According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, between 1970 and 2010 the number of cows raised for human consumption rose 32 percent to reach 1.4 billion, pigs rose 76 percent to reach 965 million, and chickens rose 273 percent to reach 19.4 billion. But despite its popularity, current levels and methods of meat production and consumption can have an adverse effect on human health, the environment, and animal welfare.
New Harvest is an organization that supports research regarding economically viable meat substitutes and provides a forum for sharing related innovations. In the interview below, New Harvest founder Jason Matheny talks about the work of the organization and his perspectives on the future of meat alternatives.
Why did you start New Harvest and what is its primary focus?
I founded New Harvest in 2003 because there wasn't an organization devoted to advancing technologies for new meat substitutes. There are several companies making plant- or mycoprotein-based meat substitutes, but there was no organization working on more advanced technologies, such as cultured meat, and no organization looking broadly at how to replace animal proteins with advanced substitutes. We fund academic research, conferences, and economic and environmental assessments. We'll probably continue focusing on these areas, since it addresses an important need.
What do you think are some of the most interesting alternative meat products? Do you think the future of alternative meat products lie in meat-like products such as soy burgers and no-chicken nuggets, or in vegetable-based products that do not look or sound like meat?
I think there are lots of good products out there, and they're getting better. Two recent developments are the work of Pat Brown, a big name in biology who took a sabbatical from Stanford University to focus on developing new meat substitutes; and Ethan Brown (no relation), whose new meat substitute was recently covered by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. Given the strong appetite that most people have for things that taste and look like meat, I think the future of alternative meat products lies in meat-like products.
Why is it important to have meat substitutes like "tofu dogs"? Is the goal to help wean omnivores off of meat? Or perhaps to give them easy, more-sustainable ways of reducing their meat consumption?
Both. Meat was rare and nutritionally important in our evolutionary past, so it's likely that we have a strong taste for it. And the global trend is a massive increase in meat consumption - mostly in developing countries.
What would you say to critics who point out that meat substitutes are usually more expensive than meat and are often highly processed?
The price of meat substitutes has been dominated by small-scale production, less efficient processes, and niche marketing. But it needn't be that way. Pat Brown has been especially focused on reducing the price of meat substitutes well below that of meat. As for processing, most meat substitutes are replacements for heavily processed meat products. Replacing processed meat with processed plants that are much healthier, more humane, and environmentally friendly is a great improvement.
Excessive meat consumption in industrialized countries is often connected with negative health effects, yet more modest consumption in developing countries can provide a much-needed source of protein and can play a key role in alleviating hunger and malnutrition. Do meat substitutes have a different role to play in industrial nations versus developing countries?
Even developing countries have wealthier citizens who are eating unhealthy amounts of meat - overnutrition is a serious health problem among the wealthy in many low-income countries. My experience working on public health projects in India was part of the reason for starting New Harvest. I think it makes sense to try to increase consumption of meat substitutes among the middle and upper classes in both developed and developing countries.
Globally, who is doing the most exciting work in in vitro meat? Who is the closest to having a product that tastes like meat? Who is the closest to finding an affordable way of replicating the process?
Cultured meat is still at a very early stage. The Netherlands has been leading the way in research. Mark Post expects to unveil a cultured meat hamburger this year. But there is progress in other countries, too. Gabor Forgacs in the United States even had a taste test during a recent TED event.
Has anyone done research about whether consumption of in vitro meat would have any adverse effects on human health?
There's no commercial product yet to test - this is still at a basic research stage. Such testing would occur before U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. Cultured meat is made of the same stuff that real meat is made of - but in principle one could make it much healthier by precisely controlling the amount and type of fat. One could have a hamburger with the fat content of an avocado.
How do you respond to those who fear in vitro meat for the same reasons they fear GM plants (that it is unnatural, for example, or may have unforeseen health detriments)?
It's not natural to put 10,000 chickens in a metal shed and pump them full of growth-promoting drugs. But that's how most countries make chicken meat now. Even if they were free-range, there's nothing natural about the broiler chicken - an animal artificially bred over centuries to have twice the natural size and growth rate of jungle fowl, with severe health problems as a result. Apart from those willing to revive a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we've all opted to eat unnatural. I would prefer that we develop unnatural foods that are healthier, safer, cleaner, and more humane than the unnatural foods we find in animal agriculture.
Some advocates suggest that producing in vitro meat instead of raising livestock in a more traditional manner would reduce the use of natural resources such as water, land, and energy and generate less pollution. Can you quantify that for us?
Research at Oxford University looked at that question and estimated that mass production of cultured meat would reduce water and land use and CO2 emissions by 90% or more.
Love of meat eating and fear of "test tube" meat are both deeply engrained in the psyche of many across the globe. Moreover, in the developing world, meat eating has taken on the power of a status symbol, a source of pride. What do you think it will take to open up the public's hearts and minds to in vitro meat?
A product that's safe, healthy, as cheap as regular meat, and aesthetically indistinguishable.
To read more about meat consumption and production and animal welfare see: Preventing Cruelty on the Farm, What We Eat Matters, Environmental Working Group recommends less meat and cheese, Carlo Petrini Makes the Case for Eating Less Meat, Pork without a pig: scientists attempt to grow artificial meat in a lab, and Can becoming a vegetarian help save the planet.
Kevin Robbins is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.