The end of meat?

A growing number of us are reducing our meat and dairy consumption. What are the alternatives and can we really save the planet by abandoning animal protein?

Perry Rudd, Head of Ethical Research, Rathbone Greenbank Investments

At the Lao Café, Covent Garden, diners are tempted with an unusual side dish from Thailand: malang tod — seasonal insects fried with herbs.

The “bug” is catching across the capital’s restaurant scene, with avocado topped with grasshoppers at London Bridge’s Santo Redemio Mexican restaurant, crunchy fried pupae in a salad at the Greyhound Cafe in Fitzrovia or fudge topped with wood ants at London Bridge’s Native.

In November Sainsbury’s became the first UK supermarket to stock edible bugs when it began selling Eat Grub’s Smoky BBQ Crunchy Roasted Crickets.

Insects may be novel as a food form in most of Western Europe, but this is not the case in many other parts of the world. It is estimated that approximately two billion people around the globe already include insects in their diet and that there are over 1,900 edible species.

Termites taste like mint (apparently). Sago grubs — eaten across Southeast Asia — and tree worms have a bacon flavour. Stink bugs remind people of apples. Red agave worms are spicy. And Australian sugar-ant abdomens taste of sherbet. It is a whole new world of flavours.

The appeal of this food form is obvious, at least in a couple of respects. Insects have high protein. Crickets, for example, contain similar levels of protein per kilo to beef. Some species of Venezuelan termite are as much as 64% protein by weight.

Insects are also rich in essential amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids. Some are also very high in iron: mopane caterpillars, found in Africa, contain 310g per kilo, around five times more per kilo than beef.

Because they are cold-blooded, insects require less energy to maintain their internal body temperature. This means that, unlike cattle, they are efficient at converting feed into edible body mass. Crickets require around 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of meat, around 80% of which is edible. Cattle require four times as much feed and only 40% of the animal can be consumed. Insect diets can also include animal waste and plants that are inedible to humans. On top of all this, they have much shorter life cycles, so they can be reproduced much more quickly.

In short, they are a much more efficient way to generate valuable proteins for a growing global population — and much less harmful to the planet.

What’s wrong with meat?

The problem with cows is rather embarrassing. They are prone to flatulence. They also burp a lot. In fact, some researchers estimate the average cow burps 600 litres of methane a day. Added to what is coming out of the other end, this means that cows may emit as much as 750 litres of methane a day. Scientists in California have discovered that mixing seaweed in their diet can help reduce that figure, but this is no large-scale solution.

There are 1.5 billion cows in the world, most bred and raised for the meat industry. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), they are responsible for nearly 15% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions — in other words, those caused by human activities.

Meat and dairy are responsible for a disproportionate amount of agricultural emissions, 60%, despite producing just 18% of the world’s calories. Livestock farming takes up 70% of agricultural land use. Many argue that much of that land would be better used growing crops, if only the world would turn vegan.

Heated debate

As the problem of global warming looms larger, the question of diet becomes more intense. Global temperatures are on average 0.8ºC higher than they were in the pre-industrial period. That may not sound much, but at current levels of emissions we are on track to hit 3ºC in just 80 years.

The UN Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emissions pledged to keep the figure “well below” 2ºC, but even limiting it to 1.5ºC would still make the planet warmer than it has ever been in human history.

The consequences of global warming are well known: dead coral reefs, ocean acidification, droughts, water shortages, poorer crop yields and greater risk of extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires.

Last year Science reported research from scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damaging impacts of farming. They claimed that avoiding meat and dairy products was the single biggest thing an individual could do to help reduce environmental harm — far more effective even than reducing air travel or buying an electric car.

A study led by Oxford University’s Joseph Poore found that cutting out meat and dairy products reduces an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73% and would reduce the global amount of land used for farming by 75%.

Such is the efficiency of a vegan diet that a separate report suggested that Britain would need only three million hectares of the 17 million it currently uses to be completely self-sustaining.

Little wonder, then, that veganism is winning so many converts. One study found that there are now 3.5 million vegans in the UK. One in eight Britons is now vegetarian or vegan. Many more are reducing meat in their diets. One in five is now flexitarian, eating a predominantly vegetarian diet with the occasional inclusion of meat.

Alongside this trend has been the rapid growth of meat substitutes. Sales of Quorn, which is made from a protein derived from a microfungus, rose 12% in the first half of 2018.

Companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have managed to replicate the taste and even the appearance of beef with plant-based products, inspiring several of the UK’s leading supermarkets to launch “bleeding” vegan burgers.

Going even further in the quest to replicate the real thing is lab-grown meat. By creating muscle tissue from a stem-cell sample, it is possible to “grow” a steak. In the concept’s infancy the costs were astronomical — a single beefburger was priced at £192,000 — but they have fallen since, and the industry is attracting significant venture capital investment.

Challenges

Meat and dairy alternatives are not without issues. The growing popularity of soya is leading to deforestation in Brazil and other countries. Eco-sensitive consumers have to check packaging to ensure that soya ingredients have been sourced sustainably.

Almond milk, a popular substitute for cow’s milk, has come under the spotlight for requiring large quantities of water when it is mostly produced in drought-prone California. And scientists have questioned whether the electricity used to create lab-grown meat will make it more environmentally harmful than the real thing.

Others challenge the rationale for removing livestock from the food chain. Farmers and conservationists Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell turned their conventional farm on Knepp Estate in West Sussex into a 1,400-hectare rewilding project where English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, ponies and deer now roam freely. Doing so has dramatically improved biodiversity and has been enormously beneficial for the estate’s topsoil.

Tree and Burrell draw attention to FAO reports that estimate that 25 billion to 40 billion tonnes of topsoil is lost to erosion each year and that the only way to reverse the process is to let arable land lie fallow and return it to grazed pasture for a period, as farmers used to before artificial fertilisers and mechanisation made continuous intensive cropping possible.

The solution to sustainably meeting the world’s dietary needs is obviously complex. What is clear is that if we are to meet climate-change commitments then we need to eat less meat. It may be some time before insects become a mainstream ingredient in Britain, but the rise of palatable meat alternatives is making the transition towards a more plant-based diet much easier for many carnivores.