Special Edition Number 3 - Technology

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Between promise and peril: Can fake meat save the planet?

The rise of cell-cultured and plant-based meat alternatives are increasingly promoted as new agri-food technologies that can help mitigate climate change, protect ecosystems, and support global Food Security and Nutrition. This perspective sifts through the arguments made by fake meat proponents and critics to highlight the ways these agri-food technologies offer promise, but also where their application might generate new problems for society.

Andrew Heffernan, University of Ottawa

Ryan Katz-Rosene, University of Ottawa


One of the most prominently-touted technological innovations in the agri-food sector in recent years is fake meat (Waite   Searchinger, 2019; Whiting, 2020). The two main types of fake meats proposed for market are plant-based and cell-cultured meats. Plant-based meats (PBMs) are presently being manufactured by a growing number of companies around the world, and increasingly available for purchase. Cell-cultured meats (CCMs), sometimes called ‘in vitro’ or ‘lab-based’ meats, involve animal-cell muscle tissues grown in a laboratory environment without live animals. While there are an increasing number of companies producing CCMs, these products are at an early phase in their market evolution as the technology involved is still relatively costly (Mistry et al., 2020).

Both PBMs and CCMs have been proposed as a more humane and environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional meat production derived from animal slaughter, while still providing the benefits derived from real meat (namely its taste and its provision of protein). In this sense proponents of fake meat claim that it offers promise for helping to tackle a number of problems related to the agri-food sector, namely reducing the agriculture sector’s environmental footprint and alleviating health problems associated with meat consumption. However, concerns are increasingly being raised about the health benefits fake meat can provide, the degree to which they are truly sustainable, as well as the destabilizing impact they might have on the millions of people involved in meat production worldwide (and the rural communities they support). Here we focus on claims about the environmental and food security and nutrition benefits of fake meat. We critically evaluate leading arguments both in favour and against this agri-food technology, noting ways that it offers both promise and peril.

Plant-Based Meats and Cell-Cultured Meats

Contemporary PBMs represent a ‘second generation’ of vegetable-based fake meat products. Whereas the first generation served as a meat-free option for consumers seeking a similar form and functionality as meat-based products (in particular burgers and sausages), the second generation goes a step further in seeking to reproduce the meat-eating experience, by mimicking the taste, look, and feel of real meat (including, for instance, mimicking the way real meat “bleeds”). While many in the West are now familiar with PBM companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, traditional meat producers such as Maple Leaf Foods and Cargill have also become key players in the plant-based meat market (Willis, 2019). Beyond these, new PBM companies continue to proliferate, often led by celebrities boasting of the health and environmental benefits offered by their products (see Kateman, 2021). PBM sales are expected to have surpassed $1 billion USD in 2020, a growth of 18 percent over the previous year, up from 16 percent in 2018. This is part of an estimated $5 billion USD in sales of plant-based meat products in 2019 which includes a range of plant-based meat and dairy products (Gaan, 2020)(See Table 1). The animal welfare organization World Animal Protection estimates nearly 1 million animals “avoided slaughterhouses” in 2020 as a result of the PBM options offered during the year at America’s food chains (Loria, 2020).

Table 1. Market size of types of meat in the US ($USD millions)
  2016 2017 2018 2019
PBM $250 $250 $550 $750
CCM $15 $20 $50 $80
Meat $7300 $7200 $7300 $7400

Sources: The Good Food Institute, IBIS World

PBMs typically feature ingredients such as soy or pea protein isolates in order to create what they claim are good-tasting, sustainable, high-protein products that are also healthier than real meats since they do not contain the fatty acids typically found in animal-sourced foods (which have been associated with increased risk of Cardiovascular Disease; see Springmann et al., 2016). At present, these types of PBMs remain popular mostly for products such as hamburgers and sausages, yet they have not made large inroads with some of the finer cuts of meat. However, 3D-printing of PBM products is increasingly being used to create a ‘marbling’ effect and fat-lining appearance of meat cuts such as steak (Handral et al., 2020).

CCM companies such as Eat Just and Memphis Meats aim to better replicate the appearance and taste of traditional meat than PBM companies (Rubio, 2019). In 2020, for the first-time CCM produced in bioreactors without requiring the slaughter of an animalNote de bas de page 1 was approved for sale by a regulatory authority (Carrington, 2020). There are dozens of companies developing cultivated chicken, beef and pork cells with the stated aims of reducing the environmental footprint caused by the food industry and providing cleaner, more humane products for human consumption. The World Economic Forum reports that currently an estimated 50 billion chickens, 300 million cattle, and 1.5 billion pigs are slaughtered for food every year; CCM producers thus aim to supply meat while reducing the number of livestock around the world (Thornton, 2019).

The promise of fake meat

Meat consumption has increasingly been identified as being incompatible with personal and planetary health (Willett et al., 2019). The established ‘common sense’ approach in the field of nutrition is that animal proteins (particularly when eaten in excess) are more likely to pose risk to health due to their higher saturated fat and cholesterol content (Potter, 2017). Red meat consumption has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, some cancers, kidney problems, digestive issues, diabetes, and overall mortality, and consequently it is suggested the health benefits of plant-based diets include lowering these health risks (Pan et al., 2012; Springmann et al., 2016).

