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World nutrition: What is the meat of tomorrow?

by Gudrun Ambros (comments: 0)

Laboratory meat
Global meat consumption has more than doubled in the past 20 years. The production of meat from the laboratory could save large amounts of agricultural land. © iStock / Liudmila Chernetska

Worldwide meat consumption has more than doubled in the past 20 years and is expected to increase by a further 13 percent by 2028, according to the forecast in the Meat Atlas 2021. This means we are faced with the challenge of producing enough protein to feed the Earth community adequately.

At the same time, it is clear that the meat industry as it functions today is not fair to animals or humans. It devours water and land, destroys forests and produces greenhouse gases. But there are alternatives. Vegetable meat substitutes are already selling like hot cakes, insects as a source of protein are still at the very beginning of their market career. Algae, in vitro meat and meat or meat substitutes from the 3D printer are also being discussed.

Are the alternatives suitable?

The question is: Are these viable alternatives, i.e. better for the environment, good for health and with comparable nutrient content? Analyses exist on this: for example, a trend study by the Federal Environment Agency from 2019 and a study published by the WWF in March 2021. Insects were already on the table of the Greeks and Romans; for two billion people, a quarter of the world's population, they are part of their everyday diet. And the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in view of the predicted world food situation, recommends: "Eat more insects!”

The little animals provide up to 75 per cent protein on a dry matter basis, comparable to beef, pork and poultry, as well as valuable omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and important minerals. In some cases, they are even said to be more nutritious than conventional meat. They have an edible content of 80 per cent - compared to just 40 per cent for farmed animals. In addition, they make good use of feed - according to the Meat Atlas 2018, insects require only a quarter of the amount of feed needed by traditional livestock.

The market for tomorrow's meat

Meat substitutes are booming. The sausage manufacturer Rügenwalder Mühle has been making more sales with vegan and vegetarian alternatives than with the original since mid-2020. Investors see opportunities. Wiesenhof, for example, is pumping money into the Israeli start-up Supermeat, which is tinkering with chicken meat from the lab. The pharmaceutical giant Merck is betting on the Dutch company Mosa Meat, which was one of the first cell meat producers to make a name for itself. And Oscar winner Leonardo di Caprio has put his money into two in vitro projects. At the end of 2019, 55 companies worldwide were working on lab meat projects, 20 of which had been newly founded in the same year. Overall, according to the Meat Atlas 2021, lab-grown meat and vegetarian substitutes are expected to increase their market share from 10 to 60 per cent between 2025 and 2040, while meat's market share is forecast to decline from 90 to 40 per cent.

Mealworms and co. protect the environment

Insects therefore consume significantly less water and land area and account for hundreds of times less greenhouse gas emissions. Living together in large masses corresponds to their natural lifestyle. Nevertheless, they are living beings. And it is still unclear whether insects feel pain. It is also suspected that allergy sufferers who react to shrimps and dust mites will also have to give up eating insects.

Until now, insects have mainly been a protein-rich animal feed. Since 2018, they have been considered a novel food in the EU, and approvals have since been granted for mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers. Transitional regulations and imports from abroad make it possible that products such as burgers with buffalo worms, pasta enriched with insects, bread or crisps are now on the market, as well as protein bars with mealworm powder or roasted crickets. Bio Suisse and Naturland have developed guidelines for organic insects. The founding team of Entosus was the first to receive Naturland certification for its insect production.

Many minerals in algae

Algae also play a significant role in the diet of many peoples. Macroalgae such as nori, wakame or kombu are known from East Asian cuisine, microalgae such as spirulina or chlorella are mainly available as food supplements in the form of tablets or powder. Very occasionally they are also used as food, for example spirulina is harvested from Lake Chad in Central Africa. Macroalgae reach protein contents between 5 and 40 grams per 100 grams. They score high on fibre and mineral content.

But the nutrient compositions also vary considerably within the algae species. This is particularly problematic with the iodine content, because it can quickly become too high. Macroalgae can be cultivated or collected; they are also available with organic or Naturland certification. Microalgae provide up to 70 per cent high-quality protein in dry matter, and in this respect can even be more substantial than meat. Some provide abundant polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as micronutrients such as vitamins and carotenoids.

Problems with algae cultivation and processing

Overall, their cultivation consumes comparably little area, but a lot of energy and above all, it is expensive. Experts say there is still a lot of research to be done. Among other things, there are fears that not only the intense taste of the sea, but also the green colour could affect consumer acceptance. Processing it into an edible food, for example dealing with the indigestible cell walls, is also still causing experts a headache.

But at least fish substitutes based on vegetable proteins can be found that are spiced up with algae additives, such as the Dutch Weed Burger based on soy protein with ten per cent algae. Naturland and EU organic standards exist for the production and wild collection of algae.

