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Opinion: Bring on the era of ‘meat’ alternatives

Opinion: Bring on the era of ‘meat’ alternatives

We are right at the beginning of a massive dietary shift away from eating so much meat. Doing so every day is not normal and never has been according to the latest research.

We have long flourished on a mainly plant-based diet, and the idea that we either need to or should have meat with every meal is nothing more than an aspirational lifestyle for 99.9% of people on earth. Today’s news that most ‘meat’ will not come from dead animals by 2040 shows that we are shifting back towards the historical norm – and the planet will be much better off for this change.

Unfortunately, as the human population of earth is projected to reach approximately 10 billion by 2050, the so-called ‘Western’ meat-heavy diet is set to be taken up by an increasing number of people – and that has serious agricultural and environmental implications.

Even putting aside the ethical issues that come with killing tens of billions of sentient animals each year to serve an unnecessary human lifestyle, the fact is that we simply will not be able to feed everyone by going on as we currently are.

The fact is that meat is incredibly inefficient. According to the American Oil Chemists’ Society and ATKearney, “it takes about 7 kg of grain in dry weight to produce 1 kg of live weight for bovines, around 4 kg of grain in dry weight per 1 kg of live weight for pigs, and for poultry it is just over 2 kg in dry weight.”

When you take into account the mixture of meat that we eat, and how 1kg of meat has on average the same calories per kilogram as a mix of wheat, maize, rice and soy of the same weight, it turns out that we use approximately 46% of the world’s feed crops to produce just 7% of all the calories we eat. Not only is putting such a heavy emphasis on meat consumption incredibly inefficient, it actually looks unjustifiable once written down on paper.

Going further, the logical implication is that if we took the proportion of feed crops eaten by humans rather than fed to animals (approx. 37%), and then also got the calories we currently consume via meat from plants as well (another 7%, as mentioned previously), we could quite easily feed the world with less than half the plant crops we currently harvest. With that in mind, the idea of feeding a further three billion people is not an intimidating prospect – all it would take is a reckoning with our meat consumption and a switch to a largely plant-based diet.

Reducing or eliminating our meat consumption would also offer outsized environmental benefits. By now we are all aware of man-made global heating and the destructive effect it is having on the global ecosystem. What is less well-known is the starring role that meat consumption plays in this state of affairs, and that reducing meat and dairy intake is the number one way an individual can improve their environmental footprint.

We can use cows as a handy illustration of how damaging meat products are to the environment. According to a study in the journal Science, producing 100g of beef results in up to 105kg of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.  Likewise, it is estimated by Water Footprint Network that producing a single litre of cow milk requires more than 1,000 litres of fresh water.

Furthermore, the OECD shows that agriculture accounts for approximately 70% of all worldwide water use – a staggering figure. If, as demonstrated above, meat production requires 46% of the world’s agricultural crops despite providing just 7% of our calories, by reducing our meat intake we could potentially reduce our water global water usage by more than 30%.

Additionally, if we reduce the need for crops to feed animals, and consequently do not have to produce quite so much, we can put a major dent in the ongoing deforestation of the planet which is having such a disastrous effect on our climate. Figures from Global Forest Atlas show that agriculture accounted for 80% of all deforestation in the first decade of the 21st century. It is likely that figure will be even higher by the end of the 2010s. We could reduce this deforestation to zero by pursuing plant-based meat alternatives and eliminating the need to expand our stock of arable land.

It is these two factors, agricultural and environmental, which have convinced people that meat alternatives are the future – and investors have taken notice.

Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have had great success with their plant-based burgers which use non-meat ingredients such as pea protein to replicate the look, feel and taste of beef. The popularity of these products was demonstrated by Beyond Meat’s initial public offering in May which raised US$240m; the company’s share price has doubled since.

The other approach involves culturing meat from cells to produce a genetically identical product to what you get from real animals, but without any of the ethical or environmental concerns that go with it. This market is not as developed as the plant-based alternative ‘meats’, but the future looks bright and many see this as the best long-term option.

Carsten Gerhardt, a partner at ATKearney, argues that these changes are inevitable, saying: “The shift towards flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan lifestyles is undeniable, with many consumers cutting down on their meat consumption as a result of becoming more conscious towards the environment and animal welfare.

“For passionate meat-eaters, the predicted rise of cultured meat products means that they still get to enjoy the same diet they always have, but without the same environmental and animal cost attached.”

Meat alternatives are on the verge of changing the way we eat – one of the foundations of life and society – and this is the time to get in on the ground floor of a market which is only going to grow. It is the perfect investment sweet spot between high returns and doing good for the world.

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