Food Tech Industry Prioritizes Plant-Based and Clean Meats as the Future of Food

Food Tech Conference Embraces Vegan Meat
Beyond Burger image via klean_slate/Instagram

Think about the future. You know, that sci-fi kind of dystopian Mad Max world where human greed is our undoing. Or perhaps you think of a world that’s post alien invasion, meteor crash, or some other portentous fate where small bands of humans survive in between the ruins of lost cities and the forests renewed in their absence. Now, ask yourself this: what are those people eating?

Bugs? Each other?

If the world’s leading food scientists have any say in the matter, not only will we be eating pretty well, but we can avert at least some of the risks of a fallen planet in the first place, like those associated with climate change. But we have to embrace clean and plant-based meats to do it (the alternatives were bugs and other people, so easy, yes?)

“Now, it’s about saving the world,” says Emily Byrd, senior communications specialist at the Good Food Institute.

The organization, which works with scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs focused on clean meat and plant-based alternatives to animal products, is sending two of its top scientists to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Conference in Las Vegas next week (June 25-28) to present the latest information on clean meat and plant-based meat production, and why they’re such critical parts of the food system.

While the conference typically focuses on technologies like food flavorings and preservatives, this is the first time clean and plant-based meats will be major focuses at the event.

“We now have the ability to create food in a way that’s better for people, animals, and the planet,” says Christie Lagally, senior scientist at GFI who will be presenting at the conference. “Food scientists are recognizing the power they have to transform the food system for the better, and IFT is supporting educational efforts in this vein by giving a platform for conference participants to learn about sustainable food technology like plant-based and clean meat.”

Clean meat is gaining ground as the food technology that’s going to revolutionize our relationship with livestock animals. Brands like Memphis Meats are using a small sample of animal cells to grow meat via cultures, rather than raising the actual animals – clean meat creates a real meat product without the mess and risks tied to traditional livestock production. It’s as significant a technology as we’ve ever seen in food production, and certainly fits the bill for sci-fi future narratives. But what it isn’t is dangerous or apocalyptic, like our current meat, eggs, and dairy industries most certainly are.

Like clean energy, clean meat drastically decreases its environmental impact while still achieving its goal. It’s a lot like replacing the fuel in your car with a more sustainable power source — like an electric-powered vehicle, or one that runs on used vegetable oil. You won’t notice it when driving (except for maybe the lack of petroleum fumes and cost to fill the tank). You may even enjoy the experience more knowing that it’s better for the planet. Clean meat provides a similar experience – the meat is what you expect in taste, texture, and nutrition – but the animal waste, greenhouse gases, and animal suffering are all eliminated, as well as the risks associated with growth hormones, GMOs, and antibiotic resistance. The latter is such a worldwide issue that the World Health Organization has warned we’re now entering a “post-antibiotic era” if the livestock industry’s dependence on these critical drugs isn’t immediately addressed.

“There’s a huge portion of the anti-factory-farm movement concerned about antibiotics,” says GFI’s executive director Bruce Friedrich. “Clean meat has no antibiotics. It also require no genetically modified crops [more GMO crops are produced for farm animals than other sectors of the food system].”

Replacing industrial meat with clean meat is “a colossal win for getting GMO crops out of the marketplace,” says Friedrich, as well as for decreasing deforestation, and for increasing biodiversity, two factors also critical to avoiding a climate-change-induced apocalypse.

Plant-based meats on the other hand, aren’t just your hippie aunt’s lentil burgers (as good as those are). Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are turning well-known ingredients (peas, soy, beets) into truly meaty products — namely burgers at present, but many more products are in the works — that deliver a high quality experience when it comes to taste and texture, and a nutritionally and environmentally superior product when compared to animal protein.

Both clean meat and plant-based meat are the products of great technological efforts and years of research and testing. Even the world’s largest meat producer is taking notice. Tyson Foods recently invested in El Segundo, Calif.,-based startup, Beyond Meat, for a five percent stake in the company. Tyson also created a $150 million fund focused on sustainable plant-based food production. And if we want to meet the growing population and growing demand for high-quality protein, we’re going to need to turn to plants and tech to do it.

These food technologies were recognized by Google last year as being among the top trends in the tech sector. Yes, making meat without the animal is as significant as making the Internet search faster or electric cars more affordable. Quite likely more so.

“We’ve passed the tipping point for peak animal meat production, and we are out of land, out of water, and out of excuses for the global health crises that stem from intensive animal agriculture,” says Lagally.

If you look at the climate impact, the implications are substantial: by reducing or replacing our current meat production, we’d be able to meet or exceed our greenhouse gas reduction targets. Livestock production is responsible for at least 18 percent of greenhouse gases, while some experts suggest its as high as 51 percent. A healthier planet means more resources for other tech – that faster Internet speed, cooler eco cars, even space exploration to find those aliens that may eventually travel light years just to wipe us out. Maybe, though, they’re just hungry.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.