Chef's Specials in 2050: Insects and Artificial Meat
Appetising insects, lab-grown burgers, and plant-based 'meat' including artificial blood. Global demand is skyrocketing, and cows sheep, pigs and chickens can't keep up. So scientists are looking for brand new sources of protein.
On the dinner table in front of you, there is a cheeseburger, a bowl of deep-fried chicken nuggets, and a delicious dessert in the shape of freshly baked chocolate cake. The fast food menu looks like something you have tasted many times before, but nothing on the table is quite what it seems to be.
The juicy burger does not come from a cow in a field. Instead, all muscle fibres were grown in a culture dish. And although the crisp nuggets feel completely like chicken in your mouth, all their protein derives from soybeans and peas. Finally, taking a closer look, you will find that the chocolate cake includes mealworms bred to taste of nuts.
The examples are not pure imagination and future visions. All three courses already exist, created by visionary scientists to find new methods for making protein-rich food, and the reason is a simple one. Proteins are some of the human body’s most vital nutrients, and meat is getting still more popular as our primary source of protein. However, meat production requires so many resources that experts warn us that in a few decades, red meat will be in short supply throughout the world.
MEAT PRODUCTION IS A HUGE PROBLEM
Human evolution is very much associated with meat. When our ancestors began to cook the animals they killed over a fire instead of consuming them raw, their bodies were suddenly able to retrieve more energy from the meals. Today, scientists believe that the roasted meat was key for us to be able to develop relatively large brains, providing us with the advantage that placed humans at the top of the food chain. But although meat historically provided us with great advantages, modern meat production is paradoxically developing into a menace to the survival of our species (and many others).
According to several studies, the demand for meat will keep on increasing in the years to come. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Earth’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people in 2050, meaning that the general production of food must grow 70 % to keep up.
In spite of the present population growth being slower than it used to be for the past four decades, general living standards are expected to improve in the poor regions of the world, and this is very important for food production. Just about all meat consumption studies show that the quantity of meat consumed by one person is closely related with his finances. In other words, people in
wealthy countries consume more meat than people in poor nations.
Countries such as India and China are, experiencing explosive middle class growth, and this increasing prosperity is expected to make Indians and Chinese demand more meat, which would be a disaster for the environment. Already now, the breeding of animals to be slaughtered is putting the world under pressure in three ways: greenhouse gas emissions, huge water consumption, and conversion of habitats to farmland.
Meat production is responsible for huge greenhouse gas emissions. According to FAO, meat production accounts for about 14.5 % of total human-induced CO2 emissions, because the animals are constantly emitting lots of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas, which is 23 times more powerful than CO . 2
Water consumption constitutes another problem. More than 15,000 l of water go into making just 1 kg of beef. This is not due to the cow being very thirsty, but rather that the animal’s feed requires huge quantities of water to be manufactured. Up to 99 % of the water going into meat production derives from animal feed. Experts talk about “virtual water” – an expression chosen by British geography professor John Anthony Allan and covering all the water going into meat production, but which is not directly visible, when buying fillet steak at the supermarket.
The high water consumption is manifested by the fact that major food producing nations such as the US, India, and China increasingly have to tap into their ground water resources to keep the production going. According to NASA data, more than half of the 37 largest ground water reservoirs in the world are shrinking. And the problem is periodically aggravated by drought, during which rain water cannot be used for watering purposes.
The third major meat production problem is space. Today, the meat industry occupies 70 % of all farmland in the world. If you look at a world map, there are plenty of vacant spaces for increasing food production, but many of the potential new fields are located in a few countries, where the soil is not fit for producing the food required.
PLANT AND LAB-GROWN PROTEIN
The three problems have one basic cause: beef cattle and other domestic animals are very inefficient when it comes to converting plant
protein into meat protein. Instead of wasting space and water on the animals, it would be much more efficient, if we just did it ourselves.
Consequently, scientists and food engineers are trying to find manufacturing methods for future meat which are not dependent on living animals. One solution could be growing the meat in labs, in which cattle, stables, and large feed fields have been boiled down into tissue samples in cell cultures.
One of the pioneers is Dutch scientist Mark Post, who attracted international attention in 2013, when he served the first lab-grown burger. By means of a biopsy – a tissue sample from a living cow, Mark Post managed to extract muscle stem cells, which are able to reproduce very considerably in cell cultures in culture dishes.
Mark Post fed the stem cells the same nutrients which they would have gotten from the cow. Subsequently, he deprived the stem cells of the nutrients, which made them join just like muscle fibres. After eight weeks, he had enough to make a burger. In terms of taste, this early prototype was not very delicious – particularly because it only consisted of muscle fibres and did not include any fat tissue like an ordinary burger does. Moreover, the cost was extreme. Due to all the work carried out by researchers in the lab to grow every one of the burger’s 20,000 muscle fibres, the price of this one burger was $340,000. However, Mark Post is confident that the method can
be scaled up to such extents in the future that stem cell meat will be able to compete with the old-fashioned method concerning both taste and price.
Mark Post’s burger is made up of real muscle fibres from a cow, but other scientists are more interested in plants as the means to produce burger alternatives. Companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat in the US have developed plant-based meat products, which consist of protein from soybeans and peas, but their tastes and textures are designed to mimic meat from chicken and cattle. The companies have replaced animal fat by coconut oil, and a special blood molecule known as haem, which is extracted from plants, provides the dried protein powder with the authentic taste of meat.
Apart from the environmental gain of producing artificial meat based on plants, there is every indication that the new plant-based food is a healthier alternative to the real thing. In 2016, research by the Harvard Medical School showed that the protein source is an important health factor. People who are already overweight or smokers can benefit particularly from food based on plant protein, reducing their risk of cardiovascular diseases. This is so because real meat includes saturated fat, which increases the cholesterol level in the blood.
MERE BUGS WILL SAVE THE WORLD
The artificial meat products will probably be accompanied by other food in the future. And unlike stem cell burgers and artificial meat made of pea powder, this source of protein is perfectly natural.
The protein content of insects such as beetles, larvae, locusts, and crickets is comparable to that of beef and chicken, and in addition, they also include lots of healthy fatty acids, minerals, and amino acids. In comparison with cattle and chicken, the creepy-crawlies are much more efficient protein factories and can be bred at a fraction of the resources.
According to FAO, cattle require 12 times more feed than crickets for the production of the same quantity of protein. One important reason for this is that, unlike cattle and pigs, insects are cold-blooded creatures. Domestic animals consume lost of energy from the food to keep warmer than their surroundings, but that is not necessary for the coldblooded insects.
UN experts even estimate that for every hectare of farmland used to breed and feed
mealworms, 10 hectares are required to produce the same quantity of cattle protein. Moreover, insects produce much less ammonia and methane gas via defecation.
TASTE AN EXTINCT ANIMAL
Perhaps you hate the thought of having to chew on artificial burgers or insects, but the new protein sources could also involve brand new culinary experiences.
Scientists do not only get ideas for the cuisine of the future among existing animal species. The possibility of poaching on the preserves of Jurassic Park and reviving extinct animal species could perhaps be realized by means of gene technology. In 2015, scientists from the US universities of Harvard and Yale managed to use gene modification to create a chicken embryo with a dinosaur snout instead of a beak.
With the existence of preserved museum pieces of other extinct species such a the dodo, it is reasonable to imagine that scientists could sequence the complete genome of the bird.
When combined with stem- cell technology, the animal’s meat could theoretically be recreated in the lab, paving the way for exotic specialities such as dodo nuggets or mammoth steaks in the future.
Termites: Taste like carrots or pineapple. They include iron, zinc, manganese, our which can boost immune system.
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