Petri patties and seitan steaks: Making meat obsolete

Opinion by Claire Zabel
April 2, 2015, 8:41 p.m.

What if we could eat animal products without the inhumane and environmentally unsustainable consequences?  What if we could produce delicious products that don’t imperil our rapidly-dwindling water supply?

Maastricht University Professor Mark Post sought to do just that. Now, less than two years after Dr. Post’s team debuted the petri dish patty, its price has dropped from $325,000 to $11.36. Dr. Post claims that lab-grown meat will be ready for commercial production within 20-30 years. However, lab-grown meat is just one of many competitors hoping to disrupt the old-school meat industry.

The booming meat alternatives market includes products from the standard tofu and seitan to company-specific inventions like the mycoprotein-based Quorn. Besides the growing ranks of meat alternatives, there are animal product alternatives such as Daiya’s dairy-free cheese alternatives and Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo, which celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern preferred to Hellmann’s traditional mayonnaise. In 2013, The Herbivorous Butcher, a vegan butcher shop, began selling a wide range of alternative products and dishes in Minneapolis. Meat alternatives can be found at Stanford too; many dining establishments and dining halls now offer black bean patties and Gardein chick’n. While some animal product alternative companies share values of sustainability and humane treatment of animals, they also compete fiercely in the growing market.

And for good reason. Although animal product alternatives have often been marketed towards vegans and vegetarians, growing numbers of meat-eaters have started adding these products to their diets. Many meat alternative producers and consumers are driven by concerns about the brutal animal abuse, pollution, environmental injustice and racism, and worker mistreatment on factory farms, or the desire for meat-like products that don’t contribute to obesity and heart disease. Still others avoid meat because of its massive contributions to climate change and drought. With the support of famous investors like Bill Gates and venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins and Google Ventures, animal product alternatives have rapidly improved and diversified while the public has become more aware of the cruelty and unsustainability of animal agriculture. With many ethical and health advantages to recommend them, it’s not surprising that more people are giving them a try.

Other newcomers to the market see an opportunity to profit from the enormous inefficiency of meat production. Animals cannot convert their food into edible flesh particularly efficiently; most of the calories they consume are lost as waste. For instance, it can take about fourteen calories of feed (often corn or wheat) to create one calorie of beef, whereas animal product alternatives do not have this loss in efficiency. Meat production (and animal product production in general) also requires far more water (and energy) per calorie than most types of food production, a serious concern in California’s increasingly drought-ridden conditions. In fact, producing a single pound of beef uses up more water than up to a year’s worth of showering does. Researchers like Dr. Post and companies like Hampton Creek hope to take market share away from this highly wasteful industry by creating a cheaper, and perhaps more healthful, product.

Of course, animal product alternatives are not without their failings. Many products remain more expensive than those they seek to replace, though this may change as demand increases and production scales up. A few of these alternatives are not much more healthful, and due to their newness, their effects on health are not always well-understood.

Another reason to start thinking about these alternatives is their enormous implications for the future of sustenance. Products like Soylent (a nutritional drink designed to meet all human nutritional needs) have already challenged our ideas about how best to provide nutrition. But animal product alternatives can also produce new flavors, not just health benefits. They hint at a future of food where the human diet is not bound to relatively simple combinations of natural products, but rather actively designed and engineered to meet human desires and nutritional needs.

In the future, we may have new products born from combinations of proteins and enzymes that we have never seen before. We need not focus solely on building ever-better chicken and beef imitators. Novel combinations with unassumingly-named ingredients like mycoprotein, pea protein, tapioca starch, and wheat gluten are already used to create dozens of tastes and textures. One day, truly creative food designers may begin using the lessons learned from animal product imitation to make new foods that aren’t an imitation at all. We may need to invent new dishes and cuisines to incorporate novel combinations of flavors, shapes, and textures.

If we include lab-grown tissues and genetic engineering, the food products of the future begin to look even more unfamiliar. Perhaps there are products from animals that could never be farmed, that could be lab-grown en masse in coming decades, for which we will have to create whole new menus and markets.

While the growing market of animal product alternatives should be encouraged for their moral and health benefits, the market is also interesting for its potential to spark one of the greatest changes to the human diet in recent history. It may lead to a new type of food, envisioned and invented rather than just grown and cooked, which could spur a new job market for food scientists and engineers. The ethical and cultural implications of such a change would be complex, and these speculations are early, perhaps premature. But with lab-grown burgers at less than $12 a patty, it’s time to wonder what else is just around the corner.

Contact Claire Zabel at czabel ‘at’ and Joseph (Joey) Zabel at joezabel ‘at’

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