How we will eat – The future is vegetarian with meat from the laboratory

Not only in Germany, the pioneer country of the “Energiewende” (although it has in recent years fallen behind in this role), the energy market as well as political have changed strongly in recent years. In many countries around the world, the cards on the energy mix are being reshuffled. The latest example is China, where President Xi Jinping announced a few days ago that his country aims to be CO2-neutral by 2060. Political decision-makers seem to have finally started on their mission to stop climate change. But is enough when politicians pay lip service? What about our individual responsibilities for greenhouse gas emissions? What have we personally done to curb those? Many residents of industrialized countries still drive around in large cars as a matter of course, eat large quantities of meat, eat avocados from Thailand and wear T-shirts from Bangladesh. Even the corona crisis has done little to change us from wanting to take airplanes not only for our summer vacations, but increasingly also for our spring and fall vacation.

A significant amount of greenhouse gases emission is also caused by our food consumption. What we eat is cultivated, harvested, transported, stored, processed, before it finally ends up on the market and is then consumed by us, again after storage, cooling, and preparation. Animal husbandry accounts for a particularly large proportion of the emissions. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) the keeping and processing of animals accounts for almost 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Estimates for total food production go up to 30%.

  • To produce one kilogram of beef (approx. 2,500 kcal nutritional value) the greenhouse effective equivalent of approx. 13 kilograms of CO2 is emitted,
  • one kilo of butter (approx. 7,000 kcal nutritional value) even comes to 24 kilograms of CO2,
  • one kilo of lamb (approx. 3,000 kcal nutritional value) to no less than 39 kg CO2,
  • cheese (approx. 3,000 kcal nutritional value) to an average of 8.5 kilograms of CO2 per kilo.
  • For potatoes (approx. 860 kcal nutritional value) this value stands at just 0.4 kilograms of CO2,
  • and the production of one kilo of fresh vegetables (approx. 400 kcal nutritional value) produces on average only 0.15 kilo CO2. Vegetables therefore have the best CO2 balance among the basic foodstuffs.

Here, methods of genetic engineering, even if they are controversial in Europe, could bring further improvements. For example, there is genetically modified rice, the production of which emits less greenhouse gases and which at the same time yields more. The prerequisite for this is that behind these methods stands not only the greed of companies for profit, but that they are also proven by nutritional scientists to be perfectly beneficial to our health and by environmental experts to be not harmful to the biosphere.

Transportation and packaging of the finished food products play a rather minor role for the environment (as long as they are not transported by air). Relying on regional products alone only improves the food footprint by about 4 percent (some products can even be produced overseas at lower CO2 emissions). It is more important to pay attention to seasonal foods: Apples that are stored for months in cold stores are far from being as good as fresh apples in terms of their climate balance. After six months, the energy required for cooling amounts to about 22 percent of the total energy input.

According to the WWF, the CO2 footprint of a Central European’s diet is reduced by around 25 percent if he or she switches to a vegetarian diet. With a vegan diet it is even 40 percent. No wonder that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its „Special Report on Climate Change and Land Systems“ of August 2019 calls for a radical change in human meat consumption. In order to feed the growing world population, we need further improved methods of food production. We simply can no longer afford to keep animals for 10 billion people.

In addition, it has been well-known for a long time that meat consumption, in particular that of processed meat, is not necessarily health-promoting. It significantly increases the risk of developing colon cancer (because of the proliferation of potentially aggressive bacteria in the microbiome, the bacterial intestinal flora, which cause inflammation and cells to mutate), as well as pancreatic and prostate cancer. Further consequences of heavy meat eating are diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, kidney failure, chronic inflammation, arthrosis and rheumatism, doctors therefore advise reduced meat consumption.

Will we there have to do without our steak or chops in the future? No, because also in food production we will experience dramatic technological changes. They will enable us to eat healthier and more ecological food – which will at the same time be tastier than what we eat today.

Ever since man has existed, he has been gathering or hunting his food, or has produced it in the stable or in the fields. Even the use of modern agricultural methods and genetic engineering has not changed this. But in the future, we will get a large part of our carnal food by completely different means. 3D printing will play a major role in this, as besides for printing stuff it can also be used to produce edible products that are healthier, cheaper, tastier and more climate friendly.

