Food for thought: the lab-grown food rocking our world

How we produce food is in need of some urgent updating. The agricultural sector is faced by a number of challenges. Having to feed an ever increasing population, the sector faces soil erosion, extreme weather and soil exhaustion, whilst trying to find more space for livestock.

It is the livestock that is proving to be such a huge contributor to greenhouse emissions. The demand for meat is increasing rapidly. The overall global meat consumption is now 3x as big as 25 years ago and amounts to a total of 340 million tons. To find the land space for the billions of grazing herds of goats, sheep and cows is fast becoming an environmental problem.

Because firstly, all this livestock needs fodder and animal feed crops in itself occupy almost 40% of the world’s cropland. Secondly, livestock produces lots of excrement that is polluting waterway as it is entering waterways without treatment! Lastly, goats’ and sheep’s grazing leaves land barren and furthers soil erosion.

This could be managed when we were just a few, But today, at any given time, there are over 80 billion farm animals in the world, reared for food. This includes 14.6 billion chicken. To break it up, there are about 1 billion cows, 1 billion sheep and 2 billion goats in the world. Combined, the 4 billion of them need a significant amount of space and it is getting crowded.

The meat industry is de facto a hugely inefficient way of producing food and with a shrinking land space and a bulging world population, this way of animal farming and meat production has very limited means to grow any further. Hence the urgent quest for tasty, more efficient, meat alternatives is in full swing and very good results are being achieved.

Recent development have established that it is likely that our future food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. i.e food grown in laboratories.

Lab grown foods

Solar Foods, based in Helskini, uses ‘unicellular’ life (a one-celled living organism) to create food. It begins with life’s most essential element: water. Through the process of Hydrogen Pathway, bacteria are modified and specific proteins are created, and this forms the base for meat and fish products.

Just Inc, a fast-growing food tech start-up valued at $1.1 billion, makes tasty lab-grown egg and meat products, and is more mainstream and readily available than Solar Foods. Their scrambled eggs, made from mung bean protein, are apparently indistinguishable from the real thing and can be bought at WholeFoods and Amazon. There is also a significant environmental benefit: according to CEO Josh Tetrick, producing traditional eggs sucks up 93 litres of water, whereas Just Inc's egg-products use only 1.49 litres.

Just Inc has also begun to try their hand at cultured meat. And, since it’s made from animal cells, their chicken nuggets taste almost like real ones. The problem is pricing: their nuggets still cost $50 to make.

Lab grown burgers

Making sophisticated, tasty and affordable meat products is the real challenge. Impossible Foods makes lab-grown meat from plant and animal molecules via a fermentation process and genetically engineered yeast. The result is “simply delicious”, says one BBC Good Food reviewer. Their burgers aren’t cheap, but they now serve in 30,000 restaurants and 11,000 supermarkets across the US. Actually, people who ate the Impossible burgers were not able to distinguish between a ‘real’ burger and an ‘impossible’ burger.

The Impossible Burger isn’t available yet in the UK, but its biggest competitor The Beyond Burger, by Beyond Meat, can be found in Tesco’s and at WholeFoods. Some consumers say they taste chemical and processed; others that they simulate the juiciness and bloodiness of a real burger, are simply delicious and a great alternative to dry, bean-based veggie patties.

And, just when you thought they couldn’t come up with anything else, the trend continues: fish products are now hitting the lab-grown food market, albeit at a slow pace (vegan seafood start-ups only made up 1% of total retail sales of plant-based meat in 2019, partly because the delicate texture of fish is harder to replicate). San Diego start-up BlueNalu is creating- high-quality- fake fish products at an astonishing rate. It’s one to look out for.

Everyday better and tastier protein alternatives are created. And it is a bonus that we can have exquisite foods without it having to cost the earth.

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