Claire Brownell | September 29, 2016 1:34 PM ET
Impossible FoodsA meatless cheeseburger developed by Impossible Foods. Impossible Foods is currently developing a new generation of meats and cheeses made entirely from plants.
There’s a new menu item at world-famous chef David Chang’s New York City restaurant Momofuku Nishi: The Impossible Burger. It’s crispy brown on the outside and juicy pink on the inside. It sizzles when it cooks, gives off a meaty smell and even bleeds.
From meal-worm cookies to printed dairy proteins: Your meatless future could get truly interesting
The alternative protein sector is among the top six most important innovation trends of 2016, said Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google parent, Alphabet.
But the Impossible Burger doesn’t contain any beef. It doesn’t contain any meat at all. It’s made entirely from vegetation such as wheat, coconuts and potatoes, but it also has a secret ingredient: Heme, the molecule that makes meat taste delicious, which Impossible Foods Inc. recreates by fermenting yeast.
“The heme is natural and identical, down to the molecular level, to what is consumed from a cow,” said David Lee, chief financial and operations officer at Impossible Foods. “A cow uses plants and turns them into meat. We use plants and turn them into meat.”
A veggie burger company may seem like an unlikely candidate for hot startup of the year, but Impossible Foods has raised US$182 million from investors including Bill Gates and Google Ventures. And it has plenty of competition. Startups Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat and SuperMeat are racing to sell meat grown from cells in a lab, and Berkeley, Calif.-based Perfect Day Inc. said it’s ready to put animal-free milk — chemically identical to the real thing, but minus the cholesterol and lactose — on grocery store shelves by the end of next year.
Considering we already have a way to make meat and dairy, one that’s been working for the human race for thousands of years, it may seem like a lot of effort and money is being spent on coming up with alternatives, but demographic forces are putting the livestock industry and those who depend on it in a precarious position.
Even if we used all the cropland in the world to feed livestock, the demand for meat by 2050 will not be met, according to a study by research firm FarmEcon LLC that considered population and economic growth projections. And while meat consumption worldwide is growing along with population and incomes in developing countries, it has already substantially slowed in the Western world. For example, Canadian consumption of beef and pork has dropped by a quarter since 1999.
Vegetarian meat alternatives obviously have a long way to go to compete with the original. Retailers around the world sold 198,400 tonnes of meat alternatives such as tofu, tempeh and seitan in 2015, according to market research firm Euromonitor International Ltd. That’s a lot of tofu, but it’s just 0.1 per cent of the 260 million tonnes of fresh and processed meat sold that year.
But things are going to change once the alternative is just as good as the real thing, Lee said. “We do not intend to be niche,” he said. “There’s a huge opportunity, a problem to be solved.”
Here’s the problem: Raising a cow is a very inefficient way to make food.
Although modern factory farming is much more efficient than traditional grazing methods of raising and feeding cattle, even state-of-the-art cattle farms use significantly more feed, energy and water than farms raising other types of livestock.
Depending on the farming method, it takes five to 20 kilograms of feed and 15,400 litres of water to produce a kilogram of beef, compared to two kilograms of feed and 4,300 litres of water for a kilogram of chicken.
Traditional cattle farming in developing countries is more likely to involve converting forests or wetlands into pastures, so the greenhouse-gas emissions per kilogram of beef around the world vary from 58 kilograms to more than 1,000, according to a 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Livestock production also takes up a lot of space. Farmers are using a quarter of the earth’s ice-free land for livestock grazing, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, with one-third of the world’s cropland devoted to producing livestock feed.
On the economic side, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the livestock sector generates 1.4 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product and provides income for 1.3 billion people, including one-third of the world’s poor and 65,000 Canadians.
Ron Davidson, spokesperson for the Canadian Meat Council, which represents the companies that employ those Canadians, believes the meat industry gets unfairly scapegoated.
Davidson said the North American beef industry is doing a good job of increasing efficiency and productivity without the help of Silicon Valley. Today, one-third fewer heads of cattle produce the same amount of beef as in 1970.
As for the projection that the world is set to run out of the cropland necessary to meet the world’s demand for meat in the next 35 years, Davidson said there are other parties and policies to blame.
“When we’re talking about available cropland, if we’re concerned about this, why are we taking a third of the corn that’s being produced in some countries and turning it into fuel to put in our gas tanks?” he said. “It’s not as if all that cropland is going into meat consumption.”
