Over 90% of the world population is estimated to be non-vegetarians and globally we consume around 350 million tons of meat a year. Meat production puts immense pressure on Earth’s ecosystems and the demand is increasing non-stop. There are multiple reasons why meat consumption is a problem. Raising animals for food requires massive amounts of feed, energy, water and land resources. Meat and dairy account for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transportation systems combined. The animal waste from these farms is usually stored in waste ‘lagoons’ and these are said to emit toxic airborne chemicals that can cause problems in humans. Moreover, the runoff from these farms also pollutes the water bodies. These animals also require a lot of water to drink or for growing crops for them to eat. Grazing livestock requires a huge land area resulting in the clearing of forests. Overall, meat is a very inefficient food source as it has a much higher energy footprint than any other form of food. It takes 75% more energy to produce meat than to produce corn.
Besides, meat consumption has put humans in direct contact with animal-borne viruses and pathogens. Three out of four emerging diseases in humans has its roots emerging out of animals. Pandemics like SARS, MERS and the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 are likely to be zoonotic in nature. According to the UN, meat consumption needs to be reduced for making a positive impact on the ecosystem. Eating a vegan diet could be the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact.
This means cutting meat and dairy products from our diet. It can be difficult for some to turn vegan and give up on meat, but there are replacements available already. Meat substitutes, also known as meat analogues, or mock meat are plant-based products that have a taste and texture similar to conventional meat. Several companies in Western countries have successfully developed plant-based meat analogues such as Beyond Burger (BB) and Impossible Burger (IB). The ingredients used for these products might vary, but almost all of them contain soy protein, wheat gluten, egg protein, or milk proteins Another novel plant-based meat product is Quorn meat, which is launched in the UK in 1985. This food product used fermentation technology from the soil fungus Fusarium to create mycoprotein. However, the adoption of plant-based diets could be difficult for some people. Various barriers can be linked, for instance, the strong off-flavour or beany flavour of soy-derived products. The other major concern of food proteins in legume crops such as soybeans, lentil, common beans, and peas is the allergenic effect.
To provide a better alternative, companies have started growing meat in vitro. Cultured meat refers to the edible meat obtained by collecting cells from living animals and then proliferating them with cell engineering. The process of producing cultured meat starts with an excised a small piece of tissue from living animals, which is done with a small biopsy under anesthesia. The cells extracted are the muscle stem cells called myosatellite cells which have the ability to create new muscle tissue when the muscle is injured. These cells are placed in a medium containing nutrient and naturally-occurring growth factors, and allowed to proliferate just as they would inside an animal using a bioreactor. Generally, the stem cells itself have the self-renewing ability so that it can create new muscle tissue on its own as long as there are growth factors available. The muscle cells naturally merge to form “myotubes” (a primitive muscle fibre that is no longer than 0.3mm long). The myotubes are then placed in a gel that is 99% water, which helps the cells form the shape of muscle fibres. The muscle cells’ innate tendency to contract causes them to start putting on bulk, growing into a small strand of muscle tissue. Meat is formed by layering these strands together. This process does not require any genetic modifications as the cells are doing what they do inside the animal in the presence of the required nutrients and conditions in vitro.
Not only meat, but also the dairy industry is filled with alternatives to animal-based products. Milk and milk products obtained from plant-based sources like soy milk, almond milk, oats milk, hemp milk, etc. are healthier options and are popular among vegans.
But again they do not taste exactly like convectional dairy products. A new startup called ‘Perfect Day’ founded by a struggling vegan targeted this problem by introducing ‘Cow-free milk’. They use a technology to insert the DNA sequence that produces casein and whey proteins identical to those found in cow’s milk into microflora like yeast resulting in pure forms of proteins. These proteins are then sold to manufacturers who produce milk products like cheese, ice cream and mayonnaise. These products are said to be healthier than traditional dairy, as they don’t contain lactose, cholesterol or any other substance generally found in milk.
So, if we aim to cut down on animal products in order to save the environment, biotechnology will promise more innovative alternatives to expedite our goals.