Nature and Biodiversity

We must eat less meat. Could these three alternatives help save our planet?

Workers assemble the plant-based hamburger patties during a media tour of Impossible Foods labs and processing plant in Redwood City, California, U.S. October 6, 2016.

Would you be willing to give up meat to fight climate change? Image: REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach

Jeremy Coller
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The goal to keep global warming below 2°C, as set out in the Paris Agreement, is an ambitious one which will require new policies, a change in consumer behaviour and technology innovations across a wide range of industries.

The spotlight often falls on those industries traditionally recognized as heavy emitters such as oil and gas, extractives and transport. However, research by Chatham House indicates that without reducing livestock production and consumption, the ambitions of Paris will be impossible. Livestock production, for example, is responsible for 14% of greenhouse emissions - more than the global transport sector.

The sector is also a disproportionate user of land and water, and a major contributor to deforestation due to the soya required to produce animal feed. This makes meat production one of the sectors most urgently in need of a re-think.

Consumption is only part of the answer

Part of the solution is around reducing demand for livestock, and we are beginning to see lower levels of meat consumption in the developed world with, for example, 25% of US consumers decreasing meat intake in 2014.

We are also beginning to see government action aimed at reducing citizens’ meat consumption. For example, the Chinese government recently announced plans to reduce its citizens’ meat consumption by 50%, while countries such as Denmark are having active consultations on the introduction of a red meat tax. We can expect similar legislative programmes in other jurisdictions in the years to come.

However, to significantly curb emissions it is likely that we will also need innovative new technologies on the production side. In particular there is a market for products with the taste, texture and nutritional benefits of meat - but which can be produced in a more sustainable way.

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A group of start-ups are applying cutting edge thinking in biotechnology, medical science and manufacturing to help meet this technology challenge. They are at the vanguard of a food tech revolution, proving that it’s increasingly possible to move away from farm animals as our primary technology for producing food. The plant-based protein market is set to grow by over 8% annually over the next five years.

Three technologies in particular currently have the potential to transform the industry and reduce emissions:

  • Replacement innovations – These are foods that use biotechnology and other methods to provide an identical or improved sensory experience to consumers compared to the animal product they replace. An example is California-based Impossible Foods which has come up with a way to make a veggie burger taste like meat by adding a heme molecule found in the root of certain plants. Other meat-based products being replicated without animals include egg whites (by Clara Foods), milk (by Perfect Day) and gelatine (by Gelzen).
  • Cultured meat innovations – Several startups are in the race to bring ‘cultured meat’ to a mass market, developing lab-grown hamburgers and sausages. Companies like Mosa Meat and Modern Meadow lead the sector, as well as academics like Dr. Amit Gefen at Tel Aviv University, who is finalizing the recipe for developing tissue-engineered chicken breasts.
  • Business model innovations – These include companies such as Agricel and AeroFarms who are using new methods to reduce the cost of production at scale. Indoor vertical farming methods take advantage of the decreasing cost of LED lights and use these to grow vegetables in large warehouses. They grow 24 hours a day, providing fresh produce for urban markets, while reducing water and chemical consumption as well as transportation costs.

Beyond curbing global warming, there is a real financial incentive in developing alternative products. Food tech leader Hampton Creek’s eggless mayonnaise has helped them become one of the fastest growing food companies in history. Their revenue grew by more than 350% in 2015, and global players are catching on: Unilever launched its own ‘egg-free, cage-free’ brand of mayonnaise earlier this year.

Reform of the livestock sector and the way we produce meat and proteins in our diet is becoming a critical issue and a food tech revolution is part of what is required to meet the growing global demand for protein within the environmental constraints of our planet.

If major food companies take advantage of these new technologies, they would not only be tapping into a growing market, but also making a significant contribution to achieving the goals set out in Paris.

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