But Evan Fraser, director of the Food Institute at Guelph University, said the meat industry is going to have to embrace change if it is going to survive existing demographic, political and environmental forces. The Canadian beef industry will be particularly vulnerable if the federal Liberals follow through with their promise to implement carbon pricing, he said.
“The companies that are able to adapt to these changing regulatory environments and changing consumer tastes will be the ones who started experimenting early,” he said. “I worry for my friends in the beef industry.”
Perfect Day, the animal-free milk startup, insists it’s here to help the beef industry. By 3D printing a cow’s DNA sequence and inserting it into yeast, the company has found a way to make casein and whey proteins identical to those found in milk.
Chief executive Ryan Pandya wants to sell his milk directly to consumers, but the real growth opportunity may lie in selling it to other companies that use milk as an ingredient in making cheese and processed food. Milk made in a lab instead of a cow’s udder allows Perfect Day to produce it to a customer’s exact specifications, in exactly the right amount.
“A couple of years ago, we would have assumed the dairy industry would hate what we’re doing and try to attack us,” Pandya said. “On the contrary, they’re very interested, because this is something they didn’t realize is possible and is really exciting to them.”
Jenny Zegler, a food and drink analyst at market researcher Mintel Group Ltd., said North American customers are ready to embrace new meat and dairy alternatives. The category may be small, but it’s growing quickly, with Mintel finding a 189-per-cent increase in new products making a vegan claim over the past five years in Canada, and a 31-per-cent increase in new products making a vegetarian claim.
Zegler said she believes the numbers show more than just a fad, with millennials being particularly willing to try new things. “It’s long term, but it’s slow. It doesn’t have mass market appeal just yet,” she said.
Consumers may be slow to embrace chicken nuggets made from wheat protein or yogurt made from fermented coconut, but they have been quick to cut back on red meat in the face of rising prices.
Drought and disease have contributed to a 45-per-cent increase in the price of ground beef and a 28-per-cent increase in the price of pork chops in July 2016 compared to the same month five years ago. Demographic changes that have made Canada’s population older, more urban and more diverse have also contributed to the country’s dramatic drop in red meat consumption over the past two decades.
Canadians consumed 24.4 kilograms of beef per capita in 2015, a 25-per-cent drop from the 32.6 kilograms they ate in 1999, according to Statistics Canada. Pork consumption has also dropped to 22.63 kilograms per capita in 2015, from 30.09 kilograms in 1999.
Supplies of pork and beef are starting to increase again and there’s evidence sales are starting to recover in the U.S. But the industry remains vulnerable to disease outbreaks and spells of bad weather.
Isha Datar, chief executive of New Harvest, a charity that funds research into cultured agriculture (lab-grown meat and dairy), said she thinks her sector can help the industry smooth out some of that volatility. One day, scientists could respond to an outbreak of a disease such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy — or Mad Cow — which caused a crisis in the Canadian beef industry in the early 2000s, by topping up supply with lab-grown meat.
“It makes a lot of sense to work with the existing providers of protein instead of opposing them,” Datar said. “Ultimately we have the same goal as they do, which is to feed nine billion people by 2050 and to do it in an efficient way.”
Of course, growing a steak in a test tube is more difficult than making milk. The Impossible Burger does a good imitation, but Datar is convinced that getting true animal-free meat to market can help solve the systemic problems facing the industry.
A study funded by New Harvest found that if conventional meat is completely replaced with lab-grown meat, almost all the greenhouse gases produced by the livestock industry could be eliminated, as well as all the land and water it requires. On top of that, energy use could drop by 45 per cent.
Asked how long it will be before we can buy cultured meat at the grocery store, Datar prefers to reframe the question to focus on research dollars and brainpower.
“If we get 100 researchers working on this in the next year, we’re going to move 100 times faster than if there’s just one researcher working on it,” she said. “This is a long-term food security goal.”
Fraser, the director of Guelph University’s Food Institute, said the coming changes to our diets will likely be incremental. He envisions a world where sources of protein that seem weird or disgusting to North Americans, such as insects, become normalized.
“In the ’80s, sushi was unheard of in North America. The idea of eating raw fish was disgusting and mildly humorous,” Fraser said. “Consumer tastes can actually change quite quickly.”
The barbecue of the future will probably still have beef burgers on it, but the milk ingredients in the bun might come from a lab and the flour might include ground crickets for a protein boost. Now that an animal-free burger that actually tastes good is no longer impossible, it’s easier to imagine a world without meat.