Meat substitutes – prospects and new ethical questions

Nigel Latta tells us about a plant-based meat substitute – chicken-free chicken – produced by  SunFed meats. This is an example and not meant as an endorsement of any specific product.

I am deeply ashamed of it now – but at the time it seemed like an experience I couldn’t afford to miss. It was so exotic – and I was travelling.

Twenty years ago I ate at a restaurant in Johannesburg, the Republic of South Africa,  which specialised in meat dishes – from game animals. It was a real feast. Stews of ostrich, zebra, hippo, giraffe and other animal meats. Not something us New Zealanders normally experience.

But I no longer eat animal meats – and haven’t for several years. My decision is based on ethical considerations. So you can understand my shame.

Some might call me a weirdo – but I do not think my ethical decision is really all that unusual. Vegetarianism, veganism and similar dietary approaches are relatively common these days. And I think there are many more of us who resist labels but wish to avoid animal meats for basically ethical reasons. Even if only reducing animal meat consumption to rare occasions.

However, in common with others who avoid eating animal meat, I am surprised that there are still so few choices for us. Restaurant menus only seem to give token recognition of our existence, if at all, and the dishes on offer are often uninspiring.

On the other hand, there does seem to be a renewed interest in meat substitutes. Not only for health reasons but also because of the growing appreciation of how animal-based agriculture is harming our environment. Even in little old New Zealand which usually insists it is “clean and green” but is also proud of its efficient and intensive animal-based agricultural industry.

I welcome that interest. These days I have no problem finding or producing tasty plant-based meat substitutes for myself but it has taken some research effort. Products on supermarket shelves are few and far between. However, if you believe some recent news reports the arrival of tasty meat substitutes is so imminent the established agricultural industry is starting to worry.  A recent report citing an agribusiness spokesperson, Ian Proudfoot, reckons:

New Zealand meat and dairy producers needed to identify what level of risk the products presented for their industry and plan accordingly.

The threat of vegetarian alternatives to meat products was looming as companies were beginning to create products that would genuinely appeal to consumers, Mr Proudfoot said.

For example, US company Impossible Foods has developed a plant-based food that is said to closely resemble the taste and smell of meat – and has attracted $US150 million in investment.

“This is definitely going to happen in the next five years and it could start to happen in the next two to three years.”

He said in the dairy sector, New Zealand would have multiple alternative milk products – such as almond and hemp milk – competing with it, all of which were designed to meet specific consumers’ desires.

The current alternative meat market was less of a threat because it was aimed at wealthy consumers. However, this would change as the new “alternative protein” companies were bought up by bigger players in the food industry, he said.

What about animal-based meat substitutes?

The company Sunfed Foods is producing plant-based meat substitutes. However, it’s founder Shama Lee says there are another two alternatives:

  1. Cultured meats – these are grown from starter cells taken from animals such as stem cells. This is the method Sergey Brin bankrolled to produce his rich-man’s hamburgers, and
  2. Bioengineered meat – where animal protein is grown from a bioengineered culture of yeast cells.

These alternatives may be a bit further down the line but could be in your supermarkets in 10 or 20ears.

I don’t doubt the possibilities – but I will believe it when I see it. I know for a fact that it is possible to produce very tasty plant-based meat alternatives but our supermarkets are hardly swamped with these products. In most cases, they still need to be home produced in New Zealand. So will cultured meat products get the supermarket shelf space – especially if competing with traditional meats?

Still, such products should solve the ethical dilemma many of us face. We would be able to eat “real” meat without worrying about how the animals had been treated and slaughtered.

Is there a new ethical dilemma?

OK, if I am still around when it happens I may be able to take part in a feast of stews like that in Johannesburg but using cultured meat instead of real animal meat. I could still get to taste the ostrich, hippo, zebra and giraffe stews without any feelings of guilt.

However,  will it stop there? We could go even more exotic.

Just think about it. We could also produce cultured meat using starter cells from humans! Imagine eating human meat knowing that nobody had been harmed in the preparation of the product!

Would this make cannibalism respectable? In fact, who could resist such artificial human meat – it would be so exotic.

And once more people got a taste for cultured human meat – will there be some adventurous people wanting to eat the “real” meat – uncultured human meat?

The mind boggles! One thing for sure – like all human advances there will be new ethical questions. And, no doubt, ideological groups and religions willing to use these ethical issues to promote guilt.

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2 responses to “Meat substitutes – prospects and new ethical questions

  1. I can’t see artificial human meat catching on, somehow

    How would we know that it tastes like the real thing? Who would check?

    Like

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