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MEATING DEMAND: Author of ‘The Future of Food’ asks if veganism alone can save our future

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It’s clear that convincing people to go vegan just isn’t going to tackle this problem quickly enough. Realistically, we’re going to need more than one solution to the global conundrum of meat production.

MATTHEW REYNOLDS: I have a nagging feeling that I may be a bad vegan. Despite avoiding meat for eight years – and going fully plant-based for the last three – I don’t think I’ve convinced a single person to join me in giving up meat. In fact, I’m worried that I may be having the opposite effect… For a vegan, I am suspiciously obsessed with finding ways for people to carry on eating meat.

It’s not that veganism isn’t great. If you’re considering it, go for it; cutting out meat and dairy could slash the carbon emissions associated with your diet by half, and for many people, switching to a plant-based diet is the single most important thing you can do to lessen your impact on the environment…

Yet, while this is fantastic on an individual level, when you look at the scale of meat production – and the colossal greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production – it’s clear that convincing people to go vegan just isn’t going to tackle this problem quickly enough. I’m obsessed with finding ways for people to carry on eating meat because, realistically, we’re going to need more than one solution to the global conundrum of meat production.

At the moment, that system is totally broken. Farming 70 billion animals each year so we can kill and eat them is absolutely awful. It’s a tragedy from an animal welfare perspective, and it’s terrible for the environment too… Despite all this, I don’t think that asking people to give up meat is a climate solution at a global level. For one thing, meat consumption will continue to climb in the coming decades…

Much of this increase will come from today’s low- and middle-income countries where wages are rising and future population growth will be concentrated. To get a sense of where the rest of the world is heading, just look at China’s meat supply, which skyrocketed from 14 kilograms per person in 1977 to over 61 kilograms in 2017…

Unless we insist that people in the developing world forgo the meat-rich diets that rich people elsewhere in the world have been enjoying for decades, then rising meat consumption is simply a fact of the future.

This is why alternative ways of producing meat will become an important part of tackling the climate crisis. The rise of alternative meat in the last decade is perhaps best represented by two companies: Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. These companies understood what previous plant-based firms failed to grasp: that the real opportunity in plant-based meat isn’t in satisfying vegetarians, it’s convincing omnivores to swap their burger to a cow-free patty once or twice a week.

Yet, next to the $170 billion-a-year US meat market, plant-based alternatives are still a rounding error. Even if you add up all plant-based alternatives to animal products, they only accounted for sales of $7 billion in the US in 2020. Despite this modest starting point, the success of Impossible and Beyond shows what happens when you create plant-based products that meat eaters actually enjoy eating…

Even more exciting is the potential of cultured meat: real flesh that is grown in bioreactors instead of inside an animal’s body. This isn’t vegan by any stretch of the imagination – the starting point for cultured meat is a small sample of cells usually taken from a living or recently-deceased donor animal. What it could be, however, is a way to grow meat that has a much smaller carbon footprint than conventionally-reared animals…

One cultured meat product has already been approved for sale in Singapore: chicken nuggets made by the San Francisco-based start-up Eat Just made their debut at the restaurant 1880 in December 2020. But the technology faces significant challenges before it is ready to be widely sold and consumed…

Perfecting cultured meat will mean reinventing agriculture within a Petri dish, and that will require significant government funding to overcome some of the basic scientific hurdles that still remain… It’s not enough to simply ask people to eat less meat and hope they will listen… Only by getting realistic about where meat consumption is now, and where it’s headed in the future, can we stand any hope of reducing the long shadow that our diets currently cast on the planet. SOURCE…

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