Hacking Meat

The $200 billion food industry in the United States is a broken system in terms of sustainability. Meat production today from traditional livestock sources is land, water, and energy-intensive, and produces harmful runoff and pollution. With a rising population and an increase in meat demand from a growing middle class worldwide, changes are undisputedly necessary. Now that that public opinion has slowly grown towards more environmental consciousness and demand for sustainable meat is rising, there is opportunity for innovators in this space.

For years, different products have attempted to take on the meat industry, with the most familiar example being soy-based meat alternatives like tofu. Recently, interest has been rising in other technologies and food innovations that aim to solve the problem of sustainability in meat production. Events such as the Hack//Meat hackathon, held in New York City in 2012 and Silicon Valley in 2013, prove that there is both interest and opportunity for entrepreneurs and innovators looking to solve the problem of sustainable meat production.

In addition to new mobile apps and web platforms designed to increase sustainability in meat production and help connect consumers to local and organic sources of meat, recent scientific breakthroughs and product ideas have the potential to change what consumers think of when considering “meat.” Now, it might be possible to have your sustainable burger and eat it too. On August 5, 2013, a group of tasters in London sampled the first burger ever to be developed in a lab. Scientists successfully grew the meat in vitro from cow cells, in a process that might not only produce less greenhouse gases and waste as compared to meat production, but also enables the reclamation of massive amounts of land.

As the in vitro meat was scientifically created, there are several possibilities for additives that could make this meat more than just sustainable. Scientists could possibly add omega-3 fatty acids while also reducing exposure to bacteria, disease, and dangerous chemicals like pesticides and fungicides. Nonetheless, the only way that in vitro meat can be competitive with meat is if the meat is the same in appearance, taste, smell, texture, and other related factors. The taste test in London showed that further work needs to be done on the cultured meat but that the science is well on its way to being successful. The three tasters pointed only to the dryness and the lack of flavor of the patty, a hopeful indicator that the test-tube meat might one day be comparable to real meat.

Other innovations are focused on commercializing more unconventional forms of meat. Namely, insects as a source of protein and nutrients are gaining visibility, especially after a May 2013 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report calling for an increase in insect farming and consumption to increase the sustainability of the food system. As the report points out, insect farming requires much less land and feed resources, and emits far fewer greenhouse gases than conventional livestock farming. Insects are also far more efficient at converting feed to protein than cattle, pigs, or chicken. While insects are already a substantial part of the diet of 2 billion people worldwide, entrepreneurs are trying to bring the concept to the remaining 5 billion. For example, World Entomophagy sells crickets and mealworms to be used in food, and Chapul and Exo produce protein bars that use cricket flour as a source of protein, iron, and calcium.

There is no question that these technologies and other innovations are necessary to feed the growing world population in a sustainable manner. The largest hurdle may lie in consumer perception and consumption. Food habits and patterns will not change overnight, and the meat industry makes up a significant part of the economy of the United States, which is the world’s largest beef producer. Furthermore, synthetic meat and insects are not currently seen favorably as food sources in countries where they are not traditional food staples. This presents a challenge for entrepreneurs to develop not only the technology, but the right business models and incentives to attract customers to these types of meat alternatives.

About the bloggers:

Shilpa Sure is a rising senior at the University of California, Berkeley majoring in Environmental Economics and Policy. She is a research intern at the Cleantech Group.

Juliette is a research intern at Cleantech Group for the summer, providing the research staff with support in research across multiple cleantech sectors. She is a rising senior at Wellesley College outside of Boston, Massachusetts where she is studying Applied Mathematics. In addition, she is pursuing a certificate in mechanical design engineering from Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. Juliette has technical experience working on research in wind, geothermal, and solar.