We are still eating way too much meat. The consequences: A burden on the environment that goes far beyond planetary boundaries. But also a burden on the health of our society, which could actually be avoided. At “peak meat“ in the western world, we are increasingly asking ourselves whether there is another way. A brief insight into four scenarios for tomorrow’s meat consumption.
“Eat only 43 grams of meat a day, save the world,” headlined the German Spiegel Onlinerecently, raising hope for solving one of the central challenges of our time: a sustainable diet for a globally growing world population. The article talked about the findings of an international research team from the trade journal The Lancet.
One of the two chairmen of the commission, Walter Willett of Harvard University, commented that the world’s diet had to change drastically. According to the study, the reasons are obvious: about three billion people (i.e. about 40 percent of the world’s population) are malnourished – 820 million people do not have enough to eat, and more than 2 billion adults are overweight or even obese.
„The world’s diet has to change drastically.“
Walter Willet,Harvard Univiersity
These major health challenges are matched by equally major ecological challenges: With currently around 40 percent of the land area farmed, 70 percent of the fresh water used and 30 percent of the global greenhouse gases emitted, the food industry is one of the biggest causes of the pollution and destruction of ecosystems. As we eat we are heating up our climate.
One of the main drivers in this context is our consumption of animal products, especially meat. The total balance of animals consumed in the life of an average German looks like the shopping list of a Texas XXL BBQ restaurant: 4 cattle, 4 sheep, 12 geese, 37 ducks, 46 pigs, 46 turkeys and 945 chickens – that’s a total of 1,094 animals that we eat in the course of our lives!
Only recently, a study in the Journal Science caused a sensation, according to which more than 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock breeding, but this provides only 18 percent of our calories and 37 percent of our protein. And even the currently “most environmentally friendly” way to produce meat (according to the study “pasture farming”) is, at the end of the day, still associated with 6 times as high greenhouse gas emissions and 36 times as much land use as plant-based protein, e.g. through peas.
As a result, we are already today living beyond our planetary limits. According to the Global Footprint Network, we use 1.7 earths to meet our demand for resources. As far as nutrition is concerned, we would already have enough to do in view of the factors mentioned at the beginning, if it weren’t for the FAO’s World Agricultural Report with its forecasts for future development. These forecasts are based on the assumption that global meat production will increase from currently 330 to 455 million tonnes per year by 2050 (above all due to the approach of the emerging countries to the western diet of North America and Europe with its burgers, steaks and schnitzels).
The question of how we consume meat in the future inevitably arises against the background of a more sustainable and healthier diet. Despite all the knowledge about the implications of our current meat consumption (especially in the industrial nations), one thing is for sure: we will not all become vegetarians or even vegans overnight. Therefore, it is worth taking a look at the alternatives to our current meat consumption and the question: What developments are already emerging today and may therefore be central to our future? And above all: What are the drivers behind? Health, sustainability or perhaps just a need for new forms of food pleasure?
Szenario 1: Less, but better meat
The megatrends of health and neo-ecology are fundamentally changing our eating habits – especially when it comes to meat consumption. “Less, but better” is the motto of flexitarians, (also known as “part-time vegetarians”) that are characterized by moderate, animal-friendly and extremely quality-conscious meat consumption.
The majority of Germans do not eat meat three or more days a week. And not without reason, since various studies have clearly shown that an ostensibly plant-based diet means significant advantages for one’s own health. According to the recommendations of the German Society for Nutrition (DGE), 300 to 600 grams of meat per week correspond to an appropriate consumption. With currently about 1.1 kilograms per week, the average German eats less and less (compared to just a few years ago), but still too much meat.
According to a survey, over 80 percent of Germans are willing to pay higher prices for meat, thereby contributing to better animal husbandry conditions and general sustainability. Paradoxically, however, meat from organic farming accounts for just over one percent of total meat production in Germany. After all, the value has almost doubled within the last 10 years.
Flexitarians are behind this development. In this scenario, enjoyment is combined with world and personal responsibility. There is a qualitative differentiation, which again makes us think increasingly in the direction of the “Sunday roast” model. If we eat less meat, then we not only perceive it differently, but also value it more. And guess what: if animal products were consumed in accordance with the DGE recommendations, we could also save around 22 million tons of CO2 per year. So #Fridaysforfuture becomes #Sundaysforfuture, if we were to take the Sunday roast model more serious again. Grandmother would be proud!
Szenario 2: In-vitro meat
Real meat, without an animal having to die for it, is hidden behind the terms “cultured meat”, “clean meat” or “in-vitro meat”. What is meant is always the same: Meat from the laboratory. The first burger made from pure muscle fibres grown in the petri dish cost 250,000 euros. Definitely not a cheap treat. The scientists around Mark Post at the University of Maastricht had already implemented their vision of a more sustainable meat supply without animal suffering for the first time in 2013, when selected experts were allowed to cost the world’s first “lab-grown burger” in London.
