It is not an exaggeration to say that the current food system for satisfying global protein needs is not sustainable and if we don’t change it today, another pandemic is inevitable. As a global community we need to execute an aggressive plan for re-engineering our supply chain with the same vigor and governmental support as the move to energy independence in the United States. In order to prevent the future spread of viruses it is necessary to significantly reduce the rearing of livestock by embracing alternative proteins. We believe the following is necessary:
1. An immediate cessation to the practice of wet markets globally.
2. Like climate change initiatives, a policy framework with yearly targets is necessary to urge all countries, not just developed countries, to embrace alternative proteins. Populations in developing countries are in the most need of upping their daily protein intake.
3. Public and private funding for the continued research and development of alternative protein technologies. In order to achieve the goals outlined in number 2, the taste of alternative proteins needs to be on-par or even superior to existing “real animal” proteins, as well as cost significantly less.
In order to find solutions during these chaotic times, it’s critical to remember that the epidemics we have recently experienced are the direct results of a broken food system which has struggled to feed a ballooning global population. The CDC has long stated that 75% of emerging diseases are animal-borne, and that we are creating the perfect storm for future epidemics. However, there is cause for hope. There are enormous opportunities to parlay in technology, particularly in food technology, in order to avoid future pandemics.
At the heart of these epidemics is our dysfunctional food system, and the way in which it exposes us to diseases being carried by the animals we consume. When diseases cross the species barrier, they often take on a more lethal nature than their original pre-human infectious version. Animal-borne diseases and epidemics began with the domestication of animals some 10,000 years ago. Recent decades have seen vast expansion of animal rearing, with the world’s total meat supply growing by five-fold from 1961 to the present. We are raising a staggering 80 billion animals per year in close physical confinement, feeding those animals a large volume of antibiotics that lead to a whole other set of other problems
Epidemiologists widely acknowledge that COVID-19 is an animal-borne disease, but it is only the latest virus to have made the leap from animals to humans in the past two decades. Over the past twenty years dozens of novel animal-borne diseases have reached humanity, including SARS (likely civet-cat in origin), MERS (camels), West Nile Virus (avian), new strains of influenza (avian), H5N1 avian influenza (avian), and swine flu (pig.) All these diseases originated in China, where animal protein consumption is synonymous with upward mobility, and where the “wet markets” have become the place where one buys such animal proteins. An immediate stop to the practice of these wet markets would be the first step in stopping the next pandemic.
Alternative proteins as a solution
Plant-based meat-products are a viable solution with which consumers are already familiar with, given the popularity of brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Plant-based products use the latest in novel ingredients and food processing techniques to create realistic meat-like substitutes made from plants and use protein derived from pea, potato, and soy, to create meat-like flavors and textures.
‘Clean meat’ refers to the technology of growing actual animal meat from animal stem cells in a laboratory. This technology has the potential to change how humanity produces food. Clean meat is real meat, made from animal tissue, and thus could satisfy the current meat desires of consumers but without the use of hormones, antibiotics, epidemics, environmental damage, or animal slaughter. Clean meat has already undergone a dramatic drop in costs from $800 per kg in 2018 to $100 per kg in 2019. It is estimated that within a few years’ time clean meat at an industrial scale will be less than $1.5 per kg and be significantly cheaper than the traditional meat that consumers eat today.
Where is innovation happening?
Alternative protein startups have been sprouting up globally, with the US and Israel being particularly active. Both countries have long been leaders in stem cell biology and tissue culture research, which are clean meat’s underpinnings. The US boasts several prominent clean meat startups, including Blue Nalu, Bond Pet Foods, Clara Foods, NovaMeatand New Age Meats and Israel’s leaders include Aleph Farms, Rilbite, Future Meat, Biofood Systems, and Redefine Meat.
In summary, COVID-19 reminds us our food system is not sustainable in its current form. We must urgently eliminate the root causes of these epidemics, the wet markets in developing countries and China. In addition, a policy framework must be created and supported by private and governmental funding. We cannot and should not, expect the “tradition” of meat eating to disappear or for the need of protein consumption to lessen. We must invest heavily in both the private and public sectors to make alternative protein technologies such as clean meat viable alternatives in both taste and price.