In case you missed it, the world has a pig problem.
Over the past few weeks and months, swine populations have been hit hard. Some estimate we may have even lost a quarter of the total population.
The cause behind the wipeout? African swine flu, a deadly disease ravaging pig numbers the world over.
China though, more than most, is feeling the brunt of this crisis. Farmers in the Middle Kingdom have been struggling to contain the spread of the disease.
Pigs are dying at a rapid rate, and pork prices are rising because of it. This in turn, is putting pressure on other popular meats. Beef and poultry are already rising in demand and price to accommodate.
These flow-on effects aren’t just hitting China though. In our globalised world, the whole system comes to a grinding halt when it goes belly-up.
And for you and I, that means prices for meat are already on the up.
African swine fever may not have breached our borders, but its repercussions certainly have. Add in the crippling drought and it’s easy to see why things may get worse before they get better…
Naturally, this raises plenty of questions about the need for better food security. We’ve seen pandemics like this in the past, so isn’t it time we started combatting them?
Logically the answer is yes. Finding a solution hasn’t been easy though.
We were already struggling to feed everyone before the pigs started dying en masse. Crises like this disease just increase the burden.
But, we do have options available to us.
Food science is entering a new golden age. Offering up new and exotic solutions to the hungry masses. And in 2019 the meat mantra has certainly been: fake it ‘til you make it…
Move over meatlovers
Plant-based meat has undeniably gone mainstream this year. Products that are made to look and taste like real animal flesh.
Now, by no means is this a new idea. ‘Fake meat’ has been around for quite some time. It’s just that most of the products tasted like utter tripe.
Trust me I’ve been down that road before. In years gone by, anyone who tried to defend fake meat was simply deluding themselves.
Today though, the tables have turned.
Earlier this year I tried a Beyond Burger, one of the plant-based patties that has rocketed into the zeitgeist. Although I could still tell it wasn’t ‘meat’, I was left impressed. Unlike the crappy products of yesteryear, it actually tasted good.
Clearly I haven’t been the only one left impressed either. In the US, the number of people giving fake meat a test run is much higher than I expected. Look at the data:
Source: Business Insider
It is this consumer curiosity that is prompting a food revolution.
Just this week Domino’s unveiled their latest plant-based pizzas. A new vegan-friendly range that replaces topping staples like ham and pepperoni with meat-free alternatives. Even the cheese passes the vegan test.
This comes after the chain practically sold out of their plant-based beef topping just a few weeks earlier. And Domino’s says it’s not just the vegans getting on board with these new pizzas. A new wave of ‘flexitarians’ (occasional meat eaters) are also ready and waiting.
Domino’s aren’t the only brand capitalising on this fake meat trend either. Companies like McDonalds, Hungry Jacks (Burger King), KFC, Nestlé, and Tyson Meats all have or are working on plant-based products.
The future of meat, it seems, is less about flesh and more about flattering foliage.
And maybe, just maybe, it can help us avoid scenarios like our current pig problem.
Out of the field and into the lab
The more I look at the industry of farming, the more unsustainable I see it. I’m talking almost exclusively about animal husbandry here too.
People can and will argue ‘til the cows come home (literally) about the impact of rearing animals for slaughter. I’m not going to deny that it is a resource intensive industry, but neither will I deny its necessity to feed us.
The world would be a very different place without the meat trade. One that could be better or worse. It is impossible to say given how fundamental it has been to modern civilisations for thousands of years.
When you tinker with the bedrock, the whole mountain moves.
Now though, we are reaching a point where farming is quickly becoming obsolete in my view. There will come a period where livestock just won’t be feasible anymore.
See, the reality is, growing an animal for slaughter has its fixed costs and, more importantly, takes time. All the fancy machines in the world can’t change the fact that life takes time to grow and develop. Nor can it escape the fact that life is fragile.
As this swine fever has shown, it is the animals themselves that are the biggest risk to farming. And also, to food security.
That is where plant-based meats come into the picture. They are finally proving that alternatives to meat are possible. Products that don’t need to rely on the fragility of rearing a lifeform to maturity.
Yes, technically the plants are still ‘alive’. Meaning they are prone to many of the same problems as animal agriculture. The difference in efficiency, though, is stark. As one 2017 report found:
‘With these numbers, we can conclude that plant-based agriculture grows 512% more pounds of food than animal-based agriculture on 69% of the mass of land that animal-based agriculture uses.’
In other words, plants yield far more overall food whilst also requiring less resources.
Now that we are closer to making it taste like meat too, the argument becomes moot. Plant-based meat will only become cheaper and better with time.
But it doesn’t stop there either.
The real goal is to eventually produce meat in the lab. A process that won’t even need to ‘fake it’, we could just grow flesh rather than the whole animal.
Just like plant-based products, it will rapidly become cheaper and accessible. Who knows, it may even be the solution to solving world hunger.
If I was a farmer I’d be worried. I just can’t foresee how they will be able to compete.
As for the emerging food science companies and conglomerates…well, I’d be putting my money on them to bring home the bacon. Fake or otherwise.
Editor, Money Weekend
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