The meat industry is fairly well established, with its gristly grip felt throughout vast swathes of everyday life. But could it have the rug pulled from under it?
Meat is a wonderful thing. Packed with protein and chock-full of flavour, humankind has perfected the production, preparation and cooking of meat to such a degree that the term hunter-gather is alien to most of the planet’s modern way of life.
The variety is astounding. You can get the vast majority of an Irish breakfast from one animal. Steakhouses offer dozens of dishes from another.
And chickens! Think about chickens. As a friend of mine constantly ponders, how many chickens are there in the world? You can eat it whole, just the leg or breast, nuggeted, goujon’d, Kentucky fried, sliced, diced and added to pretty much every meal with ease.
But will it be this way forever? Looking at the figures, probably not. For example, 14.5pc of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. Considering that’s more than comes from the transport sector, you know it’s probably not too sustainable.
Not far off half of the world’s grain harvest goes towards meat production, with almost one-third of the planet’s useable land estimated to be directly used for livestock production.
The stresses are growing, too, as global population figures continuously drive up the need for more and more food. So what can be done? Well, the answer could be buzzing around your head right now.
Entomophagy, rolls off the tongue
Entomophagy, the term used to describe eating insects, recently inspired art graduate Lara Hanlon’s éntomo project. Looking at sustainability, Hanlon came across food of the future and was hooked.
She got involved at a peculiar time, when the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (the FAO) released a report on edible insects as a viable food source for the future. Hanlon stumbled across the report, dug a little deeper and realised there was quite a gap in awareness.
“I honed in on the fact that 2bn people eat insects as part of their daily diet. We don’t. I thought that was amazing.”
Trying to persuade her college friends to eat bugs was Hanlon’s entry into promoting the benefits of this dietary future.
“I got bugs from a place called Thailand Unique. They sell edibles. They were dry roasted and seasoned. I wanted to try them. I wasn’t buying in raw produce. It wasn’t easy to buy that stuff in at the time.”
Interest flying high
Éntomo won a New Star award at the Shenghen Design Awards in 2014 and, since those early days of the project, Hanlon has noticed a surge in interest in the whole field.
“People are intrigued. They are asking if this type of food is healthy, if it tastes good, is it just a fad,” she said. It’s not just experts, either – although there are many scientists and entomologists, according to Hanlon, who are starting to bang on about this sustainable option.
“Now you just have more people conscious about their health. It’s not surprising when you hear so many stories about processed foods, sugars and meats.”
Start-ups are emerging in this field now, with a gap in the market perhaps bigger than many people think. UK company Mophagy – which sells cricket flour, whole roasted crickets, mealworms and the like – is now working with Hanlon.
“It’s a real area of growth,” she said.
To the lab!
Elsewhere ‘lab-grown’ meat is being looked at. A monumentally expensive lab-grown burger back in 2013 showed where this was going.
A few months back we wrote about Memphis Meats, a Californian start-up with a three-year goal of getting its product to your restaurant table, and five-year goal of hitting your local store.
The company is trying to produce large quantities of meat developed from stem cells harvested from cows, pigs and chickens. This meat grows on petri dishes in small quantities over the course of about three weeks, and the company has high hopes for what it calls “sustainable, as well as cruelty-free” meat.
Should the company actually succeed in what it’s doing, then dietary revolution is afoot. Lab-grown meat products can be made free from the sort of contamination that sees bacteria flourish, and managed to contain lower saturated fat levels. Additionally, the process requires far less space and time than the regular food chain production line,
The tipping point
“Our goal is to be in restaurants in three years and retail in five years. In 2021, we want to be in retail, or even earlier,” said Uma Valeti, the person behind Memphis Meats.
In America, the latest fruit substitute for meat is the South Asian jackfruit, with a recent report showing a stark increase in its featuring on restaurant menus in 2015.
“There is definitely a push right now for alternatives to meat, and jackfruit does an excellent job of mimicking [it],” said Rachel Royster, a trend analyst at Technomic.
It’s like there’s a constant movement towards finding meat substitutes, while the production of the more traditional burgers continues to grow and grow. There’s no real tipping point to be found, either, as it’s hard to know exactly how much land being taken up, or gas being produced, or diets being ruined, is ‘too much’.
But, surely, one day, one of these substitutes, or maybe a collection of them, will make inroads.
A lab-grown fillet of beef, topped with crickets and a side of jackfruit with your wine, sir?
Main image of eating bugs via Shutterstock
Lara Hanlon will be speaking at Inspirefest 2016, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. To join us from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity, book your tickets now.