The high-tech startup world is now a huge part of an industry set to be worth hundreds of billions
High society wants its fine foods to be ethical, according to a 2019 study from the University of British Columbia. And what qualifies as ‘ethical’ is now going much further than free-range chicken or grass-fed beef. Caviar has long been associated with luxury by some who delight in the unique tastes of the unfertilized eggs of certain fish. But according to the CEO of Exmoor Caviar, a major sturgeon caviar producer in the UK, it is fast becoming unacceptable to eat traditional caviar as the intensive farming operations required to harvest the eggs are getting a second look by more socially-aware consumers. Ethical food is becoming big business, and Exmoor now has a second firm called Caviar Biotech which has pioneered the ability to grow caviar outside of the fish itself. Using a process too technical for most of us to fully comprehend, they effectively create faux caviar made from the building blocks of real caviar. This bio caviar is expected to be on shelves by 2023.
The days of sipping champagne while enjoying luxury animal-free cell-grown beluga caviar are just around the corner, but you can already reduce your carbon footprint while savoring the flavors of steak, lamb, or other meats that are totally plant-based. And no, we’re not talking about the famous Impossible Burger – this new ‘alternative meat’ is what some have termed a whole new animal. Imagine a vegan kebab that’s so similar to the real deal that even a butcher could hardly – if even – tell the difference. That’s the kind of progress that is being made by high-tech startups, several of which are based in Israel, that are hard at work producing the meat of the future. Unlike some companies that are attempting to grow meat from cells, so-called ‘cultured meat,’ this ‘alt-meat’ is entirely plant-based and therefore vegan. These vegan kebabs, vegan steaks, or vegan sausages are made using a variety of methods but one breakthrough process is printing the meat with a 3D printer. Printing out layers of plant-based ingredients allows the manufacturers to add textures and flavors in a way that has never been possible before.
The race is unquestionably on for viable alternatives to animal protein. Both upscale and everyday consumers increasingly have a long list of food demands: chemical-free, non-GMO, organic, ethically produced, and sustainable – and meat that meets those requirements pretty much doesn’t exist… so many ethical consumers are going meat-free. The good news is that with high-tech substitutes, there’s no need to sacrifice. All the flavors and textures most of us crave are still here, in a 3D printed vegan form. Meat consumption has always been problematic and many readily admit that it’s time we all gave the traditional meat industry some serious thought. We like to crouch our unease (at least in the English language world) with “fancy” terms for animals after they have been turned into food. Poultry instead of chickens or turkeys, pork instead of pigs, beef instead of cows, etcetera. There is obviously something that causes unease in many people about eating animals… and you can see evidence of that the first time you tell a six-year-old where chicken nuggets come from. Speaking of youth, we are seeing an unprecedented explosion in younger generations taking up veganism both as a rejection of the cruelties of factory farming and also due to an awareness of the horrific environmental results of the meat industry.
But the jury is still somewhat out on whether people are willing to go all-in for lab-grown meat. A 2020 study found that 72% of 18-to-25-year-olds in Australia say they aren’t quite ready to accept lab-grown meat. Such reservations have been expressed by people all over the world as the technology still strikes some as questionable. However, plant-based 3D printed meat doesn’t raise any “Franken-Meat” type fears and has so far proven to be a hit with pretty much everyone – except perhaps militant vegans who have reportedly complained to companies such as Israel’s Redefined Meat that their vegan meat products are too meat-like. Lifestyles are changing. And naturally among the biggest lifestyle choices, one can make is related to their diet. The first wave has long passed, and the push away from wasteful over-packaging, or bans on environmentally-harmful plastic straws is now “normal” in many places. We also mostly demand the labeling of products, asking are they – for example – fair trade? We likewise note the origins of the meat and ponder the certifications of meat producers. But we now stand on the precipice of a much larger shift. Over the next decade, meat substitutes are tipped to become an industry worth well over US$150 billion globally and have already begun to be seen as a status symbol or virtue symbol amongst ethical consumers. This is a good thing and not a sign of being haughty or self-righteous – it’s merely the next step in an evolution of awareness. It’s hard to imagine it in the year 2022, but by 2072 we may look back at meat-eating the way we look at smoking today, with some revulsion, and serious questions as to why we encouraged and tolerated it for so long.