Updated: Mar 30, 2022
Global environmental changes are more and more alarming and both textile and food industries are largely responsible. It is possible to address these issues and act without becoming vegan or vegetarian oneself. One could simply consume less animal protein as well as mind the origin of their food. New alternate ways of meat production and consumption are being developed and others are already available. These substitutes could help us progressively change our eating habits. These cultured meats are meat-based products coming from biological engineering without the slaughtering of animals. They are now forming a booming field using tools that were initially developed for biological research.
For several decades our planet has been facing many issues such as global warming, viral pandemics and an exponential rise of cases of multidrug-resistant bacteria.
The food industry is one of the main causes of these changes. Within this industry, meat production is particularly harmful. More precisely, meat industry is one of the most polluting industries not only by its greenhouse gases emissions but also by its excessive water utilization. In order to produce one kilogram of red meat, we need 15 thousand litres of water 1. In addition to these effects on the planet, this industry also uses disproportionate amounts of growth hormones and antibiotics that directly harm our health.
However, our bodies need proteins, which play an essential structural role. Indeed, proteins participate in several mechanisms in our bodies, such as muscle renewal and growth regulation. Although we can already substitute animal-based proteins with plant-based proteins, we are all confronted with the reality of our eating habits, the meals with which we are comfortable and the foodstuffs available for purchase. Adjusting our impulses as consumers will of course take time and will depend on the design of a secure and qualitative alternate food offer. In this context, new strategies are emerging.
Alternatives to meat like tofu and tempeh have already existed for hundreds of years. The industry of plant-based meat dates back to the nineteenth century. Several of the main companies producing plant-based meat were created between 1970 and 1990. However, the volume of production and the diversity of these products have remained abysmal until a few years ago. The market for plant-based meat has been considerably growing these last few years as companies started to produce varying types of plant-based meat as well as other products that are practically indistinguishable from conventional meat. This biomimetic approach started in 2012 with the release of Beyond Meat’s chicken strips and took off in 2016 with the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, which were successful in mainstream fast-food restaurants 2, 3. In France, companies such as HappyVore and Planted have flooded supermarkets with their goods, introducing novelties imitating meat, seafood, eggs and plant-derived dairies (almond and soy milk) , thus changing our daily eating habits 2, 3.
How does this strategy of creating meat from plants work? Animal-based meat is mainly composed of muscles and plants do not have muscles. However, they have all the proteins, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals that meat possesses. Plant-based meat takes advantage of the biochemical similarities between plants and animals in order to create new food 3, 4. These processes transform the initial plant-based material to food similar to meat by altering its shape and taste. These methods are based on the dosage compensation principle to imitate animal-based meat and any missing element will be artificially synthesized.
Plant growth in order to get the source material.
Getting all the macro-elements (proteins, fatty acids) from the plants and getting rid of the unwanted plant parts.
Afterwards, mixing of the ingredients to create the wanted texture of animal- based meat.
In addition to paying attention to texture, the methods also optimize taste through the use of spices that resemble the target product. For example, in the case of meat, hemes are used. These are iron containing molecules that give meat its special taste and colour 3.
We are now exploring an unexpected avenue, taking even further the synthetic processes of food creation. This avenue is to create animal-based meat from stem-cells in laboratories. Stem-cells are cells that have retained the ability to grow and differentiate into any tissue 4, 6. The method of cultivating meat thus uses all the basic nutrients necessary to muscle and fat tissues and the same biological process that takes place inside an animal can now take place in a flask. This meat is identical to the conventional meat we know both in terms of taste and form. Cuttings, buddings and maintaining a leaven such as baker’s yeast are techniques that mankind mastered centuries ago even without the original organism. Professor Mark Post and his team at the University of Maastricht presented the first lab grown hamburger in August 2013. The first cultured-meat company, UPSIDE Foods, was created in 2015.
Synthesising food does not stop at meat, though. A French start-up company founded in 2020 now works on creating “cellular foie gras” 5. They use the same technique of cell culture and created this specialty to avoid the animal suffering that takes place during the traditional making of “foie gras”, which is a recurrent controversy around this dish. The challenge is even more daring considering that the goal is to match and even surpass the taste and texture of the traditional food to be competitive. Nowadays, the company keeps searching for improvements but the taste is already on par with traditional “foie gras”. This start-up company does not stop there. Their ultimate goal is to diversify meat production with the same techniques, thus reducing consumer price.
The creation of a cultured meat market is motivated by the possible elimination of many ethical and environmental issues associated with the production of conventional meat.
As previously mentioned, the large scale meat production by the food industry is one of the main contributors to global warming. The global population and meat demand will increase by approximately 65% in 2050 compared to the current population and demand 6. Lab-grown meat can potentially offer a solution to these issues. More precisely, industry scaled cultured meat production would use 89% less water, 99% fewer lands and reduce greenhouse gases emissions by up to 96% compared conventional meat production 7.
1. Rebulard, S. (2018). Le défi alimentaire: Écologie, agronomie et avenir. BELIN EDUCATION.
2. Small Actions for Big Change. (2019, March 21). Impossible Food. https://impossiblefoods.com/blog/small-actions-for-big-change
3. G. (2022, January 1). Plant-based and cultivated meat innovation | GFI. The Good Food Institute. https://gfi.org
4. Swartz, E. (2021, February 16). How it’s made: the science behind cultivated meat. A Bit of Science. https://elliot-swartz.squarespace.com/cellbasedmeat/cleanmeat301
5. Le foie gras cellulaire, sans gavage ni abattage - Nicolas Morin Forest (Gourmey) dans The GARDENER. (2022, January 4). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtz31V_YM8M&t=24s
6. Reiss, J., Robertson, S., & Suzuki, M. (2021). Cell Sources for Cultivated Meat: Applications and Considerations throughout the Production Workflow. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 22(14), 7513. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms22147513
7. Tuomisto, H. L., & Teixeira De Mattos, M. J. (2011). Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(14), 6117–6123. https://doi.org/10.1021/es200130u