Those with even one toe dipped into environmentalism will be well aware of the dangers of 'big oil'. The drilling and consumption of crude oil has, over a period of centuries, contributed to a global environmental crisis, and even those with incredibly limited geographical knowledge would be able to tell you that an oil rig leads to potential harm to our environment. The same cannot be said for 'big meat,' an environmental burden than many of us either fail to properly understand, or willfully ignore as part of our wider lifestyle choices.
In fact, the mass production of meat and our consumption of it has a greater effect on the environment than the cars we drive. To rear a kilogram of beef protein, the process can generate the equivalent of 643 kg of carbon dioxide, with lamb coming in even higher at 749 kg. According to the Guardian, 'One kilo of protein from either source, in other words, causes more greenhouse gas emissions than a passenger flying from London to New York.' These are worst case examples, but even conservatively a flight to London from New York would average 4 kg of lamb protein in terms of carbon emissions. For contrast, this is the same as about 300 kg of vegetarian alternative soy protein.
The growth in global population means that combined, the consumption of meat at its current rate is unsustainable. Shefali Sharma, director of IATP's European office, told Futurism: 'Without addressing this massive growth in industrial meat and dairy, we are headed toward is global warming that is untenable for humans... If we are serious about dramatically cutting down our global greenhouse gas emissions to levels that can sustain humanity, then we will have to radically shift the way we produce and consume meat.'
The stage is set for a more environmentally friendly (and equally delicious) source of protein. To put it in business terms, the meat industry is poised for disruption. Much like in the case of sustainable energy, the industry for meat substitutes is relying on the gradual but sustained changing of attitudes toward the product, as the environmental impact of global meat consumption becomes clear and vegetarianism grows. In the US, some 3% of the population is strictly vegetarian, with worldwide estimates ranging from 40% in India to just 1.2% in Portugal. The number of both vegetarians and vegans has been on a sharp rise for a number of years now, with spikes particularly seen in urban areas and among younger people.
The growth of 'fake meat' could be comparable to that of renewable energy, though it is some stages further back in its development. Both have come about as a result of technological innovation, both offer benefits to the environment, both are potentially cheaper for customers as they develop, and both have seen key incumbents of the existing industry - oil and gas companies in the case of energy - investing more and more into the newcomer to avoid falling behind. With companies like Beyond Meat able to offer patties that contain more protein that a regular burger, the eventual upward trajectory of artificially created 'meat' seems inevitable. Even among those not naturally inclined to eat a meat-free diet, if the product is superior it will eventually take hold.
And the investment reflects the potential. Californian biotech startup Impossible Foods, for example, raised $75 million in August of this year, bringing its total funding to $257 million. The latest round included funds from the likes of Bill Gates and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. The burgers, which have the added realism of 'bleeding' when bitten into, are just one in a growing and varied list of companies producing meat substitutes, all with the goal of converting meat eaters into effective vegetarians. 'Our definition of success is: we score zero points if a vegan or vegetarian buys our burger,' Impossible Food's CEO and founder Patrick Brown told Quartz earlier this year. 'The more of a meat lover they are, the more they are our target customer.' If these companies can succeed in their ambitious long-term goal, fake meat has the potential to fundamentally change the way we eat.
'This technology we are hearing more about has the capacity to be a major disruptor to the worldwide beef industry,' said Tracey Hayes, the CEO of the Australian Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association - a body with a vested interest in promoting cattle farming. Having seen other, well established (and in some cases ancient) businesses disrupted and turned upside down by innovative technology, the livestock farming industry will be looking over its shoulder, wary of the threat posed by less problematic alternatives. Unlike the taxicab industry or the video rental industry, though, its difficult to see how cattle farming could be modernized in such a way that it satisfies the economic, environmental, and moral concerns people have with it. Short of jumping on the trend and developing meat substitutes of their own, any upheaval in consumer behavior could be disastrous for a long-established and gargantuan beef market.
The hit taken by the multibillion-dollar beef industry could have a detrimental effect on not just cattle farmers but entire economies. Australia's Northern Territory, for example, is famous for its cattle farming, with an indirect return to the state at around $800 to $900 million. Meat and Livestock Australia estimates that the gross value of cattle farming across the country is around $7.7 billion. Other revenues will pop up in its place, but any fake meat revolution would be a cause of serious concern to any government for which farming is part of the country's economic backbone.
Unfortunately for companies looking to make fake meat a viable option in a supermarket shop, attitudes toward meat consumption and environmental issues will need to come a long way before mainstream success can be achieved. The marketing potential for meat alternatives is huge, and curiosity will doubtless lead to early sales, but for long-term success, they will need to be offering a genuinely improved product. If you can offer a burger that behaves like, tastes like, costs less than, and is more environmentally friendly than meat, even the most ardent meat enthusiast would be persuaded. Global meat production is an industry crying out for disruptive change - its artificial counterpart could be set to take over.