- Every year, billions of animals are raised and slaughtered for food.
- This uses huge amounts of water and energy.
- Some experts believe alternatives could be better for people and the environment.
Billions of animals are killed for food every year. In fact the total number slaughtered every two years exceeds the number of people that have ever lived.
Whether you’re a keen meat eater or not, there’s no ignoring that its production consumes a huge amount of natural resources: 15,000 litres of water to produce a single kilogram of beef.
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Many studies highlight the health benefits of reducing meat consumption too. A report published in the JAMA Internal Medicine found that eating two servings of red meat, processed meat or poultry a week was linked to a 3-7% higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a growing amount of interest in meat alternatives.
A start-up firm in Israel, Redefine Meat, is using industrial-scale 3D-printing to produce a plant-based 'alt-steak' that it says has a structure and texture similar to that of the real thing.
Eshchar Ben-Shitrit, the company’s chief executive and co-founder, told Reuters: “We can do the entire cow, not only one part of the cow.”
In 2019, his firm raised $6 million in funding – an indication of how seriously the non-meat meat market is being taken. According to a report in Vox, demand for meat alternatives in the US leapt by 264% while the coronavirus pandemic was raging. Redefine Meat says it expects the category to be worth $140 billion annually by 2030.
Here’s to your health
Eating too much meat – red meat in particular – has been associated with a range of health problems for decades including heart disease and some forms of cancer. It has been linked with obesity too. In the US, over 70% of people are overweight or obese.
In China, meat consumption has grown as economic development has ushered in a series of societal changes. Rapid urbanization and the adoption of so-called Western lifestyle habits, like eating more fast food and meat in general, are two of the more visible examples. Under the surface, there are signs people’s health is starting to suffer.
A McKinsey report from 2019 sums it up by saying: “Alas, as incomes have grown, so too have waistlines. Diets high in protein and fat have taken hold in China, leading to a 10% urban-area obesity rate projected to increase to 25% by 2030 if left unchecked. Obesity is already costing the country more than $93 billion annually, or 1.1% of GDP.”
What is meat anyway?
Meatless meatballs, burgers, sausages and more have been available in supermarkets around the world for decades. They tend to contain things like soy, rice, peas and other vegetables.
The challenge for such products has tended to be that no matter how they taste, their texture doesn’t resemble meat. That’s something the use of 3D-printing technology could overcome, as it creates layers of interwoven fibres that more closely mimic the real thing.
In 2013, meanwhile, a food scientist in the Netherlands hit upon a different approach. Mark Post of the University of Maastricht unveiled a burger grown in a laboratory from cattle stem cells and muscle tissue. At a biochemical level, his burger is made from the same stuff as a regular burger – meat tissues.
But it didn’t come from an animal. Technically it isn’t the flesh and muscle fibre of any cow. Whether or not that means it is meat may be a question for philosophers to ponder.
A route forward
As well as consuming resources, the meat industry generated considerable amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Compared with the production of a regular meat burger, plant-based alternatives use up to 99% less water, 95% less land, and 90% less emissions, according to the United Nations.
None of which gets us away from the rising global demand for meat. But there are short- and long-term changes that will help address some of these concerns. The UN cites a study undertaken by the University of Michigan, on behalf of the meat-substitute producer Beyond Meat. It suggests that Americans eat, on average, three burgers per week but could “save the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by 12 million cars, simply by swapping one of those weekly meals with a plant-based alternative.”
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests a series of changes in consumers’ attitude and behaviour will be required to secure a more sustainable global food supply. These include raising awareness among the general public of the importance of tackling food waste: around the world one-third of all food produced ends up in the garbage.
The FAO also calls for a rebalancing of food prices to reflect the total cost of food production and supply. That includes the loss of biodiversity from land-clearance, emissions and pollution, and the consumption of water. And it suggests a reduction in per-capita meat consumption in affluent countries.