Crispy critters to lab meat: The strange proteins you’ll find on your plate in 2030

Tyagarajan S June 6, 2017 11 min

This is an exceptional time to write about the future of our food, especially proteins. Our country is gripped in a fiery (and needless) debate on bovine deliciousness as cows have ambled resolutely from our roads into our regulations.

So, it won’t come as good news if I tell you that rabid cow vigilantes aren’t the only ones standing between hungry meat lovers and their steak. As it turns out, our current protein obsessiveness (especially beef) is driving us towards a future that’s not sustainable.

Something has to give. Today’s #FactorFuture is about the strange changes that are likely sweep over our proteins going forward.

Is meat the next fossil fuel?

Humanity is currently in the midst of a steamy, no-holds-barred love affair with proteins. It is seen as the saviour that’s come to lift us up from the dark dredges of carbs, sugar and fat and into this lean, mean sculpted heaven. The increase in consumption of proteins is closely correlated to the rise in incomes around the world.

Even Cheerios now with Protein. Image: Mike Mozart | Flickr

Given that only about 5-8% of the world is vegetarian, it is safe to say that any consideration of food for the 9 billion people that will come to live on this planet (by 2040) has to focus on today’s protein sources: meat, fowl and fish among others.

And this is where we run into a big problem: Protein production (in the form of meat and fish) is killing the planet.

Protein production (in the form of meat and fish) is killing the planet… it uses substantial areas of arable land, water and energy in production, storage and transportation  

The animals often have to live in inhumane conditions and face painful death. But more importantly, it uses substantial areas of arable land, water and energy in production, storage and transportation. For instance, beef production consumes more than 15,000 litres of water for producing 1kg of meat. The meat industry may be contributing to nearly 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Source: Mekonnen and Hoekstra (2010)

By any measure, the meat industry isn’t sustainable to feed the growing population in a planet that is on a knife edge of sustenance. And this has resulted in intrepid entrepreneurs coming up with strange alternatives for the future.

Plant meat, anyone?

If you buy a burger patty from Beyond Meat, it looks like a regular burger, bleeds and even almost tastes like one. The patty, however, is made from pea protein, yeast extract, and coconut oil. The blood is beet juice. Inside, little veggie bits mimic the texture of meat and flesh. Hardcore beef lovers may baulk at this abomination, but it’s a sign of the future where meat production is increasingly seen on par with today’s fossil fuel use.

Why do you need an animal to create meat? Image: Beyond Meat

This is the reason Beyond Meat has raised millions of dollars from a wide list of investors including Bill gates and Tyson Foods, one of the biggest meat producers in the US. Don Thomson (ex CEO of Mc-Donald’s) sits on its board bringing his burger-selling expertise to help shake-up the meat industry. The product even increasingly sits alongside real meat in shelves across stores.

Another plant-protein based startup, Impossible Foods has raised upwards of $200 million from Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures and UBS among others since its launch in 2012. It, too, is engineering beef burgers and ground beef out of plant extracts.

Despite its low carbon footprint and more ethical supply chain, plant meat is relegated to a niche today. But that’s changing rapidly  

The logic that drives nearly all of these ventures is that when there is no difference in taste or nutritional value, a meat lover should no longer care if the meat actually didn’t come from an animal. Despite its low carbon footprint and more ethical supply chain, this is relegated to a niche today. But that’s changing rapidly.

Cargill, one of the largest beef producers in the US and the world’s largest ground beef supplier, recently announced that it is selling its two remaining cattle-feeding yards. The company wants to deploy capital into alternative proteins, especially plant-based ones. The meat alternatives market is expected to be bigger than $5 billion by 2020 and we’re likely to increasingly find them on the store shelves.

Cultured meat

No, I am not talking about conservative cows that dress modestly. The culture I am talking about is rapid procreation of cells in lab broths.

‘Cultured’ burger patty. Image: Maastricht University

In 2013, a bunch of scientists from Netherlands took stem cells from a cow and turned it into muscle strips that when packed together made a patty. This Sergey Brin backed effort lifted up the weird quotient of our future food and gave a taste of what’s to come. That taste was “close to meat” but “not that juicy”.

Southern fried lab chicken? Image: Memphis Meats

The future meat will could very likely grow in sterile tanks with precision-controlled nutrients. And it’s not just beef. Memphis Meat, one of the companies that is growing meat in labs plans to launch lab-grown fowl along with beef by 2021. The only hitch right now — a pound costs $6000.

Eventually (scale, technology advances and learning), the prices will tumble. But can preferences change so easily? The real question would be to see how easily can cultured-meat companies convince consumers to switch to meat that didn’t originate naturally.

The real question would be to see how easily can cultured-meat companies convince consumers to switch to meat that didn’t originate naturally  

There are also many scientific problems to solve. The cultured meat has to be kept in an oxygen-rich environment (to simulate the circulatory system which is not present) which limits how big the culture can be. There is also the issue (and need) to maintain sterile factories to prevent infections from entering the meat. But this would be an important problem to solve even today as livestock living in unhygienic conditions are pumped with antibiotics.

Given these complexities, meat made in factory labs won’t likely happen in the very immediate future. But science is hard at work to decouple humanity’s love for meat from the guilt of cruelty.

