Are synthetic meat and milk really the way to feed the world?
Is eating synthetic meat “the vaping of the smoking world?" asks Kim Hill.
“I’m not sure who would eat it. Nobody I know wants to. If they are vegetarians why would they want to eat something which imitates meat?”
Chef and culinary writer Ray McVinnie imagines a future in which synthetic meat might be the choice of those who have no alternative because they’re poor, while rich people will continue to eat real meat despite the greater cost.
At present, however, artificial meat is far from being a cheap and plentiful option for those on a tight budget.
According to Professor Martin Cole from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, “synthetic meats and milks have a lot of money being invested in them, but I don’t know whether they might be a fad.”
Part of such products’ current popularity may be simply a result of their novelty.
Cole had the Impossible Burger in Seattle recently from an eatery where people were queuing out the door for a meal which was far from inexpensive.
Although it tasted ok, it wasn’t to him anything like the real thing.
In place of a ground beef patty, the Impossible burger contains water, textured wheat protein, denatured coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavours, leghemoglobin from soy, yeast extract, salt, soy protein isolate, konjac gum, xanthan gum, vitamins and zinc.
Leghemoglobin is a vat-grown, genetically engineered form of the heme iron found in the root nodules of soybean plants.
To Kim Hill, this all sounds vile.
She asks “why on earth would you go to all that trouble to imitate something badly?”
Ray McVinnie doesn’t think that something is good just because it’s new, and this innovation seems to him to be just another extrapolation of the processed food industry which burgeoned after the Second World War.
If he saw any such list of ingredients in yoghurt or whatever he’d be avoiding it: “I’d be putting it back on the shelf. I don’t want to eat that stuff. I just want to eat food.”
Although artificial meat may be an extension of the whole TV dinner/instant pudding thing from previous decades, Kim Hill still wonders if synthetic meat and synthetic milk isn’t a reasonable answer to the problem of how we’re going to feed billions of people by the year 2050.
Martin Cole agrees that current farming practices have been developed at a big cost to the planet, but in aiming to halve our environmental footprint he feels that getting rid of meat is not the single answer.
Rebalancing our diets so that they are kinder to the planet and better for our own health would go a long way.
Food waste is a big problem right now, as well.
In fact, says Otago University’s Dr Miranda Mirosa, it’s also the solution, given that we waste a third of the food that we make.
Just half of that wasted food would feed the world. So how could that change?
She says that at a household level, effective action is surprisingly straightforward.
“The Love Food Hate Waste campaign has been running for three years in New Zealand and it’s got a whole lot of very simple tips – keeping a shopping list, making a meal plan, good rotational management of the fridge. Eating leftovers. Cooking the right portions. Simple solutions.”
If low-tech approaches can have an impact on the future of food, so too can high-tech, according to Professor Caroline Saunders from Lincoln University.
The most obvious example of this is the benefit of gene editing which she says basically fast-tracks normal breeding programmes, enhancing desirable attributes without the negative consequences of the earlier forms of genetic modification.
Technology can also help New Zealand develop market strength by focusing on the value chain – delivering food to international consumers in a form they want, and with the story of its production made clear.
At a time when middle-class consumers throughout the world are increasingly concerned about provenance, knowing where food comes from and how it gets to them, the use of QR codes on promotional and packaging material can be powerful.
Once scanned by a consumer’s phone, these barcodes can provide the buyer with immediate access to a lot of information about the product, and the facility to order it immediately.
The food grower can develop a close connection to the food consumer in a way which would have been impossible a few years ago.
One of Saunders’s favourite discoveries was in a South Korean subway.
She explains “there’s a billboard there, you click on the QR code on it. Pictures of food. Delivered to your house in 15 minutes.”
With such virtual supermarkets growing round the world, why, she asks, hasn’t New Zealand got one?
This session was recorded by RNZ in association with the New Zealand Food Safety Science & Research Centre