Grub’s up: If you don’t fancy goggas, try Frankenmeat
The hunt for alternative protein means insects are very much on the menu, with lab-grown meat not far behind
For the past three years, Britain’s first insect cafe, the Grub Kitchen, has been serving up a menu of cricket pakoras, grasshopper arabiatta, burgers made of mealworms and grub-fried chicken, or GFC.
If a diet of fried creepy-crawlies sounds unappetising, plenty of experts believe this and other protein-based alternatives – including cultured or lab-grown meat and bio-engineered dairy products – represent the future of food.
With the world’s population on track to exceed nine billion by 2050, alternative proteins will be essential to feed hungry mouths as rising demand heaps extra pressure on land and resources, they say.
So will grasshoppers and lab-grown beef really be what will be served up at mealtimes in 20 years’ time?
Patrick Brown, founder of Impossible Foods, a food tech startup backed by Bill Gates which has raised $400m to produce next-generation burgers, certainly thinks so.
This month, he called the rise of meat consumption that has accompanied rapid population growth as a “rocket ship to environmental apocalypse”, adding that his goal was to “completely replace animals in the food system”.
Big money is flowing into meat substitutes, including from some of the world’s richest people, largest companies and most red-blooded venture capitalists.
Li Ka-Shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, is another backer of Impossible Foods, which now sells its burgers at 3,000 restaurants and is gearing up to start mass distribution in US supermarkets.
Unilever recently acquired the Vegetarian Butcher, a Dutch producer of plant-based meat substitutes, while Richard Branson has joined Cargill, the US agribusiness giant and Tyson Foods to invest in Memphis Meats, a producer of true “cultured meat” – the kind that can be produced in a laboratory from animal tissue cells.
With big beasts like this involved, it’s fair to say that alternative diets are no longer the preserve of high-caste Hindus, hippies and eccentrics.
In fact, the meat substitute industry is on track to generate $5.2bn in sales by 2020, according to Allied Market Research, an 8.4% rise from 2015. That’s enough to arouse the interest of the most carnivorous Wall Street slicker.
And the potential for future growth is huge – or so the argument goes.
By 2050, the world’s population will exceed nine billion people. In order to meet rising demand, the UN forecasts meat production will need to grow to 455 million metric tons, up from 315 million in 2014.
That is unsustainable given that the global meat industry already contributes 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, roughly equivalent to all the world’s vehicles, and about 15,000 litres of water are required to produce a single kilo of beef.
Last month, Brown jibed that Brazil was the country that “used to be famous for the Amazon”.
Environmental concerns are not the only issue driving investment in food technology.
While some such as Bill Gates have cited the threat of climate change and resource depletion, others believe animal-free meat represents the next big thing for consumers, concerned about poor conditions and cruelty in factory farms and the health dangers of eating a meat-rich diet.
“If we can grow meat without an animal, why wouldn’t we?” quipped Tom Hayes, Tyson’s chief executive, in an interview last year.
Sceptics who question the willingness of Western consumers to embrace cultured meat need only look to the global dairy industry for a taste of what’s coming down the line. Milk alternatives including soy, oat and almond milk have been exploding in popularity.
In the US, non-dairy milk sales grew 61% in the five years from 2012 and are now worth over $2.2bn per year while globally, milk alternatives are predicted to reach $10.9bn this year up from $5.8bn in 2014.
What’s next? A California company, Perfect Day, is close to mastering a technology to produce real liquid milk without any cows – by using biotechnology to brew identical milk proteins to those produced in the udders of a cow.
If it tastes good enough, it’s probably easier to imagine consumers embracing products like this than lab-grown meat or insects, which are likely to remain a niche market, at least for a time.
Perfect Day is planning to roll out a commercial product as soon as next year.
So, in truth, it may be milk rather than beef where we see the swiftest change in consumer behaviour.
It won’t be plain sailing. The US Cattlemen’s Association is already gearing up for a fight, insisting that meat substitutes should not be allowed to use the term “meat” at all. It has already won a victory in Missouri, which has become the first US state to start regulating the use of the word.
But the innovators and food-tech pioneers may have time on their side.
In the 1880s, the US dairy farm lobby fought a long and bitter campaign against margarine. In 1886 they succeeded in banning the product altogether from six states including Ohio and Michigan and forcing margarine producers to inject it with pink dye.
It didn’t last – and the margarine lobby eventually triumphed as cash-strapped consumers turned their backs on butter during the 1930s.
This time around, if they can develop products that taste close to the real thing, there is no reason to believe the food tech pioneers won’t succeed again – and the opportunity is vast.
- © The Daily Telegraph