Additionally, proponents of both PBMs and CCMs argue that these technologies can reduce the environmental footprint of the agri-food sector. For instance, Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) of the Beyond Burger found it generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than an equivalent amount of real beef in the United States (Asem-Hiablie et al., 2019). These LCAs build on the notion that it takes roughly 7 times more input (including land, water, and energy) to produce 100 calories of beef vs 100 calories of plant-based protein. While these figures remain contested due to a number of variables and approaches to measurement, the claim that a transition to plant-based diets serve as a more sustainable one for the planet has become commonplace in the West and many global institutions. Perhaps the most well-known of these proponents is the EAT-Lancet report, which argues that “a diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits” (EAT-Lancet Commission, 2019, p. 4).

Proponents of fake meat suggest that huge strides in rapidly advancing precision biology have improved fermentation techniques which enable production of almost any complex organic molecule. The quality of lab-engineered proteins, it is claimed, will continue to improve, eventually making it superior to traditional meat by allowing more nutritious, better-tasting, and more convenient (by focusing on ready-to-cook cuts), along with almost limitless variety of animals tissues to sample (Stephens et al., 2018b).Note de bas de page 2 These proponents suggest these products will result in a massive reduction in demand for livestock, with some claiming that as early as 2030 the industry could be virtually bankrupt while demand for fake meat supplants conventional meat markets (Seba, 2019). Given the livestock sector’s contemporary carbon and land-use footprint (the sector accounts for 14.5% of global GHG emissions and uses 77% of all agricultural land), such a ‘protein transition’ is portrayed as an important tool in contributing to climate change mitigation and the conservation of land. Research from Hayek et al. (2021), for instance, suggests the shift to plant-based diets could lead to an additional sequestration of 332-547 Gt CO2 by 2050 through the reforestation of land currently used for livestock production.

Hidden perils of fake meat

Despite being celebrated by its proponents, the rise of PBMs and CCMs has also led to criticisms. PBMs in particular have been singled-out for having exaggerated or misleading nutritional and environmental benefits. The field of nutrition, for instance, is presently divided on the question of the healthfulness of meat. While for decades many nutritionists advocated limited consumption of meat (and red meat in particular), recent large epidemiological studies have found no evidence of significant adverse health impacts from moderate meat consumption (Johnston et al., 2019); causing some to revise (or call for changes to) dietary recommendations which advocate avoiding saturated fats and cholesterols – and by proxy Animal Sourced foods (Alpert, 2020; Astrup et al., 2019). Furthermore, while protein can be derived from both animals and plants, the latter, generally speaking, tend to have an unbalanced essential amino acid content (which is key for actual uptake of the protein), or they lack essential nutrients such as vitamin B12, iron and zinc. This means that to get enough nutrients from our diets we would need to eat more PBM products (in terms of net volume) and ensure adequate nutrient supplementation to ensure that humans obtain the same protein benefits of traditional meat (Hu et al., 2019). Furthermore, while fake meat companies market their products as healthier, “cleaner” alternatives to meat, most PBMs presently available on the market are either moderately or highly processed (see Table 2), leading some nutritionists to argue they might in fact be less healthy than whole foods derived from animals. Some PBMs include trans fats, or include soy isolates (which is a common allergen), or pea isolates (which many have trouble digesting and has been linked to a number of cases of anaphylaxis; see Morrison, 2020). Thus, while numerous epidemiological studies have drawn correlations between vegetarianism and good health, the transformation and combination of soy and pea isolates with other ingredients may not yield a final product which is in fact ‘healthier’ than meat (Hu et al., 2019). Moreover, the advocacy of plant-based diets is seen as a potential danger to populations at risk of nutrient deficiencies (and other health issues) (Payne et al., 2016; van Vliet et al., 2020).

Table 2: Ingredient List of Two Common PBM Burgers and McDonald’s Beef Burger
Beyond Meat Burger Impossible Burger McDonalds Beef Patty
Water, Pea Protein, Expeller-pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut oil, Rice Protein, Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, Potato Protein, Natural Flavours, 2% Beef, salt, pepper.
Natural Flavours, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for colour). or less of : Leghemoglobin (Soy), Yeast Extract, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Konjac Gum, Zantham Gum, Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Zinc, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.  