Food is really just a combination of protein, fat and carbohydrates plus vitamins and trace elements. These can also be put together technically with suitable processes, and this even more efficiently and nutritionally more valuable than nature does. In addition, its creation in sterile cell cultures is much more suitable for industrial meat production, because it is easier to control pathogens and toxins. In addition, the time-consuming and appetizing removal of offal, hair and bones is no longer necessary. The fat content of the meat can also be controlled. And last but not least: The production of artificial meat in the laboratory reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95 percent.

As early as 2013 scientists at Maastricht University produced an artificial meatball. They took muscle stem cells from cattle, mixed those with nutrients, salts, pH buffers and growth factors and left them to reproduce. The cells became cell strands, about 20,000 of which were needed for a 140-gram meatball. „Almost like meat, not quite as juicy, but the consistency is perfect,“ test eaters commented. The effort for this prototype was immense, however, the meatball cost 250,000 euros.

Seven years later, in-vitro meat is almost ready for the market. Appropriate 3D bio-printers serially assemble the cultured cell strands into muscle tissue. In 2020, prices were around 8 to 10 euros per burger (about 140 grams). Today, a number of start-ups are striving to bring their products to market soon at competitive prices. Here are some examples:

  • In 2018, the company „byflow“ founded the first 3D printing restaurant in the Dutch city of Wolvega in cooperation with the 3-star chef Jan Smink.
  • The „Dovetailed“ design studio developed a 3D printer for fruit that can print any type of fruit in any shape and size in seconds. The researchers create the respective flavors with fruit juice, the texture with powdered sodium alginate.
  • California-based Memphis Meats is currently building a pilot plant to produce its beef, chicken and duck crops on a larger scale.
  • In Israel, „Redefine Meat“ has the same goal and is using 3D bio-printers.
  • The Finnish company „Solar Foods“ has even found a way to produce proteins almost exclusively from air. For this, they „feed“ soil bacteria with COand nitrogen from the air as well as hydrogen and minerals. The protein produced with this method is even more climate-friendly than conventional plant-based foods, since its production requires hardly any space and its water and energy consumption is considerably lower.

These companies are truly not the only ones. Dozens of others have the same goal with a lot of investment capital available at their hands.

Anyone who thinks that artificially produced in-vitro meat is not very appetizing or that a diet of artificially produced meat would take people too far away from nature should spend a few hours in a large slaughterhouse or watch a large agricultural producer. In the summer of 2020 with the Tönnies crisis in Germany we became involuntary witnesses of the terrible conditions of today’s industrial meat production. The mass production of animals in today’s large farms is hardly more appetizing. Next to wild animals, farms are also significant virus spinners. And the monocultures of today’s plant food production, including those for animal feed, are coming with such massive damage to nature (soil compaction, soil erosion, fertilizers and pesticides in the groundwater, bee deaths due to pesticides) that the call for an „agricultural turnaround“ is becoming ever louder. Instead of being a step away from nature, artificial meat production is a powerful step for its protection, i.e. a step towards nature!

And as far as palatability is concerned, probably the most important criterion for what we eat, apart from health, the alternative meat producers work together with gourmet chefs and butchers, but also with food technicians, taste experts and manufacturers of flavors and fragrances to optimize juiciness, texture and mouthfeel. Their aim is to simulate the taste of the steak deceptively realistically and by adding appropriate flavors even improve it. First testers unanimously certify that the printed steaks taste like real meat, tasty, firm to the bite and fibrous like the original.

The food market is facing a revolution. Plant food stands up quite favorably in terms of climate balance, in contrast to meat from animal production. Meat and seafood grown from cells and printed by 3D printers will dramatically reduce industrial animal husbandry and even increase our gourmet pleasure. It is estimated that by 2040 35 percent of all meat will be produced in this way. The popular German philosopher Richard David Precht already paints the picture of a society without livestock farming, but with meat that we print out ourselves instead of it coming from pasture.  In this way we ensure the nutrition of the growing world population and reduce the ecological footprint of our diet. At the same time, our diet becomes healthier without having to sacrifice taste.

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