An illustration of a factory conveyor belt: on the left, chemical beakers and petri dishes of ingredients go in; on the right, hamburgers come out

Is veganism really the answer to our food crisis?

Meat production constitutes a tremendous percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. But with global demand increasing, argues WIRED editor and The Future of Food author Matthew Reynolds, science will need to get creative in order to keep meat on the menu.

Matthew Reynolds

I have a nagging feeling that I may be a bad vegan. Despite avoiding meat for eight years – and going fully plant-based for the last three – I don’t think I’ve convinced a single person to join me in giving up meat. In fact, I’m worried that I may be having the opposite effect.

When I showed a friend an early draft of my book, which is all about how we can use science to reduce the environmental impact of our food, they pointed out that I write an awful lot about how in the future we will likely eat meat grown in all kinds of fascinating ways. For a vegan, I am suspiciously obsessed with finding ways for people to carry on eating meat.

It’s not that veganism isn’t great. If you’re considering it, go for it; cutting out meat and dairy could slash the carbon emissions associated with your diet by half, and for many people, switching to a plant-based diet is the single most important thing you can do to lessen your impact on the environment.

'It's quite clear just how outsized the impact of meat is; more than half of all the greenhouse gas emissions from food are linked to meat production.'

Much of this increase will come from today’s low- and middle-income countries where wages are rising and future population growth will be concentrated. To get a sense of where the rest of the world is heading, just look at China’s meat supply, which skyrocketed from 14 kilograms per person in 1977 to over 61 kilograms in 2017. This rising tide of meat is enough to counteract trends in the US and parts of Europe where per capita meat consumption has stabilised at very high levels and diners are swapping red meat for poultry. Globally, our desire for cheap meat isn’t going anywhere. Unless we insist that people in the developing world forgo the meat-rich diets that rich people elsewhere in the world have been enjoying for decades, then rising meat consumption is simply a fact of the future.

This is why alternative ways of producing meat will become an important part of tackling the climate crisis. The rise of alternative meat in the last decade is perhaps best represented by two companies: Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. These companies understood what previous plant-based firms failed to grasp: that the real opportunity in plant-based meat isn’t in satisfying vegetarians, it’s convincing omnivores to swap their burger to a cow-free patty once or twice a week.

Yet, next to the $170 billion-a-year US meat market, plant-based alternatives are still a rounding error. Even if you add up all plant-based alternatives to animal products, they only accounted for sales of $7 billion in the US in 2020. Despite this modest starting point, the success of Impossible and Beyond shows what happens when you create plant-based products that meat eaters actually enjoy eating. In the UK, McDonald’s is just about to launch a plant-based burger in collaboration with Beyond Meat. For the first time in the fast food restaurant, plant-based options won’t be relegated to a forgotten corner of the menu; they will be a clear alternative to meat.

'Alternative ways of producing meat will become an important part of tackling the climate crisis'

Even more exciting is the potential of cultured meat: real flesh that is grown in bioreactors instead of inside an animal’s body. This isn’t vegan by any stretch of the imagination – the starting point for cultured meat is a small sample of cells usually taken from a living or recently-deceased donor animal. What it could be, however, is a way to grow meat that has a much smaller carbon footprint than conventionally-reared animals. Without real factories producing cultured meat at scale we still don’t know what the carbon emissions of cultured meat will be, but it’s likely that growing a meat like beef in a bioreactor will result in significantly lower emissions and land use (not to mention circumventing animal slaughter).

One cultured meat product has already been approved for sale in Singapore: chicken nuggets made by the San Francisco-based start-up Eat Just made their debut at the restaurant 1880 in December 2020. But the technology faces significant challenges before it is ready to be widely sold and consumed. The cost is still eye-watering compared to traditionally-reared meat, and producing clear cuts of meat like a sirloin steak or a salmon filet poses significant hurdles. For the time being, the most easily-cultured meat products are likely to be ground beef, chicken nuggets and sausages: forms of meat that are already extremely cheap and fairly easily replicated with plant-based proteins.

Perfecting cultured meat will mean reinventing agriculture within a Petri dish, and that will require significant government funding to overcome some of the basic scientific hurdles that still remain. With the notable exception of Singapore, New Zealand and the Netherlands, very few governments have been willing to put money towards cultured meat – a decision that is already delaying a potential future of low-carbon meat.

'Solving the problem of meat’s colossal carbon footprint will take a combination of approaches'

While we are waiting for this technology to get cheaper, there are other ways we can reduce the emissions from meat. If people can’t be convinced to cut out meat altogether, asking them to switch from beef to a less carbon-intensive animal such as chicken or fish can still have a big impact. Finding smarter ways to farm fish that will mean no longer catching vast amounts of wild fish simply to feed them to caged fish can also help reduce emissions from seafood even further.

It’s not enough to simply ask people to eat less meat and hope they will listen. Solving the problem of meat’s colossal carbon footprint will take a combination of approaches: diet changes, innovative new forms of protein and lower-carbon ways of raising animals. Only by getting realistic about where meat consumption is now, and where it’s headed in the future, can we stand any hope of reducing the long shadow that our diets currently cast on the planet.

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Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

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