Is the fake meat revolution lacking in creativity?

The third of our contributions by Gemma Milne, Science & Technology Writer; Co-Founder of Science: Disrupt

Technology seems to be disrupting almost every facet of our lives. From the way we communicate and the people we date, to the types of jobs we do and how we make decisions. How we receive, shop for and choose food is no exception — but the make up of, and the reasons behind, what we actually put in our mouths have always been similar to those living generations before us. Until now, that is.

In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé published ‘Diet for a Small Planet’. It was the first major book to argue that eating meat was killing the planet and contributing to food scarcity around the globe. Vegetarianism, previously considered unhealthy due to the apparent lack of protein, suddenly became an informed choice many switched to, and Lappé’s career as a food activist took off.

But it wasn’t until 1975, when Peter Singer wrote the infamous ‘Animal Liberation’, that vegetarianism truly grew in popularity. He argued that animal suffering is immoral, and almost overnight, the modern animal rights movement was born. Vegetarianism became a choice based on personal ethics rather than global good.

Nowadays, with the help of Netflix documentaries like ‘Cowspiracy’ and ‘What the Health’, the environmental and health arguments for avoiding animal-based products are gaining worldwide attention once more, and a new wave of vegetarianism (and veganism) is sweeping the developed world. Some who previously ate meat regardless of animal ethics have completely removed animal products from their diet; many — at the very least — are eating a lot less.

So it’s timely that near-identical alternatives to meat are fast becoming a reality. Of course, we’ve had Quorn and other soy-based products for years, but with companies now creating plant-based ‘beef’ which tastes just like the real thing, or even growing ‘real meat’ outside of the animal in the lab, the quest for fake meat which carnivores can stomach is coming to a close.

Thinking about the roots and reasons behind not eating meat is important though, when thinking about what the future holds for human diet. Those who refuse to eat meat due to the sole fact that it comes from an animal arguably shouldn’t care what it’s replaced by. But those who are moving away because of, actually, very human reasons — the health of our bodies and the planet we inhabit — might still want something resembling their past carnivorous diet.

If you are drawn towards the Meat Feast pizza or the BBQ joint, it makes complete sense that we should try to replicate the texture, taste and versatile nature of meat. But is it just a luxury that we should give up, or do we as humans really have a biological need for a meat-based (or a placebo-esque replacement) diet?

We have a particular set of teeth that would suggest we are primed to eat meat — our canines and incisors are perfect for biting and tearing. But then we also have molars which are much more suited to chewing, and are ever present in herbivores. Humans after all are omnivores, but to what extent is the carnivorous part required?

It’s a question few are willing to answer in any kind of absolute — it seems to only be pro-vegan websites that claim there’s science behind not eating meat, whereas studies showing the benefits of meat are carefully caveated and seem to walk on eggshells.

If we don’t know for sure whether we are primed for meat or not, the effort into creating perfect alternatives seems a little bizarre (or at the very least driven by the potential financial gain of food companies rather than a real biological imperative). And the magnitude of the effort is going up year on year.

Beyond Meat has already taken over the US with their famous ‘bleeding’ non-meat burgers. Made entirely from plant-based protein, and not a drop of soy in sight, it’s extraordinary that they’ve created something meat-eaters are so readily adopting. And beyond this, there’s a new wave of lab-grown meat start-ups cultivating the future of food, with Memphis Meats culturing chicken, duck and beef, Perfect Day focusing on milk and Finless Foods taking on the world of fish.

Interesting though, in a time when we’re proving we can create new types of food from scratch, that we’re simply mimicking what’s already out there. Winston Churchill famously said: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”. On that basis, isn’t the food industry lacking in creativity?

Next Nature — a non-profit based in Amsterdam exploring nature created by people — created a project called ‘Meat the Future’ in which they dreamed up new culinary experiences in a world of in-vitro meat. They wrote a cookbook with ‘recipes’ for meat ice cream, revived dodo wings, meat paint and even scarves knitted with mince. Of course, the project is simply a thought experiment, but it raises many questions about our relationship with our animal-based diets and what the ubiquity of synthetic meat will mean for demand.

The idea of meat ice cream seems revolting right now, but why should it? Surely if we’re creating foods from scratch and playing with how nature evolves in a lab setting, we should be more open with how and what we consume. Creating a chicken breast — using money, time and effort — seems a little unambitious when we could be creating something entirely new.

The fake meat revolution is — for now — a dynamic field garnering hope and excitement from many beyond the ‘traditional’ vegetarians. But if we’re keen to create a replacement for something that we can scientifically prove is damaging both our health and our planet, surely we can be a little more creative?