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As KFC trials plant-based chicken, is fake meat more environmentally friendly?

Plant-based and lab-grown meats are set to see increases in demand but there are concerns around environmental impacts and animal friendliness. 
Plant-based and lab-grown meats are set to see increases in demand but there are concerns around environmental impacts and animal friendliness.  Credit: ROBYN BECK /AFP

It has been billed as the clean, green solution to making ourselves, and the planet, healthier.

Fake meat - either plant-based or grown from meat cells in a laboratory - could soon find its way into British universities, as Goldsmiths this announced it was banning the sale of beef in campus outlets.

Meanwhile, this week KFC said it will test vegetarian, plant-based chicken at its restaurant in Georgia. KFC's foray into plant-based meat follows Burger King's debut earlier this year of the Impossible Whopper, a meatless version of its signature beef hamburger developed with Impossible Foods.

Such moves are expected to accelerate rapid growth in an industry that could be worth $140bn within the next decade.

Supporters say it's a more ethical and environmentally friendly way of producing meat than farming animals intensively, which the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests is one of the world’s most damaging sources of greenhouse gases and water pollution. Best of all, fans says, it even tastes better than the real thing. 

But does the reality live up to the hype? Or is it possible fake meat could end up raising as many new ethical questions as it was meant to solve?

Follow the money

There is certainly no shortage of investors willing to bet that the fake meat industry is a winner. 

Cargill, the Minnesota-based agribusiness giant, has been making strategic investments in the likes of Puris Proteins, Memphis Meats and Aleph Farms, all of which promise to deliver the flavour of real meat without any animals involved. 

Meanwhile, Tyson Foods, the largest US producer of processed chicken and beef, is launching a new brand to introduce plant-based nuggets to consumers. Its shares have rallied more than 50pc since the start of 2019.

In California, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, both plant-based based startups, have whet the appetites of hungry venture capitalists. In May, Impossible Foods raised $300m for its soy-based “burger that bleeds”, as a host of high-profile investors, including Singapore investment company Temasek and Horizon Ventures, run by Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-shing, poured money into the firm. 

Problems down the line

As so often with the environment, however, solving a problem at one level can cause a problem at another. Soybean, a nutritious, protein-rich legume, is a staple in many alternative meat products. Yet the production of soy is a key factor driving deforestation in Brazil, driving climate change and disrupting the lives of indigenous populations. “Production of soya is the second biggest driver of deforestation,” a Greenpeace spokesperson said.

Yet soybean is also used in livestock feed. “If you compare beef production with plant-based burgers - in so many aspects - the soy concerns are dwarfed by the devastating impacts of the livestock industry,” says Niccolo Manzoni, founding partner at Five Seasons Ventures, a food-tech focused fund. 

Peas and queues

If food producers start turning from battery farming to fake meat, the overall use of soybean is expected to fall. But for the moment, with fake meat and real meat both driving soy demand, irresponsible production imperils the security of 250m people who live in rural areas and depend on the surrounding forestry for survival, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has said he intends to making more land in the country available for harvesting, potentially lifting a soy moratorium that has been in place in the Amazon since 2006. 

Peas may offer a solution. Pea proteins, as used by Beyond Meat, are fast becoming a go-to ingredient for companies looking to offer consumers a range of new clean food products. But at the moment a lack of processing capacity (to get the protein from the pea seed) seems likely to keep soy involved in the long-term. 

Embryonic serums, big problems

If soy plantations pose ethical and environmental problems, might meat produced in the laboratory be a better solution? Not really, if current development processes are anything to go by.

The production of meat in a lab requires animal cells from something known as foetal bovine serum (FBS), which is typically drawn from the foetuses of cows at slaughterhouses. 

The use of FBS is an open secret among researchers and investors, and there’s an industry-wide recognition that lab-grown meat made with FBS will win little favour with customers looking for an animal-friendly option. 

“We have to forget about using foetal bovine serum,” says Mercedes Vila, co-founder of Spanish cultured meat start-up Biotech Foods. 

Lab-grown meats are expected to hit supermarket shelves in Europe as soon as 2021 - pending regulatory approvals - with a number of start-ups working to drive down the production costs. 

“We estimate that commercialisation will bring the price of a burger down to nine euros, compared with the 250,000 euros it cost to make the first burger,” said Beckie Calder-Flynn, operations co-ordinator at Mosa Meat, a Dutch start-up that created its first lab-grown beef burger six years ago in a project backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

The race to replace FBS

But a competitive price may not be enough, which is why the likes of Biotech Foods and Mosa Meat are looking at different substances that can get around the use of FBS. 

“We have developed an animal-free medium to replace FBS that we are currently optimising. It is important to us to eliminate FBS from the production process,” Calder-Flynn said. 

“It is inherently unsustainable given that cultured meat will reduce the herd of cows worldwide… in addition, obtaining FBS from unborn calves is incompatible with our animal welfare beliefs.”

Neither Biotech Foods nor Mosa Meat identified the specific products being used to replace FBS, but indicate that a plant-based substance could suffice. 

“One of the challenges all these companies are working on is to find a way to approximate the level of nutritiousness of the FBS, to be able to reproduce that synthetically,” Manzoni said. 

Reap the wind

But with no definitive solution yet applied at scale, a number of companies are getting experimental in their search for solutions to the dilemmas facing their food-tech counterparts. 

Solar Foods is one such example. The Finnish start-up, founded as a university spinout two years ago, asked itself a radical question when setting out to tackle the food conundrum: why use livestock or agricultural land to produce food when it can be grabbed out of the air around us?

This seemingly nonsensical idea is not as counter-intuitive as it seems. By using electricity, water and captured carbon dioxide, researchers use a bioreactor that facilitates a fermentation process to produce a powder rich in protein, fats and carbohydrates.

“We started to think, is it possible to turn electricity that is becoming cheaper and cheaper into edible calories,” says Pasi Vainikka, chief executive of Solar Foods. 

The company envisions a future where its wheat-flour flavoured food pulled from the air could become ready for human consumption in things such as burgers and yoghurts. 

The process is certainly not ready yet: Solar Foods currently yields just 1kg of powder per day. 

A lot at steak

Yet few question the need to develop meat alternatives. The world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion people in the next 30 years, to 9.7 billion by 2050. Population growth is accompanied by newly rich populations, notably in China, developing a taste for meat. In 2015, the FAO predicted that global meat production would be 16pc higher in 2025 than in 2015, when production was itself 20pc up on a decade before. Already today, the World Bank estimates that more than 37pc of the Earth’s land is used for agriculture. 

Fears of “running out of land” have long haunted farming.  But productivity has so far kept pace with population. Fake Meat may help ensure we do so again. If it to do so, however, it needs to surmount some serious challenges.