The New York Times ran an Opinion piece this morning entitled ‘The End of Meat is Here” that soon had that phrase trending on Twitter. The piece was written by Jonathan Safran Foer, novelist and author of the book Eating Animals.
The full article is definitely worth a read, but here, I’ll just summarize Safran Foer’s key points:
- Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of global warming.
- We don’t need animal protein to survive and thrive.
- Family farms will not suffer if factory farming goes away.
He also dives into why COVID-19, in particular, is shedding light on the problems that come with industrial meat farming. He points to the high amounts of infection within meat slaughterhouses, and how farmers are forced to euthanize animals as said slaughterhouses close. For these reasons, Safran Foer states, the sun might finally be setting on meat.
“Our hand has been reaching for the doorknob for the last few years. Covid-19 has kicked open the door,” he writes. “At the very least it has forced us to look.”
If the time of meat is ending, what’s next?
That’s where foodtech will come in. Here’s what I envision the End of Meat could look like, based on recent shifts we’ve seen during COVID-19:
If traditional factory-farmed meat goes away, plant-based meat certainly seems like the most viable replacement. Consumers are already familiar with it, from industry veterans like Tofurky to disruptors like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. It’s so ubiquitous that you can even get an Impossible Whopper at a Burger King drive-thru.
In fact, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, sales of meat alternatives have skyrocketed. In response that growing demand — and the fact that its restaurant partners are struggling — Impossible Foods has rapidly increased its retail footprint. Big Food companies like Cargill are also entering the space with their own plant-based plays. And smaller startups, like Rebellyous and Plantible, are taking new funding to accelerate their commercialization timelines.
Right now companies are developing technologies to make realistic plant-based versions of everything from steak to raw tuna. Are they perfect? Not yet. But with more investment, within the next decade or so consumers could theoretically buy any and every type of meat — just made from plants. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more consumers turn towards meat alternatives, the better they will be.
Finally time for blended meat?
Blended meat, which is made from a combination of animal meat and plant-based protein, could be a stop-gap on the transition away from factory-farmed meat. Consumers who aren’t ready to switch over to a diet of Impossible burgers and Rebellyous nuggets could wean off meat with blended beef burgers and chicken nuggets.
Right now there aren’t a ton of companies offering blended meat products. However, two of the biggest meat producers in the world — Tyson and Perdue — launched lines of hybrid products over the past few months. If the pandemic continues to throw a wrench into meat production, it would make sense for more leading meat companies to develop blended products to both stretch their own meat supply and lower their costs.
Futuristic protein sources
Not all meat alternatives will rely on plants as their protein source. Companies like Motif Foodworks are using fermentation of microbes to create bespoke proteins — and other elements — to more accurately mimic meat. Some companies, like Air Protein and Solar Foods, are even using carbon dioxide to create protein.
As the popularity of meat alternatives grows, producers will likely explore new inputs beyond just pea and soy protein. Fermentation could be a key to unlocking more evolved, more affordable alt-meat.
Coming soon: cell-based meat
We’ll know that the End of Meat is truly here when cell-based meat comes to market. Or at least when it becomes semi-affordable and accessible.
After all, if consumers can buy a steak that tastes like a cow, cooks like a cow, and is made of cow cells, will they really care if it came from a cow or from a lab? There is certainly some consumer resistance to the idea of cultured meat. But as COVID-19 sheds light on some of the less savory aspects of meat production — especially in slaughterhouses — I’m guessing that eating meat grown in sterile lab conditions could seem a lot more appealing.
Regulatory issues are the biggest hurdle for cultured meat right now. We’re at least a year from cell-based meat hitting the market, and likely a decade away from it reaching price parity with real meat. But if COVID-19 continues to cause meat prices to spike then cultured meat could actually reach price parity sooner than expected.
So what’s next?
Safran Foer’s piece argues why it’s time for the End of Meat. But how exactly will it come about? That’s a lot more complex.
Meat won’t disappear all at once with a fiery bang. Instead, we’ll likely see a gradual transition from traditional meat to meat alternatives, including plant-based and blended meat. That’s actually good news for the disruptors making alternative protein. Plant-based and cell-based meat will have to increase production astronomically to fulfill consumer demand for protein left behind by industrial meat. And once cultured meat comes into its own, the need for factory farmed meat will be all but gone.
That will be when the End of Meat can indeed transition into the Dawn of Meat Alternatives.