Aside from the potential nutritional perils, critics find similar flaws with many of the sustainability claims made by fake meat producers. Such claims often start by pointing to Life Cycle Assessments which compare a given PBM or CCM product to an equivalent portion of protein from Animal Sourced meat or dairy (Poore   Nemecek, 2018). This presents a number of problems of comparison, however: First, LCAs for meat and dairy represent an average value synthesized from a vast array of production contexts. By way of example, a beef burger produced by a local mixed farm practicing regenerative multi-paddock rotational grazing will have a substantially lower GHG footprint than a beef burger produced using conventional commodity production methods elsewhere, especially when soil carbon sequestration is included in the calculations (Rowntree et al., 2020). Regenerative production methods seek to integrate waste into the production chain, minimize the need for off-farm inputs, recycle nutrients and water in the farm ecosystem, and importantly – regenerate soil (Gosnell et al., 2020). Pea and Soy isolates for major corporate players in the PBM markets typically are not produced using regenerative practices (just as industrially produced soy and corn used as feed for commodity meat production), meaning their production has a higher likelihood of contributing to soil erosion, water contamination, and fertilizer and herbicide use (Gustin, 2019). Moreover, corporations like Beyond Meat (presently) centralize production in less than a handful of facilities – the distance travelled from production site to consumer will vary vastly on the specific location of the consumer. Thus, the substitution of meat products with PBMs or CCMs may not in fact result in a reduction of the ecological footprint – it depends on the particular production context of the meat being substituted.

This relates to a second key problem with LCA comparisons: With Animal Sourced foods the main contributors to the GHG footprint will come from Methane or Nitrous Oxide, two powerful but short-lived GHGs. With highly-processed PBMs and especially CCMs, the main contribution will come from CO2 from energy used in production (a much less ‘potent’ GHG but one which lasts in the atmosphere for considerably longer periods of time). When the global warming contributions of these two food choices are modeled into the future, neither synthetic meat or animal sourced meat come out as clear ‘winners’ in terms of having a lower impact on the climate system – it depends entirely on the production context and demand trends going forward. In the words of two climate researchers, “cultured meat is not prima facie climatically superior to cattle; its relative impact instead depends on the availability of decarbonized energy generation and the specific production systems that are realized” (Lynch   Pierrehumbert, 2019). There is thus a risk that the replacement of meat with CCMs could have a higher climatic footprint if energy systems are insufficiently decarbonized, or if the introduction of CCMs does not effectively reduce meat consumption in the first place (Stephens et al., 2018a).

Additional challenges relate to the removal of livestock animals from the agricultural system as a result of being supplanted by PBMs or CCMs. Livestock production is associated with a number of byproducts and ecosystem services; they produce fertilizers, hides, wool, materials used for pharmaceuticals, draught power, etc., and grazers support grassland ecosystem function (FAO, 2006). If livestock numbers plummet, these byproducts and services must be met through other means. For instance, a reduction in natural fertilizer would see an increased demand for synthetic fertilizers, which are energy intensive to produce and rely on extractive sectors (Seleiman et al., 2021). Similarly, restored agricultural lands will see the return of wild animals to fill the niche previously occupied by domesticated animals. In both instances, the environmental ‘savings’ from removed livestock are potentially negated.

In addition to environmentally-based critiques of PBMs and CCMs, there are concerns that the rise of PBMs and CCMs could have detrimental consequences for food security, by destabilizing rural communities and pastoral cultures. Some observers have raised concern about the shift of control over food production towards the corporate sector that might accompany a transition towards PBMs and CCMs. Rather than concern for the environment, critics claims that the corporate interests promoting “the global alt-protein market…” are doing so in “a bid to fully automate, and thus take control of a whole section of the global food chain” (ETC Group, 2019, p. 2). While conventional meat production is also subject to a high-degree of corporate control, there are concerns that proprietary information and copyrighted manufacturing of PBMs and CCMs could make it nearly impossible for small-scale producers to participate in new and locally-oriented protein markets. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that at least 1.3 billion people worldwide are currently employed by livestock production, including 600 million of the world’s poorest households who keep livestock as an essential source of income (FAO, 2018). By removing the production of meat from people and putting it into the hands of a small number of corporations, the world risks contributing to the food insecurity crisis.

Conclusion: The Technology of Fake Meat

It is undoubtable that the rise of fake meat will bring about a transformation of the agri-food system. Yet the extent of that transformation remains to be seen. It is still too early to judge whether PBMs and CCMs will entirely replace animal-derived meats the way that automobiles replaced horse-powered transport in the early 20th Century, or whether they will merely complement real meat in the broader market for protein foods (Stephens et al., 2018a). To these authors it seems unlikely that a revolutionary-scale replacement of animal-derived meats will take place in the near term (by which we mean over the next two decades). In particular, the demand for non-meat products derived from animal agriculture means that animals will likely remain an important part of the agricultural sector for the foreseeable future, and in turn this suggests there will be economic pressure to produce meat from at least a subset of those animals.Note de bas de page 3

The existence of non-meat commodities and services provided by animals hints at the potential cascade of social, ecological, political, and economic influences that could result from the emergence and widespread adoption of fake meat. Technological developments are never neutral, and often when seeking to ‘solve problems’ new technologies in fact ‘displace’ impacts to different spaces or times (Mulder, 2013). As noted above, fake meat addresses some established problems within the agri-food sector including GHG emissions, land and water use, and a number of ethical concerns. Yet at the same time it introduces new challenges which scholars examining technological development in agri-food should consider closely.


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