A resilient alternative to the industrialized animal agriculture

Disruptions as a wake-up call

Covid-19 has demonstrated that the pillars of our economy and our supply chain may be quite fragile and unreliable. When the lockdowns and increasing case numbers have hit countries across the globe, we have learned to understand that the economy does not miraculously sustain itself. And in this article, I am not even talking about the non-functioning healthcare systems due to unpreparedness by governments. We are just not prepared for any shock, we are prepared for prosperity exclusively. We simply ignore the worst scenario and here it is. Most countries have experienced meat, milk, and egg shortages as a result of lockdowns and closures of factories. In terms of food supply, industrialized animal agriculture seemed to be the weak link.

Slaughterhouses had to close down because they became hotspots of transmission of Covid-19. However, meat has a short shelf-life and that actually disrupted the whole delivery system. I remember having seen empty meat shelves in Budapest, Hungary last year, too. That was just the beginning of this apocalypse we are trying to survive right now. This, however, could prove to be a sign or even an opportunity to radically shift the basic principles upon which our economy is sustained (or rather unsustained). Unfortunately, we ignore the perfectly valid arguments of morality and the existence of other sentient beings. Because we tend to actually ignore these claims that would simplify the transition into a more sustainable future, it is rather a better approach to ask: how about we find a solution that would fix the supply chain problem to create a reliable system, would be sustainable, healthy, and beneficial for our bodies, and would provide us all with proteins? How about switching to plant-based alternatives or even real meat cultivated from cells? Wouldn’t it be a nicer world without torture and mass production of meat and dairy products via inhumane conditions with these amazing additional benefits?

Mass production – an unsustainable and unethical way

The actual problem is that we are many. Way too many. Hence, the solution was to come up with industrialized animal farming. A comfortable solution to provide meat for all. But this American invention brought about more consumption of meat than ever. The problem is not with eating meat once a week. The problem is considering it as a basis for all of our meals. Is it really that healthy? Obviously, if we look at statistics, we will soon find out that our eating patterns are far from healthy for us. Recently, meat consumption has been linked to cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, and diabetes. Eating has become a replacement for happiness, an activity in boredom, a social event, and so on. Eating meat just became a natural part of our everyday life.

The current meat protection has a lot of inefficiencies. Generating protein from animal sources requires an order of magnitude more resources than obtaining them directly from plants. The true cost is never felt by the end-consumer. Many of the impacts are also immeasurable and cannot be price-tagged. The damage we are doing to nature will eventually affect future generations.

Plant-based protein as an alternative

Plant-based alternatives and cultivated meat are actually around the corner giving us a chance to opt for animal welfare and food security at the same time. Start-ups are developing ways to serve eggs and chicken without sacrificing lives. The plant-based meat industry has grown to a 20 million industry in 2020. There are barriers still, however. First and foremost, some meat replacements’ taste and texture are still at a basic level and people are reluctant to try the alternatives, maybe, due to a bad experience. Although, further development and more and more products lining up on the shelves may solve this issue. There are objections, of course, from the traditional meat industry players. The producers’ lobby power is considerable and they pose an obstacle to labeling plant-based meat as meat. Furthermore, since eating plant-based protein is not yet widespread and embedded in our culture, any accident that may result in a recall of the product has a significant negative effect on the market itself. And we also touched upon something important here: eating meat is somehow culturally determined and this is possibly the most resistant to change. The way people look at it is not that they are consuming protein for a healthy body but consuming meat.

A positive outlook, however, may remain: plant-based food is becoming more and more trendy with its associated moral values. In the era of social media, this is a great advantage that can make the market grow.

Start-ups and conglomerates to produce a replacement for eggs and meat

Beyond meat and Impossible foods are start-ups that aimed to disrupt the market. As a surprise, however, due to the elevated interest in changing consumption patterns, big food conglomerates and meat producers have started making meatless meat.

Impossible Foods

The company, which was founded in Redwood City, California, in 2011, develops plant-based substitutes for meat products. They started with the aim of giving people the taste and nutritional benefits of meat without the negative impacts that are associated with livestock products. The company’s signature product is Impossible Burger, which was launched in 2016. They also produce plant-based sausages.

Beyond Meat

Beyond Meat was founded in Los Angeles, California, in 2009. The initial products were launched in 2012. They produce emulate beef, sausages, burgers, meatballs, and sausage patties. A peer-reviewed Life Cycle Analysis conducted by the University of Michigan showed that Beyond Burger 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 a ¼ pound of U.S. beef.

Eat Just – Just Egg

Eat just is headquartered in San Francisco, California. The company develops plant-based alternatives for egg products. Their product is a plant that tastes like conventional egg and they highlight the importance of their product to reduce air and ocean pollution and help reduce our cholesterol and saturated fat intake. The ingredients require less land, water, and carbon emissions to make. In December 2020, the company’s lab-grown chicken became the first lab-grown meat to receive regulatory approval in Singapore.

These are just a few examples, the pioneers of the industry, but hopefully, there will be a general shift and acceptance towards these environmental-friendly and cruelty-free products. When there is a wide selection and lots of different tastes already, people will be more likely to opt for plant-based products and leave a better and more ethical place behind for future generations.

Andrea Nyilas is a Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability Consultant and a Sustainability and Environmental journalist. She holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences and Policy from Central European University, in addition to a Master of Arts degree in Economics from the Corvinus University of Budapest. She is particularly interested in circular economy, natural resource management, and waste reduction.