“We will move away from the madness of breeding a whole chicken to eat the breast or the wing, and instead grow it in a suitable medium,” the statesman Winston Churchill predicted as early as 1931. Almost 80 years later, in addition to the Dutch researchers in Maastricht, various biotechnology companies in Israel (e.g. SuperMeat, Aleph Farms), the US (e.g. Memphis Meats, Just, Finless Foods) and Japan (e.g. Integriculture, Shojinmeat) are working to implement this vision. Soon, the muscle tissue grown from stem cells will be available at affordable prices in the form of hamburgers, nuggets or pastes. Mosa Meat, the startup of Mark Post, is targeting a price of 8.50 euros per burger in 2021.
How sustainable this type of meat production ultimately is can only be assumed due to the comparatively early stage (with regard to mass production). According to first estimates, greenhouse gas emissions, land and water consumption could fall by more than 95 percent. However, it is also clear that the energy demand due to production in bioreactors does not really promise many savings with increasing production volumes.
Szenario 3: Insects
In 140 countries of the world they already belong as standard on the menu. In our western culture, the sight of them still leads to emotional reactions, which can only be located somewhere between disgust and restrained curiosity. We are talking about insects here. There are between 1,900-2,000 edible species globally, which are eaten by around two billion people in Asia, Africa and South America. No wonder the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations sees great potential for global food security here.
In any case, the environmental balance is impressive: Insects produce significantly less greenhouse gases than cattle and pigs and require only a tenth as much land. Whereas one kilogram of cattle requires about 15,000 liters of water, one kilogram of insects requires only 15 liters. In addition, insects are much more efficient due to their alternating heat, i.e. they do not have to produce any energy to warm the body and produce twelve times as much food per kilogram of feed as cattle. Considering that about 80 percent of a cricket can be eaten, (compared to only about 40 percent in case of cattle), the higher efficiency becomes obvious once again.
This is complemented by a comparatively excellent nutritional profile: Insects are rich in proteins and at the same time almost free of fats and carbohydrates. Although the levels vary from time to time, protein levels of 45 to 61 percent are not uncommon in terms of dry matter. In addition, insects are rich in minerals and vitamins and contain omega-3 fatty acids similar to fish. Finally, they are an important source of trace elements such as iron and zinc (for example, many insects contain twice as much iron as beef).
Insects in Europe are currently making it onto the menu more as avant-garde dinners for gourmets. But the number of “entopreneurs” (i.e. insect entrepreneurs) is constantly increasing, and so is the alternative menu for our plates. Whether Bugfoundation, who brought out an insect burger based on the larvae of the buffalo worm and thus stir up trade; isaac nutrition, who want to revolutionize the sports food market with an insect protein powder; or Livin Farms, whose insect farm also recycles food waste for the four walls at home.
Szenario 4: Plant-based meat
According to the latest nutrition report of the Federal Government of Germany, six percent of the population in Germany can be considered vegetarian and one percent vegan. This may not really be the middle of society (yet!), but it does hide the big trend towards plant-based food. Recent innovations enable completely new taste experiences, which make whole blood carnivores (at least now and then) forget about meat completely.
Rolf Hiltl, eponym of the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world, once said: “A sausage must taste good. Whether there’s meat in it or not, it doesn’t matter.” More and more manufacturers and restaurateurs are internalising this mindset and take off meat from their production portfolio and menus. But dry veggie schnitzel and sausages, which not only taste modest, but also hide harmful substances such as mineral oil components in the endless list of ingredients, seem to be a thing of the past. At least in part.
Since this year, Beyond Meat has been listed in German retail with its plant-based burger. The expectations were high, as the high-flyer food startup from Silicon Valley with prominent investors such as Leonardo Di Caprio and Bill Gates promised “a revolutionary plant-based burger that looks, cooks and tastes like real beef” on its website. Beetroot juice even imitates the bloody and fleshy. As far as taste is concerned, I can definitely say this much at this point: I tried the burger and couldn’t tell the difference between it and a normal meat patty with the best will in the world (podcast coming soon)!
Thanks to the usage of pea protein as the main ingredient, the protein content is even higher than that of a beef patty. Though high proportions of fat and salt make the overall nutrient profile rather suboptimal. But where the added value for one’s own health is limited, the ecological advantages speak for themselves: Compared to conventional burgers, they use 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions and 46 percent less energy.
„We are afraid of a meatless existence. And this fear is so great that we suppress rational arguments.“
Jaap Korteweg, Durch farmer
“We are afraid of a fleshless existence. And this fear is so great that we suppress rational arguments,” says Dutch farmer Jaap Korteweg, commenting on our relationship to meat. Since although we today know more than ever about the implications for our health and, above all, global sustainability, we still don’t really seem to be able to let go of meat as we know it.
As of today is is quite uncertain if we all will eat less meat, that produced in the laboratory, based on insects or even plants. What is clear, however, is that our current consumption has to change against the background of global sustainability and health challenges. And the more we know about our diet and these implications, the more responsibility each of us should assume. But don’t panic: As the above scenarios show, various solutions are already on the table today.
This text was originally published on my blog https://www.danielanthes.com/beyondmeat/.
- EAT Lanceat Commission (2019): Food, planet, health. Healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Internet.
- Poore, J. & T. Nemecek (2018): Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Internet.
- Food & Agriculture Organization (2018): Food Outlook. Biannual report on global food markets. Internet.
All photos have been taken from Unsplash.com and are credited in the description.