There are some interesting things happening in the world of food science. This is good for humankind, offering the promise of expanding the food supply while also having a positive, admittedly it is a promise at this point, impact on the environment.
Meat alternatives are not GMO and seek to avoid the same fate
This brings to mind the long and painful journey of GMO crops, but it is that experience that the majority of these companies appear to be side-stepping at this point in their development. For GMO the science is conclusive, it is safe, but it is often the practices of the companies that own the intellectual property behind these crops that gets activists agitated. For meat alternatives, it is not Cargill or Tyson Foods that is taking the lead on development, but rather a bunch of startups that are, ironically, funded by the likes of Cargill and Tyson Foods. For now, that appears to be giving them some breathing space to develop product.
Plant-based vs. lab-grown
Plant-based meat products are hitting the market and gaining acceptance. The Impossible Burger comes to mind immediately. I tried it and declared it “okay but not great, certainly not a value,” however that judgement may reflect an unrealistic bar for “good to great” status. The fact that the company created a plant-based burger that looks, tastes, cooks, and acts like meat is pretty extraordinary. I wouldn’t rule out having another, but I would like to work with this in my kitchen to learn more about how it cooks.
Clean meat is a second front in the meat alternatives market, also known as lab-grown meat. The science is complex but surprisingly straightforward. You take an animal cell, feed it in a controlled environment, differentiate it, and put it in a bioreactor. Voila, meat. Pretty cool.
I find this sector of the alternative meat market to be the most promising. Meat labs can be set up anywhere in the world, maybe even made portable to a household appliance size. Moving food production closer to markets is always a good thing, and it is already happening in agriculture. Plenty is a well-financed company devoted to urban located vertical farms, a fantastic concept the ensures freshness while also drastically eliminating logistics and distribution costs from the food chain.
Lab-grown meat also has the benefit of reducing parasites without resorting to antibiotics in the process. This is akin to the benefit of GMOs, which minimize chemical use in farms and, recent research has indicated, reduces the neighboring non-GMO use of chemicals by reducing the “edible” food load for pests in a geographic region. Lab-grown meat will not reduce antibiotics in non-lab-grown meat but the overall reduction across the food chain will be meaningful.
Whoa, what about farm-to-table?
People who know me may be surprised that a garden-to-table guy would advocate for science experiments in food production. The march of progress is unstoppable and anything the increases food production, safety, quality, and reduces environmental impacts and logistics costs that drive factory farming today, well that is a good thing. The part of farm-to-table that has always resonated with me is knowing where my food comes from and respecting the process along with minimizing waste. Meat alternatives are consistent with my beliefs even if I do not understand all of the science behind them… but I also don’t understand all of the science behind what makes for a tasty cow or a carrot that is has the right balance of texture and sweetness.
I doubt we will ever get to the point where a perfect ribeye steak is popping out of a machine but I would also not rule it out. Science can and should pursue these opportunities not just because they can but also because this is something that is truly good for humankind.