The Past, Present, and Future of Meat Alternatives

By : Rhiannon Cunningham July 8, 2019 Category : Meat Reduction

In recent years, the number of Australians who are now consuming a vegetarian diet has grown rapidly. As of 2018, 2.5 million (12.1%) Australians have diets of which the food is all, or almost all, vegetarian. This figure is up from 9.7% in 2012.[i] Along with this growth in vegetarianism, we have seen an increase in the number of available meat alternatives for those who chose to derive their proteins from plant-based sources.

In the past, vegetarian and vegan meat alternatives were limited to tofu, nut meats, wheat gluten, and textured vegetable protein. While these options were satisfactory alternatives, none of these were truly reminiscent of animal protein - a deal breaker for many would be vegetarians. Not only this, but the common perception of these products was that they were at best uninspiring and plain, and at worst: disgusting. These meat alternatives certainly weren’t exciting or convincing enough to draw anyone away from animal protein sources on their own.

Today meat alternatives are prolific. They are no longer limited to health food shops or specialist grocers. Meat alternatives are now found in all major supermarkets, where you can find vegan and vegetarian versions of nuggets, sausages, schnitzels, pies, and sausage rolls (to name a few). Recently, there have been very convincing vegan minces, burger patties, and chicken products filling shelves in the actual meat fridge - much to the surprise of shoppers who might pick up the plant-based alternative by mistake. Products such as the Impossible burger and the Beyond burger have caused a stir with their beef burger patties even being carried by Australian food chains such as Grill’d, Carl’s Jr, Ribs & Burgers, and maybe soon even Hungry Jacks. As we speak, Bakers Delight is trialing a vegan version of their classic Pizza Savoury Bite. Meat alternatives have never been so readily available, or as tasty, as they are today.

But what does the future look like? If the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson are to be trusted, the future is lab-grown meat. Silicon Valley is currently teeming with lab-grown meat startups, and the race is now on to be the first company to have “clean meat” commercially available for the masses. In fact, HSI is itself on the cutting edge of this technology, with HSI/India announcing a partnership with the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology to develop and promote clean meat in India.

So, what exactly is lab-grown meat? In simple terms, lab-grown meat is growth and muscle cells from animals, grown outside the organism, and cultivated on a scaffold to give shape. At the moment, the commercial availability of cultured meat is not a question of if, but when. Whether or not consumers will readily embrace meat grown in labs is another question entirely. Present discourse is heavily focused on consumer reception, the role of marketing and perception, and whether there is actual potential for lab-grown meat to eclipse the farmed meat industry entirely.

Lab-grown meat has the potential to circumvent many of the problems that farmed meat consumption brings, for example:

  • Cultured meat promises a smaller environmental impact, as land and water resources required to grow meat in labs are significantly smaller than what is required to grow meat on farms.
  • Lab-grown meat production will increase the caloric efficiency of plant-based food farming and is therefore of huge benefit to the state of our national food security. It has been reported that livestock now uses 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface, including permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock.[ii] While there is much debate around exact figures (some estimates are as high as 7kg of feed required to produce 1kg of beef), there is absolutely no doubt that the energy conversion from plant to animal-based protein is exceptionally inefficient. According to the FAO, 1000 million tonnes of animal feed is produced globally[iii], which is a staggering figure when compared to the fact that in the year of 2016/17 2.2 million tonnes of grain were produced in total.[iv] With the predicted turn toward lab-grown meat, this plant produce can be better used to feed people directly, while more land can be freed up to rehabilitate native plants, landscapes, and wildlife.
  • An immense reduction in animal suffering as livestock will no longer need to be confined and slaughtered for the purpose of food production.
  • Lab-grown meat may alleviate community concerns related to high levels of disease and antibiotic use that is inherent in maintaining current levels of intensive farming.

As the product is not yet commercially available, the full benefits and pitfalls of lab-grown meat development have yet to be realised. Regardless, cultured meat holds a lot of promise and opportunity for consumers to have the best of both worlds, by both lessening our impact on animals and the environment while allowing the continued consumption of animal products. Whether or not lab-grown meat will be embraced by consumers as an acceptable replacement for some, if not all, farmed meat products remains to be seen - but it is certainly a far cry from tofu and wheat gluten steaks!

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About HSI Australia

HSI concentrates on the preservation of endangered animals and ecosystems and works to ensure quality of life for all animals, both domestic and wild. HSI is the largest animal protection not-for-profit organisation in the world and has been established in Australia since 1994