New alternatives to butchering animals are being explored, such as cultured animal stem cells and genetically engineered plant protein, but are these convincing replacements?
Some big global food companies, backed by wealthy investors such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, are predicting a global revolution in the way we eat. ‘I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based’, says Mr Branson. What does he mean? There are two propositions on the table at the moment. The first, no-death or ‘clean’ meat, is still at the experimentation stage. The idea is to extract stem cells from live animals or butchered meat, culture them in either serum from cow’s blood, or another type of protein and sugar, where they will multiply and form an agglomeration that could be called ‘meat’, even if it isn’t meat as we currently know it.
The second proposition, ‘plant meat’, is essentially an updated version of the vegan meat substitutes that are made from highly processed powders of soya, maize, or wheat. In the past these haven’t looked or tasted remotely like meat, but in the US, the Impossible Foods company has made a big breakthrough. It’s making a ‘plant meat’ using a genetically engineered form of protein, soy leghemoglobin (SLH), a type of iron found in the root nodules of soybean plants, which it says gives the fake meat a ‘bloody’, meat-like taste and red colour. In burger form, it’s already on sale in a few restaurants in the US.
Neither of these death-free meats makes my gastric juices flow. Almost anything can be made palatable if it’s formed into a patty and served in a bun along with melting cheese and pickles, but isn’t real meat much more than a cellular protein sludge? Even the most brilliant food engineers can’t replicate the unique flavour and texture of a juicy chicken thigh or succulent pork belly. And of course, there are unanswered questions about how these ‘future meats’ might affect human health. Here, for instance, is what the US Food and Drug Administration says about the use of soy leghemoglobin (SLH) in plant meat: ‘The current arguments at hand were not enough to establish the safety of SLH for consumption.’
It’s terribly fashionable to adopt a ‘plant-based’ diet, but for me, the anti-meat critique is excessive. I’ve seen animals being slaughtered calm, and instantly. We shouldn’t use worst-case scenarios to damn all slaughter. And it seems to me that if you’re vegan, or hate the idea of killing animals for food, then it would be better to stick to a plant-based diet than eat imposter meat. I’m an omnivore, but I’d much rather become a vegetarian than eat these ultra-processed high-tech substitutes.
Almost bigger than my negative gut reaction is my problem with the terminology. If we surrender the definition of meat, we’re blurring a critical division between real food, as nature made it, and processed food, as redesigned in the lab. We traduce the very meaning of ‘meat’ by reducing it to disembodied components that can be tinkered with. I’ve seen several over-hyped ‘future food solutions’ come and go. Hopefully, artificial meat is yet another one.
Find out what the Impossible Burger tastes like.
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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.