The protein revolution? Yes, it exists. In ten years’ time 10 percent of the meat market worldwide will be in the hands of vegetarian or vegan alternatives to meat, according to investment bank Barclays. Unfortunately, this does not alter the fact that the turnover of real meat products is also expected to continue to grow in the coming years.
The main goal of multinationals is to make money, not to make good and fair food
The revolution largely takes place in the lab. There, meat products are simulated as realistically as possible using new techniques, and real meat is even « grown ». Stacy Pyett heads the Proteins for Life research program at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), which researches the functionality of proteins, develops new protein-rich products and analyzes their health effects. The researcher sees that there is a great need to adjust our diet: “In rich countries there is overconsumption of protein, and in poorer countries people generally don’t get enough of it. Our current food system has an enormous ecological footprint and is extremely unfairly distributed. ”
1. Local cultivation
In the « local » category, a burger based on algae and even homegrown quinoa has been on the shelves for two years. There is another promising local plant: duckweed, also known as water lentils.
Ingrid van der Meer (WUR) started her research into the potential of duckweed as food six years ago. The plant grows very fast, requires little valuable agricultural land and you can harvest all year round. The plant needs enough water and sunlight. It is therefore suitable for local cultivation and even ideal for indoor cultivation vertical farming.
One hectare of duckweed produces up to ten times more protein than one hectare of soy. And it is also full of vitamins and minerals. The application to register it as safe for consumption lies with the European food authority EFSA.
According to Pyett, the solutions devised for this ecological footprint and the shortage of protein can roughly be divided into « low-tech » and « high-tech ». She herself is more on the low-tech side. Think, for example, of duckweed, which you encounter in ponds all over the world. « It can be produced locally, grows very quickly, requires few raw materials and agricultural land, and contains a lot of protein. » The development of high-tech imitation meat, on the other hand, costs money, time and raw materials for years. Such a product often requires more energy and water, due to the production of the ingredients, the technology and the distribution.
“Impossible Foods, for example, uses genetically modified yeast for their burgers, which gives the special meat flavor. An intensive and specific process. ” Despite this complexity, these types of products are also needed, in addition to simple solutions such as legumes and duckweed, Pyett thinks. « They almost or completely match the meat, fish or dairy that people are used to, and can persuade so many people to make plant-based choices. »
2. Print steaks
Redefine Meat, an Israeli start-up, developed a technique to 3D print a mix of soybeans and pea protein in layers and simulate the complex meat structure. According to founder Eshchar Ben-Shitrit, the technique is even able to recreate a steak realistically.
The idea is that the printers for this « Alt-Steak » will be placed in restaurants; they can then adjust the recipe themselves. At the end of this year, there will be pilots in restaurants in Israel, France, Germany and Switzerland, after which Redefine Meat wants to bring the machines to the market in early 2021. More companies are developing 3D printers for the kitchen, such as the Spanish NovaMeat, which expects to sell the machines to restaurants in Italy and Spain this year. And ultimately NovaMeat also focuses directly on consumers: the machine should be for sale in the supermarket next year.
Food philosopher Michiel Korthals is also most interested in low-tech solutions. In his book Good Food, he argues that our current food system with its complicated and opaque chains and technological processing means that we are far removed from our food. Imitation meat will not close that « gaping hole » between food and consumer, he says. « With such lab or factory manufactured products, there is still little insight into how it is made and where the ingredients come from. »
Korthals also thinks that, in addition to innovations, there should be a shift in our diet. “People find it normal to eat animal products three times a day. While it is much better for health to eat more vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. The government can play a role in shifting the norm. For example through taxes and nudging 1”
3. Animal-free binder
On packaging of meat substitutes often chicken egg is on the predominantly vegetable ingredients list. Egg is a good and cheap binder, crucial for a solid consistency. According to researchers from the company FUMI Ingredients, which originated at the WUR, 27 billion euros are spent in the world market for proteins. FUMI develops animal-free alternatives from, among other things, yeast (a by-product from beer brewing), micro-algae and fungi, which would result in a CO2 reduction of at least 80 percent.
