By Rebecca Couzens
Through the years, humanity has become more educated and cognizant of the potential risk factors when it comes to the meat industry and consuming meat in general. As a result, the fake meat industry has grown rapidly in recent years, with popular brands such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods Inc. A set of 2020 Gallup polls showed that 23 percent of Americans report cutting back on their meat consumption in the past year, with health, the environment, and animal welfare all cited as major reasons. However the question still remains as to whether or not the benefits of fake meat are significant enough to completely replace real meat.
Many animal-product alternatives are made using synthetic biology, which is “an emerging science that applies principles of genetic engineering to create life forms from scratch.” Within these processes, biologists identify the gene sequences that are necessary to imitate certain characteristics of food. Often, this includes plant protein or animal cells to achieve the desired outcome. An example, a product that involves this method is The Impossible Burger, but many of the companies using synthetic biology are still in the startup phase. While there is a strong desire for these companies to succeed, there seems to be a lack of information granted to the public regarding the process of many of these companies. This leaves many questions unanswered regarding safety and environmental health, how it will affect the economy, and how sustainable these products are.
According to the peer-reviewed article, “Considering Plant-Based Meat Substitutes and Cell-Based Meats: A Public Health and Food Systems Perspective”, “[g]rowing scientific consensus has established that substantial shifts toward plant-forward diets, particularly in high meat-consuming countries, are essential for meeting climate change mitigation targets.” Meaning, studies found that reducing meat consumption will also reduce the severity of climate change.
There have also been growing concerns within public health and animal rights advocacy surrounding industrial food animal production. There is evidence that supports the idea that processed meat consumption can be linked to certain chronic diseases and early mortality. For these reasons, there has been a growing incentive to find ways to reduce meat intake and find alternatives.
Some critics are concerned that synthetic biology will allow gene-edited organisms to be released into the wild and disrupt agricultural communities, if engineered foods replace natural products. However, Larry Feinberg, the CEO of Knipbio, which creates environmentally responsible fish feed alternatives for sustainable global aquacultures, says that the microorganisms in synthetic biology are dead before release. He also notes that modified bacteria tends to return to its “wild type” if it is no longer being maintained in specific conditions within a lab. It is also claimed that often there is a challenge for the modified traits to last past a few generations which typically lasts days or weeks.
There are additionally many risks within the meat industry that would be avoided with fake meat. Epidemiologic studies have found links between red and processed meat consumption that lead to risks of heart disease, Type II diabetes, stroke, or certain cancers. There are also additional risks of exposure to and transmission of bacterial pathogens and airborne hazards from raw meat. Even communities that are located near industrial food animal production operations are at elevated risks of respiratory outcomes, stress, negative moods, and infection with zoonotic pathogens. The production of meat alternatives do not involve such risks. While there is still the concern of it affecting farmers and employment, the up-and-coming industry would create new opportunities and areas for employment as it becomes more mainstream, though different areas of employment would be needed. The industry would go from largely relying on farmers, farmworkers, meat processors, and veterinarians, to depending on chemists, cell-biologists, engineers, and factory workers.
While fake meat can help the environment, it would require the collective population to significantly change their diets. “The Beyond Meat burger uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land and 90 percent less fossil fuel emissions; the Impossible Burger uses 87 percent less water, 96 percent less land, and 89 percent less fossil fuel emissions than a quarter pound of regular ground beef.” If everyone turned to fake meat the global impact would be extremely positive and beneficial. However, even though the emissions statistics of fake meat are significantly better when compared to beef, they still produce the same amount of emissions as chicken, showing that there is still progress to be made within this sphere of production.
When it comes to economics, alternative meat products are still more expensive than regular meat. There is a small market for fake meat but there is high demand, making the products only financially available for a small sector of the world. However, Brandon Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit think tank for the creation of meat alternatives, believes “Once the infrastructure has been created and once the volume goes up these products will be less expensive than their animal counterparts.”
Meat alternatives are gaining popularity, especially within an age where people are becoming more conscious of the health and environmental risks, along with the animal and worker injustices that take place within the meat production industry. Furthermore, the plant-based substitutes have comparable amounts of the essential nutrients they are intended to replace. However, these benefits will only occur if the demand for meat alternatives offsets a share of farmed meat production. Simply adding the fake meat products to the market does not make a significant impact. These products can help the society lower their meat intake, which can ultimately lead to a higher demand for meat alternatives, but each person must decide for him/herself if they find these reasons valid enough to take the switch from real to fake meat.