Current State of Plant Based Meat Replacement Products
The alternative-to-traditional meat market is entering an interesting feedback loop. External and very diverse factors support this trend: mainly climatic, sanitary and ethical. The latter will be the ones that will end up making governments act in order to prevent cruel situations for traditionally farmed animals. A few days ago, the case of the Vivotecnia laboratory exploded in Madrid, which has turned out to be one of the most mobilizing events of recent times, even among people who were not animal-conscious. Societies tend to evolve according to their idiosyncrasies, but will the habits of human nature itself also evolve?
Biological basis for eating meat
We have all heard ad nauseam the fruitless debate of human omnivory. Of course, it is not something that should be taken for granted but has to be argued from science. The short answer is that yes, we are omnivores, and the first hominid to set foot on the surface of the earth was one. It is well known to zoologists that a herbivore has a long, low-acid digestive tract, capable of degrading celluloses thanks to symbiosis with cellulolytes; whereas a large carnivore has a much shorter and acidic tract, capable of degrading proteins and emulsifying fats. Nevertheless, our intestines are intermediate in size between herbivores and carnivores, which is further proof of our omnivory. Our dental structure also reveals these ancestral habits, so much so that they are irremediably part of our biology.
However, the long answer is that we could cease to be. There are already documented cases in the animal kingdom. Panda bears are not totally herbivorous, but they mostly feed on 20 to 30 species of bamboo. Some nutrients they must still acquire from animals, so they eventually get some smaller prey. With humans, this biological transition could be easier, because the vitamin and amino acid inputs that we would need from animals can be supplied by biotechnology. It should also be noted that our omnivory need not be linked to the ingestion of mammalian meat, since small animals such as mollusks, insects, or eggs were consumed much more than large animals at the dawn of mankind. Vitamin B12 or cobalamin can be obtained from bacterial colonies.
Is it healthy to be vegan today?
Understanding veganism as a philosophical stance in which you consume products that have nothing to do with animal suffering, the answer is a circumstantial yes. Circumstantial because it depends on factors such as the monetary capacity of the person (veganism is more expensive), their temporary physiological characteristics or not – diseases, allergies, maladapted microbiome -. But, taking all this into account, it can be equally or even healthier than a diet rich in red meat, for example. Whether this is healthy for the planet is another matter altogether. Crops sold as organic use much more water and soil than traditional crops, which use pesticides and other techno-agronomic techniques that prioritize the profitability of the harvest over human health. This, of course, is a major problem that must be solved in order to advance the progress of human societies.
While traditional alternatives such as tofu meat have gained a loyal following, the market remains small and livestock is still abused, which also impacts human health for multiple reasons. The only way to gain more followers is awareness linked to a solution. Of course, many current vegan products boast of being GMO free. While this is a respectable stance, they do a disservice to progress with a label added in a mixture of commercialism and ignorance. This solution necessarily involves food engineering and biotechnology, to create products that are very similar to meat in both appearance and nutritional value. In fact, they may be better. There is a whole field of research around creating, for example, the best veggie burger (Beyond Meat, Hilary’s).
If you look closely at consumer opinions of brands such as those mentioned above, you will see that there are all kinds: some seem not to want it to look like meat, others complain that it looks rather little like meat. This is where biotechnology comes in at its best, for according to the above definition of veganism, a hamburger produced by cell culture – with plant medium and animal stem cells, extracted respectfully and innocuously – could be considered vegan. This would be an impressive revolution in the current market, since the effects of contamination in the usual meat industry are well known (listeriosis, shigellosis, etc.), in addition to the moral implications mentioned above, which are becoming more and more widespread among the population.
NextGen Foods recently announced a significant increase in investment. They are trying to get a vegetable chicken, with the TINDLE branding. This is certainly impressive. They just opened and it looks like a very well achieved meat. On their website, they claim to have achieved this in a sustainable way, with 74% less surface area expended, 88% less CO2 emissions, and 82% less water than extensive chicken farming. Their nutritional values are balanced, avoiding chicken cholesterol and animal growth hormones. It is still limited to Singapore, but multiple options will become viable worldwide over the next few years.
Here we discuss only a few examples, but there are no clear limits to what biological and chemical engineering can produce. There is already evidence of the efficacy of heterologous expression of animal proteins in plants, which can lead to the development of substitute animal tissues in plants. All this must be taken with a grain of salt for the time being, and researchers must be left to do their work without trying to capitalize on incomplete work.