The philosopher sees another problem: food giants are starting to see a revenue model in the protein transition. Unilever took over De Vegetarian Slager, Sweet Earth Foods is now part of Nestlé and McDonalds and Burger King now also sell veggie burgers. Korthals: “Multinationals hitch a ride on ideas that live in society, but their main goal is not to make good and fair food, but to earn money.
Greenwashing is then lurking. The old values of producing food as efficiently and cheaply as possible, at the expense of ecological values and the welfare of humans and animals, will remain intact. While that attitude has caused the problems in our current food system. In addition, because of their size and power, multinationals can flout or even dictate rules, with their armies of lobbyists and tax specialists who exert such pressure on politics. ”
4. The cultivated burger of € 250,000
Cellular agriculture, or cultured meat, was released from the lab in 2013. Maastricht professor and Mosa Meat founder Mark Post presented the first hamburger made by growing a few animal cells into a real piece of meat, without having to slaughter an animal.
There would be no difference in taste, texture and nutritional value. All the more so in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and land and water use; according to Mosa Meat, it is less than one-twentieth that of a traditional piece of meat. Antibiotics and (growth) hormones are also unnecessary. The cells were previously grown in fetal calf blood from a slaughtered, pregnant cow, but there is now a vegetable alternative.
Although the first culture burger cost 250,000 euros, it should soon be cheaper than a conventional one. Mosa Meat hopes to have its first burger in the supermarket within a few years with a starting price of 9 euros each. After that, production has to go up quickly and the price down.
Mosa Meat’s main competitors are Memphis Meats from Silicon Valley, Israel’s Future Meat Technologies and JUST from San Francisco. These producers are also on the verge of breaking through, but: cultured meat has yet to be approved all over the world as a new type of food. EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) does this for Europe. They check that it is safe, which can be a time consuming process.
The same thing was heard on social media when Unilever took over the Vegetarian Butcher; people feared the end of the idealism behind the company. But other than that, reactions in the media were predominantly positive: it was mainly seen as a great opportunity for a sustainable company to grow, just as founder Jaap Korteweg had envisioned. Wageningen researcher Pyett follows that reasoning. “We need the big players to get volume, so that meat substitutes become cheaper and accessible to more people. They know how to make products attractive to the general public through a budget for customer research, marketing and brand awareness. ”
5. Gene technology
A burger that really tastes like meat and even ‘bleeds’ in the pan, that’s what Impossible Foods, one of the leaders in the world market for meat substitutes, promises. The protein leghemoglobin from the roots of the soybean plant, which is almost identical to the protein myoglobin, which you find in meat, provides this. But in order to get enough of that special protein, you’d have to pull tons of soybean plant roots out of the soil, leading to soil erosion and the release of stored carbon. That is why Impossible Foods has developed a yeast with gene technology that produces leghemoglobin during fermentation.
The products of the American company are popular with consumers in Asia and the US. Impossible Foods also wants to enter the European market and requested permission from EFSA at the end of last year. The EU is reluctant to allow crops to which gene technology has been applied, the technique whereby an organism’s DNA is modified in such a way that it acquires properties that it does not naturally have. Although in the Netherlands you can find genetically modified soy, corn and rapeseed in the supermarket, and GM is used in the production of non-organic animal feed and medicines.
According to The New York Times 90 percent of US scientists believe that eating genetically modified crops (GMOs) is not unsafe for health; a tour of some scientists from Wageningen University confirms this picture. This does not alter the fact that there are other possible risks, such as that GM seed drifts over to fields with non-GM crops, damage to biodiversity, concentration of power around a few companies that patent GM crops and uncertainty about the consequences for humans and nature in the longer term. In his NRC column, professor of nutritional science Martijn Katan (VU) called the « invention » of Impossible Foods « mouth-watering science ». Whether EFSA approves Impossible Foods is still unclear.
This article was previously published in September 2020 OneWorld magazine: What About Vegan ?.
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