Algae, the superfood

Algae can proliferate even in salt and polluted water, arid land and places that aren’t conducive to regular crops. Image: Tristan Schmurr | Flickr

We are scraping the bottom here, quite literally. The green scum at the bottom of ponds is the new “superfood”. Algae is packed with so much protein and omega-3 fatty acids that it’s being called the “most nutritious” food known to man.

With low water requirement and an ability to grow in arid places, algae (micro-algae) can proliferate easily and perhaps replace other protein sources. Here’s more: it can also generate biofuel — upto 19,000 litres of fuel per acre and it sucks up carbon-dioxide (co2) from the air.

With low water requirement and an ability to grow in arid places, algae can proliferate easily and perhaps replace other protein sources. Here’s more: it can also generate biofuel 

Looks like the bottom of our food chain is custom-engineered for our sooty world.

While the fuel-making, CO2-sucking benefits are super exciting (coming soon: algae-covered skyscrapers), their ability to be nutritious food is no less serious.

The celebrity algae of sorts is Spirulina, the market for which is expected to reach $238 million by 2022. Being called the most “nutrient dense food on the planet”, the algae’s popularity is surging despite its “pond water” taste. From powders to tablets, it is pervading into lives all over the world.

Yet, before micro-algae can become food of the masses it has some technical and economic hurdles to be crossed. Experts, however predict that over the next decade, it will come to compete cost effectively with milk and eggs.

Care for some algae shake?

Crispy crawlies

They are the true protein superfood (65% of dry weight is protein) of the future. This nutty tasting food has more calcium than milk and more iron than spinach. They present the most sustainable source of food consuming little resource. I am of course talking about the food of the future: Crickets.

Deep fried crickets, anyone? © Creative Commons

It’s not just crickets. Native ants that taste like lime, roasted caterpillars, silkworm soups, fresh locusts, maggot fat stir-fry, spicy red agave worms and many other creepy-crawlies are scuttling their way on to our plates. If all this evokes shock and disgust, I only have bad news for you going forward.

Entomophalogy. Learn the word. It’s means consumption of insects as food. We’ll be hearing a lot more of it in the future. The UN recommends that we all start munching on little edible six-legged snacks if we are to feed the growing population. If you are just getting started, the internet suggests beetles, wasps, ants and grasshoppers as popular treats to ease into the whole thing.

Crickets are the true protein superfood (65% of dry weight is protein) of the future. This nutty tasting food has more calcium than milk and more iron than spinach  

The ‘ickiness’ is just a matter of perspective. Close to 30% of the world eat insects frequently. There are more than 1,900 edible species of insects and they are packed with proteins, vitamins and amino acids. A crunchy grasshopper has as much protein as ground beef without the fat.

Edible insect market will be $1.53 billion by 2021 and will come in the form of flour, protein bars, snacks besides as coatings and paste. Pepsi has been researching the use of cricket powder in its food and its CEO thinks insects are going to be a big snack in the future. So, get in with the program.

We already consume crustaceans like shrimps and crabs. And here’s the upside  —  the sheer number of insects means that every meal could be something unique!

So, the next time you swat a bug, pause to consider if it make a nice addition to your next meal.

Farmed fish

About a billion people in the world rely on fish as the primary protein.

It’s bizarre, however, that despite thousands of years of civilisation, we are still largely hunter-gatherers when it comes to fishing (albeit, with sophisticated technology).

Chinese fishing nets in India © Tim Moffatt | Flickr

With growing demand, this is turning out to be unsustainable as overfishing, pollution are causing an extinction of ocean life and destroying ecosystems. Global fish catches are declining while populations and our hunger for proteins keep growing. We are already over fishing more than a third of the world’s fish stock.

Turns out, farming fish is the solution. In 2016, nearly as much of the global fish consumed came through aquaculture (rearing aquatic animals) as wild fishing. Open sea aquaculture farms pen part of an ocean to rear food while inland ones build simulated water bodies to do the same.

Aquaculture is expected to be the predominant source of seafood by 2030 and when practiced sustainable, can be the blue revolution and transform seafood the way green revolution transformed agriculture. With better control of the ecosystem we could potentially have healthier, non-polluted food.

Aquaculture is expected to be the predominant source of seafood by 2030 and when practiced sustainable, can be the blue revolution and transform seafood the way green revolution transformed agriculture  

It also opens up the possibilities of ‘tweaking’ the genetic makeup of the fish through selective breeding or genomic edits to increase yield (a unsafe proposition in the wild). A transgenic Atlantic salmon cleared in the US and Canada can grow faster and has halved the time to market. Genomic selection is also being used to make the fish more resistant to infections and diseases.

However, the aquaculture farms today consume more fish from the ocean (as feed) than they produce from their farms. The fish feed market is therefore growing and is estimated to be more than $100 billion market by 2019. Scientists are working on bacterium fermented in tanks that can simulate the composition of natural feed.

For those worried about how to feed the growing human population, farmed fish is an attractive animal protein. So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Today, entire meal groups are being replaced by protein. We are chowing down meat, fowl, fish and protein shakes like there’s no tomorrow so much so that doctors think it could be an eating disorder  —  protorexia. It’s real. Look it up.

This is partly driven by a culture of looking a ‘certain way’ even if excessive protein has been found to cause kidney damage , mood swings and an overload of toxins.

Perhaps this is yet another food fad that’ll pass and we’ll shift back to to a more balanced diet (including proteins). In the likely event that we don’t, minds are hard at work to create sustainable options.

 


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