Feeding 9 billion people will require 470 million tons of annual meat production by 2050, an increase of more than 200 million tons from current levels, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Replacing and/or supplementing traditional animal protein with alternatives that require less water, feed, energy and land is not only more sustainable but may result in healthier proteins too, according to the latest interview series on Alternative Proteins from FutureFood 2050—a multiyear program from IFT highlighting new technologies and approaches to feeding an estimated 9 billion-plus people by 2050.
Article topics in the Alternative Proteins series range from insect production and lab grown meat to lupine and plant proteins that mimic the structure of meat.
Two billion people worldwide think nothing of munching on a tasty insect snack or entree, but until recently very few of them were Americans. That’s all changing, though, as edible insects inch their way into mainstream fare in the United States, with crickets rapidly emerging as the “gateway bug.” The trouble is, demand for edible crickets exceeds the supply. Only a handful of companies are raising the chirpy insects, and they aren’t nearly as efficient as they could be, says Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Tiny Farms, in an article “U.S. cricket farming scales up” by Marc Gunther.
“The entire U.S. farmed output of crickets is still fairly small,” Imrie-Situnayake says. “In order to have a cricket bar next to the checkout of every Safeway in the country, you need a lot more scale and a lot more productivity.” That’s why Tiny Farms is set on bringing modern agricultural technology to insect production. Imrie-Situnayake and his colleagues are researching feed formulation, habitat engineering, farm automation and management software to drive scale and lower costs. “We’re developing a technology for true, industrial-scale insect rearing,” he says.
“There are so many unanswered questions,” says Imrie-Situnayake. “We’re trying to focus on the ones that have the biggest impact.” For example, most crickets are now raised on chicken feed, not because it has been optimized for the insects but because it is widely available. Crickets also need lots of food and water, but they are fed by hand; automation would save money and allow farmers to scale up.
Mouth-watering smells of frying meat wafted around a dimly lit studio in East London on Aug. 5, 2013. The cultured beef patty cooked and tasted at the media event that day, which famously cost more than $330,000 to produce, was the brainchild of physiology professor Mark Post of the Netherlands’ Maastricht University. But publicity isn’t what motivates Post. What makes it all worthwhile, he says in an article “Beefing up test-tube meat” by Marta Zaraska, is the potential that lab-grown meat holds for reducing food insecurity and for lowering the environmental impact of agricultural production by using much less land and water to get our steaks and burgers.
Studies show that growing 1 ton of cultured beef would require 376 times fewer hectares than does producing 1 ton of conventional beef, and water use could be cut by 90%. What’s more, cultured meat production could ultimately reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from conventional meat production by as much as 80–95%.
In addition to its environmental benefits, says Post, cultured meat may be better for our health. Studies show that consumption of conventional meat can elevate blood cholesterol and raise the risk of colorectal cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Cultured meat, on the other hand, could be made to contain optimum levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and to have lower levels of cholesterol and heme iron content (according to research, higher intakes of heme iron are associated with stomach cancer, for example). Food poisoning incidences would likely decline too, since cultured meat would be sterile, considerably cutting the risks of salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli infections.
“We’re not trying to get soy and wheat to mimic meat. We are actually trying to rebuild it. It’s that commitment to re-creating meat from plants that sets us apart [from other companies]. We are literally trying to create a piece of meat from plant inputs,” says Ethan Brown, CEO and founder of California-based Beyond Meat, in an article “Good chemistry: Using plant-based proteins to ‘copy’ meat” by Clare Leschin-Hoar.
Beyond Meat launched its first retail product, grilled chicken strips made from soy and pea protein, in 2013, and in 2014 the company expanded to pea protein-based beef crumbles that look a lot like prepared taco filling. Brown’s latest and most ambitious creation, called Beast Burgers, recently launched nationally in the United States through Whole Foods Market. “It’s an incredible product,” says Brown. “It has more iron than steak, more protein than beef, more omega-3s than fish, more calcium than milk, and more antioxidants than blueberries. We said to ourselves, if we’re going to go to the trouble of making meat from plants, why not create something that has benefits that a single species couldn’t deliver?”
To read these and other stories in the Alternative Proteins series, please visit www.futurefood2050.com.