MEAT THE SUBSTITUTES
How Plant-Based Alternatives are Taking On the Meat Industry
University of Edinburgh
In October 2019, the European Parliament voted down a motion to ban the branding of meat substitute products with names like sausage, steak, or burger. This motion came from farmers and meat lobbyists who accused the plant-based competition of hijacking their industry terminology. These legislative moves are a clear indication that plant-based alternatives are having a meaningful impact on consumer choices and, in turn, the meat industry.
As figures like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stoke climate change awareness in the public sphere with an ever-increasing urgency, consumers are becoming attuned to the environmental impact of our meat-heavy diets. The meat industry swallows up deforested land and spits out methane, while the amount of animals reared to be slaughtered on earth currently outnumbers wildlife by a ratio of 15:1. A study by the University of Oxford projected that we need to be eating 75% less beef and 90% less pork to prevent global warming from reaching the 2°C mark, which is highly regarded as the breaking point for a disastrous rise in sea level.
"...global meat consumption is rising faster than population growth can account for"
Despite these concerns, Anglophone cultures are largely dominated by meat consumption, with the US consuming the most meat per capita worldwide; global meat consumption is rising faster than population growth can account for, even while the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled over the past 4 years. So, will meat forever be prevalent in our diets?
However, the agriculture industry is the bedrock of the UK economy, with £7.3 billion of meat revenue and a further £5 billion for dairy in 2014. This is likely why the meat industry has been largely absent from political climate discussions, despite being a leading contributor to climate issues.
Not necessarily. Enter fake meat: replacing meat in our diets with something that looks and tastes nearly identical, easing the transition to a plant-based diet. Meat analogues are no new invention─tofu was developed in 206 BC, and in 965 AD, Chinese magistrate Shi Ji avoided meat in favour of tofu, which he referred to as “fake lamb chops”. Other substitutes crop up throughout the years in China and Japan before migrating to the western world in 1852, in the form of a vegetable sausage. The first commercial meat substitute, Nuttose, was available in the US in 1986, and listed peanuts as the main ingredient.
Today, almost every supermarket and restaurant chain has a meat alternative. In 2019, the surge in sales following the release of Gregg's vegan sausage roll boosted the value of the company to an all-time high, and retail giant Tesco is currently expanding their successful vegan range Wicked Kitchen in an attempt to increase profits.
There are also a growing number of purely plant-based ‘meat’ companies, each taking a different approach to producing meat alternatives. Beyond Meat started their ‘bloody’ burger journey in 2009, using red beetroot juice to simulate the bleeding of a burger.
Tofurkey rose to fame with its range of holiday roasts, and Impossible Foods claimed to have developed their plant-based substitutes in an effort to eliminate intensive animal farming. Using bioengineering processes, the developers stripped meat down to its molecules in an attempt to rebuild a meatless burger with identical taste and texture. The science behind their burger hinges on the molecule heme, abundant in muscle tissue, and responsible for the metallic taste of blood. Heme is also produced naturally in the roots of soy plants, thus providing the basis for the Impossible Burger.
"...animal products are still, for many, the first choice for taste, texture and price."
A different approach to eliminating animal farming is the concept of growing meat in labs. This approach, which has long captured the public imagination, is growing in viability. Dutch pharmacologist Dr Mark Post spent 2 years and $300,000 producing the first cultured beef burger in 2013. While this method is promising, it is still in its early stages and comes with a hefty price tag; it is currently predicted to retail at £38 per patty.
So where do these scientific strides leave the consumer? For mass adoption of fake meat, environmental concern alone may not be enough; animal products are still, for many, the first choice for taste, texture and price. However, companies such as Impossible Foods are closing this gap; they project that in the future customers will be able to modify their faux-burger textures to their preference, such as soft and chewable for the elderly and children.
Companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat believe that targeting meat eaters is the key to accelerating transitions to vegetarian, vegan and flexitarian diets. This means placing their fake meat substitutes in areas of the supermarket where meat eaters are shopping, and not covering their packaging with words such as ‘veggie’ or ‘vegan’. If the fear from meat lobbyists, as the European Union vote indicates, is any measure of progress towards plant-based diets, perhaps this shift is not so out of reach. As long as companies and consumers alike prioritize increasingly sustainable food options, the prospect of a meat-free future could be closer than we think.