Who will win the plate on the battlefield of food animal versus plant- or cell-based meats?
I have often wondered about the outcome of this raging war for the shelf, especially after I first noticed food animal companies investing in plant-based technologies.
There is mounting evidence for the use of food animal over alternate meats in a recovering ecology. In the award-winning Canadian film, “Guardians of the Grasslands,” the balanced discussion accounted for the value of animals to the natural grasslands and pastures they graze and the value of those grasslands in a balanced ecology. Canadian grasslands alone annually sequester the annual carbon emissions of 3.62 million cars.
Globally the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is clear that food animals are critical to the 600 million of the world’s poor as livestock is a vital source of transport, meat, milk, clothing, fertilizer and fuel. Current research indicates that food animals are economic and ecological stabilizers and must be implemented in every recovery plan, something ecologist Allan Savory has been telling us for years.
On the other side of the discussion is the growing interest in plant-based products that taste like meat and the expanding field pulse industry. Those who need, choose or prefer plant-based foods had been eating a limited variety for decades in North America. It took a cultural shift, groundbreaking consumer studies and full action by the fast-food industry to put these foods in the centre of plate for many consumers. Once plant-based meat became normalized, the demand quickly outstripped supply.
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When Victoria-based The Very Good Butchers opened shop it sold out of the entire inventory of plant-based proteins in one day. With demand growing they now are very close to activating their production goals of making their product available throughout North America with production and distribution facilities on the east and west coasts of Canada as well as in California. And though the story sounds a wee bit like a dream come true, the caveat to plant-based proteins is that they have to be consistent, high end and really taste like meat or consumers will walk back to the meat section or look for an alternate product.
This need for consistency has driven the third arm in the war of moral meats and that is lab-based meats. Cell tissue is grown in a medium and as the cells replicate, muscle tissue develops. Because animals and poultry have a natural immune and digestive system which creates a healthy muscle, lab meats must have environmental controls such as antibiotic mediums in order to succeed. It is a slow and expensive process and is also heavily financed by food animal companies.
No meat can be deemed perfect. The natural creature must be killed for our benefit. Thankfully Dr. Temple Grandin has changed the way this happens by developing systems and processes that reduce food animal stress. The plant-based product requires just as much water to produce final product, and plant-based meat alternatives have high levels of salt and other additives that over time may prove to be counterproductive for health goals.
Both natural meat and plants contribute to soil nitrogen either by direct application through manure or by fixing nitrogen in the soil via legume and pulse plants. The lab meat might taste closest to the natural product but sits in the moral quagmire of using a genetically narrow subset for the base cells. And the science is not fully appreciating the full metabolic response in the human body or the potential impact on human health.
The growth potential in alternate proteins that taste like meat seem limitless yet Dalhousie University reported in December that 73.5 per cent of Canadians had no dietary preferences. Of the respondents, 1.7 per cent were vegetarian and 2.3 per cent reported being vegan. Based on this information, could we reach a tipping point or point of market saturation?
Regardless of the presentation, natural meat, lab-grown meat and plant-based proteins that taste like meat are challenged to research and communicate where they fit in the world, and then showcase how that specific protein creates an ecosystem that is regenerative and is inclusive of the optimal health of people, animals and the environment for the long term.
There is no denying that the world remains hungry for protein, and in particular meat. That brings us to the bigger question of the role of the industries of the natural meat, plant-based proteins and cell-based meats in the global need for consistent, high-quality, storable, affordable, available and culturally appropriate foods.
The process of creation differs as does the final product, and we have yet to prove that any are detrimental to health. It may be enough to continue to pamper the North American client with protein choices, but all three will continue to be under the ethical and environmental lens.
These are often moral meat decisions for consumers, and the pandemic has given these ethically driven decisions stretch.
Which one will you eat when supplies are low and food inflation is rampant?