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No more hamburgers? How ‘clean meat’ could transform our diets

For many, the hamburger’s combination of bun, meat and salad is the perfect marriage of simplicity, flavor and familiarity. Whether it’s a gourmet patty with shavings of truffle, or a cheap and cheerful offering from a fast food outlet, today’s diners are spoilt for choice.   

Our hunger for burgers does, however, have an impact on the environment. Take ground beef: it’s one of the key ingredients in a burger and comes from rearing cattle.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has previously said that emissions from global livestock amount to an estimated 7.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year.

Breaking things down, cattle — reared for beef, milk and manure, among other things — represent roughly 65% of emissions from the livestock sector.  

Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of the Brussels-based International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), said meat production has a major impact on climate change through three channels.

“First of all, livestock ruminates, and large amounts of methane gas is the result,” he told CNBC.

“Secondly, we need to produce feedstock for the animals — maize, soy beans in particular — and for this we need to clear large forest areas, so deforestation is driven by livestock production,” he added.

“And thirdly, we need to produce fertilizers to grow the soy beans, the maize from which this feedstock shall be made, and that too is a source of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Plant-based patties

Given the above, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some consumers are now trying to move away from meat, choosing plant-based alternatives instead.

Brands are making changes, too. Burger King, for example, now offers customers an Impossible Whopper made using a plant-based meat substitute from Impossible Foods. Elsewhere, fried-chicken giant KFC has used a plant based chicken substitute from Beyond Meat. Back in 2014, Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown spoke to CNBC

“Meat, as we understand it today, is from cows, pigs, chicken and such,” he explained.

“But if you look at what meat is, in terms of its constituent parts, and you break it down into amino acids, fats, water…trace minerals and carbohydrates, those things are not exclusive to animal protein, they’re not exclusive to animal muscle,” he added. “The aim is to collect those from the plant kingdom and assemble them in exactly the way that muscle assembles them.”

Meat without a farm?

While plant-based meat substitutes have become an intriguing menu option, lab-cultivated produce could also provide a way of giving people their “meat fix” without having to worry about the environment.

“We can take a biopsy from an animal… a few cells from an animal (and) bathe those cells in nutrients,” Bruce Friedrich told CNBC. He’s executive director of The Good Food Institute, a non-profit focused on plant-based alternatives to animal products and so-called “clean meat.”  

“Those cells will multiply and grow, we’ll end up with exactly the same meat but produced in a much more efficient way,” he added. “Far less climate change; no contribution to antibiotic resistance.”

A shift in attitudes

Looking to the future, there are legitimate questions about whether meat-based diets will eventually become a thing of the past. Could a more sustainable, less intensive approach be the key to keeping steak and chicken on the menu?

“We need to reduce meat consumption for sure, but the meat that we produce can be produced in a way that is very sustainable,” IPES-Food’s De Schutter explained, adding that animals were needed to fertilize soils.

“If we produce meat according to agro-ecological techniques, without resorting to industrialized production, we could have less meat perhaps, but better meat,” he added. “One that is far more sustainable in the way it’s produced.”

Plant-based savior?

It is unclear whether our diets will eventually exclude meat altogether, and be heavily reliant on plant-based produce; the answer may lie somewhere in the middle. For his part, De Schutter offered a note of caution when it came to alternative options.

“Because of the impacts of livestock production and the amount of land required to produce feedstock for animals, many people promote the idea of artificial meat,” he said.

“I believe we should be aware that these are extremely energy intensive processes, especially if they are developed on (a) large scale.”

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