Pan do Mar, for example, is launching an organic algae pâté that consists of 65 per cent nori and dulse - with a protein content of five per cent. An algae paté from Algamar provides seven per cent protein, although this probably comes more from the sunflower seeds and less from the 49 per cent Codium fragile. Lord of Tofu's alternative fish products - smoked curls, thuna, fresh fillet and shrimp - use tofu as a protein source and algae as a flavour carrier. After all, they contain between 12 and 24 per cent vegetable protein.

Meat from the laboratory

Food technologists are pinning a lot of hope on lab-grown meat, i.e. meat that is to be grown in bioreactors. The technique comes from medicine, where so-called tissue engineering is used to grow skin. To produce in vitro meat, stem cells are taken from a living animal whose job it is to repair damaged muscle cells. These continue to grow in a nutrient medium. Common culture medium currently still contains calf serum from the blood of unborn calves. A plant-based alternative is being researched feverishly. Transgen says that this is hardly possible without genetic engineering.

So far, the in vitro method has only produced minced meat that is suitable for burger patties, for example. © iStock / Hazal-Ak

Mark Post, one of the founders of Mosa Meat, had the first laboratory burger tasted in 2013. It was composed of 20,000 muscle cells; the development cost 250,000 euros. Since the beginning of 2021, selected restaurants in Singapore have been serving chicken nuggets from the American manufacturer Eat Just, some of which were produced with lab-grown meat. In Europe, no one has yet applied for approval of in vitro meat as novel food, and lab meat is still produced in such small quantities that it is difficult to assess the environmental impact.

Lab meat saves land

Should lab-grown meat become widespread, it would be necessary to feed and kill far fewer animals for meat production, or possibly none at all, according to the hopes of lab-grown meat advocates. Land would be saved in any case, including pesticides and fertilisers. In the case of water, there are researchers who assume a savings potential of up to 96 percent, others suspect that not a drop of water could be saved. The situation is similarly unclear when it comes to greenhouse gases: some say up to 96 percent savings potential, others suspect that the production of lab meat could even cause more greenhouse gas emissions than beef.

Is there an organic perspective for lab meat? - Markus Fadl, Naturland's press officer, says: "Lab meat is an industrial answer to an industrially created problem. It has nothing to do with organic. The answer of organic agriculture is species-appropriate and land-based animal husbandry as part of a holistic agriculture and food economy that thinks and acts in natural cycles."

Steak from the 3D printer

The idea of producing meat with the help of a 3D printer seems as futuristic as laboratory meat. In fact, the first prototypes already exist. The Israeli start-up Aleph Farms uses the printer to assemble laboratory-grown beef cells into a kind of ribeye steak, and Japanese researchers have produced muscle fibres, fat strands and blood vessels in a similar way, with the help of which they imitated a noble Wagyu steak, albeit initially only one centimetre in size.

The advantage of this method: while in vitro meat has so far only resulted in minced meat-like imitations, the 3D products are supposed to look like their models and evoke the same mouthfeel. If, in addition, not only muscle cells but also fat cells are processed, the imitation apparently also comes closer to its model in terms of taste.

Acceptance of lab meat and co.

Scepticism still takes precedence when Germans are asked for their opinion on newer meat alternatives. Two-thirds of respondents in an Acatech study a year ago did not think lab-grown meat was a good thing. The least reservations were expressed by younger, male and more educated respondents. In a 2016 survey by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, around 60 percent of participants who had never eaten insects themselves rejected trying them. On the other hand, 30 percent said they would try it once and as many as 10 percent were even willing to eat insects regularly.

Printed meat from vegetable proteins

Israeli researchers from Redefine Meat experimented with vegetable proteins. The basis is soy and pea proteins, natural colourings, flavourings and vegetable fat, which the 3D printer is supposed to help give the texture and taste of real meat. So far, the website shows products such as burgers, kebabs and sausages, based on a basic dough similar to minced meat. Some of these products are already being offered in Israeli restaurants.

Not yet on the market is the 3D imitation salmon by the Viennese start-up Revo-Foods, which combines pea protein, citrus fibres and algae extract, among other things. So which meat alternative is the best? In its assessment of environmental and health impacts, the German Federal Environment Agency's (UBA) Trend Analysis Meat clearly advocates plant-based meat alternatives, i.e. those produced on the basis of plant protein packages such as soy, lupins, peas or other legumes, or on the basis of grain or mushroom protein.

Insects are said to be more nutritious and digestible than conventional meat. © iStock / kwanchaichaiudo

Insects follow in second place. Laboratory meat has not yet been sufficiently researched, but so far there is still a great need for improvement in terms of energy consumption, animal welfare and antibiotic use. The UBA did not deal with algae. However, the World Economic Forum has published an assessment of the microalgae Spirulina in a white paper Meat 2019. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the microalgae are placed between large-scale producers such as meat and laboratory meat and economical producers such as plant-based meat substitutes and insects. There are no studies yet on the impact of 3D meat on the environment. But there are clues about its ingredients: vegetable proteins or lab-grown meat.


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