meat
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The science of meat-alternatives: trimming the fat from our diet

Meat forms a central part of most of our diets. To many of us, a meal simply isn’t complete without some chicken nuggets or a hearty bit of beef. Yet, it can be difficult to see how much goes into creating the meat that we eat.

Globally, the sheer number of animals we farm is mind-boggling – 23 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cows, 1 billion sheep and 1 billion pigs are raised across the planet for our consumption. Considering there are 8 billion of us – 96% of all animal biomass on the Earth consists of humans and the creatures we raise for food. All in all, that means 26% of all the land on Earth is used up as space for these animals and the crops that we need to grow to feed them. In fact, if we simply ate the crops that we grow to feed farm animals we could feed an additional 3.5 billion people. Not only that, but according to a recent review paper, the meat industry is responsible for 14.5% of all the greenhouse gases that we emit.

23 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cows, 1 billion sheep and 1 billion pigs are raised across the planet for our consumption

There is more to this issue than stats however, in raising such a large volume of animals the conditions that they are kept in are often incredibly inhumane. After all, producing meat is a business and profits often come first. Factory farming is a method of raising animals that keeps them in incredibly cramped conditions in order to restrict movement. This reduces the calorie loss through heat generation and movement, allowing for more efficient conversion of plant mass into meat. In chickens for example, these cramped conditions mean they are unable to socialise properly and their ‘pecking order’ cannot be established. As a result, they attack one another. So to prevent this, their beaks and claws are cut off.

Intensive farming is not only bad for animals however, antibiotic use in these farms can lead to antibiotic resistance in pathogens already present in the animals. Antibiotic resistance results when most of the susceptible population of bacteria are wiped out by a treatment of antibiotics, leaving behind a resistant population that can multiply without competition and increasing the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. These diseases can then be passed onto humans that are in close contact with them, leading to bouts of illness. The people who work at these intensive animal farms are also disproportionately affected by health conditions like lung disease, injuries to bones and muscle tissue as well as illnesses like tuberculosis passed on from the animals.

Intensive farming is not only bad for animals however, antibiotic use in these farms can lead to antibiotic resistance 

This may all paint a pretty bleak picture, but there is always something that can be done, and sometimes big problems require small solutions. With many believing insects are the way we will all be getting our protein hit in the future.

Initial revulsion aside, why are insects the way forward? For a start, they are much more efficient at converting the food they are given into biomass we can eat. Animals like cows and pigs are endotherms and so they use a lot of their caloric intake for heating their bodies up. Whilst insects, like crickets and mealworms, are ectotherms and so don’t ‘waste’ so much of the food they eat as heat. This means animal feed is used more efficiently and saves a lot on land use to grow it. With insects overall requiring ten times less plant mass to get a kg of meat when compared to cattle. Insects are also great at saving water – with 150g of grasshopper meat (unfortunately you read that right) using very little freshwater, whilst the same amount of beef would require over 3000 litres to rear.

Animals like cows and pigs are endotherms and so they use a lot of their caloric intake for heating their bodies up

In many cultures around the world insects already form a core part of the diet and have been for centuries. 80% of nations across the globe, in places like Asia, South America and Africa, eat insects regularly. As an example, mealworms, technically the larvae of the mealworm beetle, are a nutritious food high in protein and calories with a nutrient content on par with that of beef. Crickets are also commonly consumed and can be made into a high-protein flour that can be baked into cookies and other sweet treats. Crickets are also high in fibre and B vitamins and even contain twice as much iron as spinach.

Insects are already eaten in the Western world in ways you wouldn’t expect. Common natural food colourings such as carmine, a bright red dye, are made from cochineal scales, an insect that comes from the order Hemiptera, or true bugs. Molluscs, such as snails and squid, are also eaten often. Crabs and lobsters are considered expensive or luxury foods and they belong to the phylum Arthropoda, which also houses insects and spiders. This highlights that our issue with eating insects doesn’t lie with any rational reason, like taste or hygiene, but is simply a cultural barrier that can be overcome.

Crickets are also commonly consumed and can be made into a high-protein flour that can be baked into cookies and other sweet treats

Theoretically though, let’s say you want to do your bit for the environment but don’t fancy tucking into a cockroach burger for lunch, what other options are there for the environmentally conscious? A lot of companies are attempting to give you that same old burger – without the cow! Accomplished by growing it in a lab, the process first involves choosing your starter cells for culturing. Normally, these are stem cells, cells that are ‘pluripotent’ and can divide into any type of cell – such as embryonic stem cells – or ‘multipotent’ and can divide into multiple different kinds of cells, such as adult stem cells. The cells chosen are then grown in a bioreactor in a solution known as the growth medium that contains the correct nutrients and hormones that allow them to divide and differentiate into the correct type of cell, in this case muscle cells. The muscle cells must then be grown on a flexible, edible scaffold that gives the developing muscle a 3D shape and allows for the creation of vascular tissue. As the cells divide, strips of muscle are formed that can then be cooked and eaten like any other piece of meat.

The technology required to do this already exists, the first cultured meat taste-test was carried out in 2013 by Mark Post, a Dutch pharmacologist. This first proof-of-concept burger cost €250,000, but the price is dropping all the time. The removal of farming and the controlled environment used in producing cultured meat not only frees up all the land that would be used to farm the animals but drastically reduces the greenhouse emissions too. The lack of animals at any stage also removes the need for antibiotics to prevent disease transmission and allows for more ethical consumption of meat.

The first cultured meat taste-test was carried out in 2013 by Mark Post, a Dutch pharmacologist

With lab grown hamburgers and talks of eating bugs flying around, you might be thinking at this rate it would just be easier to go veggie, and 7% of people in the UK would agree with you.

Mycoprotein is a meat-substitute that is produced from the fungus Fusarium venenatum. The process involves growing the fungus in large bioreactors that are fed with glucose syrup. As an aerobic fungus, it requires oxygen to be pumped into the vats and the carbon dioxide produced by respiration to be removed for optimum growing conditions. Ammonia is added to provide the nitrogen required to synthesise the protein which settles onto the top of the vat to be skimmed off and processed.

Mycoprotein is a meat-substitute that is produced from the fungus Fusarium venenatum

These replacements for meat may all seem like interesting possibilities now, but soon it may no longer be a choice. As the world population increases and arable land dwindles as the globe continues to warm, there may simply not be room for the vast amount of area we use to farm the meat we eat. Rising sea levels will also act to reduce the land that we can use to farm, and it may become necessary to shift our focus to a more plant (or insect) based diet.

It may not be long before you can fry up a cruelty-free “bacon” butty, or maybe the more daring would rather try a hearty bowl of mealworms for a tasty morning treat? No one said helping the environment would be easy!

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