Humans use about 40% of the land as agricultural land, and if we remove from this indicator unsuitable or uninhabitable areas (the Arctic and arid deserts), then more than half. The agricultural lands have destroyed or transformed a vast number of the most productive ecosystems involved in forming and maintaining humane habitats.
In the middle of the agricultural sector, more than half of the land is used to feed livestock, not people. The law of the trophic pyramid has long been described in textbooks on ecology. On average, only 10% of energy is transferred from one trophic level to another, and 90% goes to physiological processes and products of life. That is, to get 1 kg of meat, you need 10 kilograms of grain. However, 10 kg of grain will satisfy the daily caloric needs of 5-7 people, and 1 kg of meat will not. The vast majority of ecosystems are destroyed or transformed into farmland for the sake of livestock. You don’t have to go far, looking for examples. From the gross harvest, Ukraine leaves for its own needs 20-22 million tons of grain, of which food is only about 5-6 million tons. That is, we feed 75% of the grain to cattle.
Thus, humanity needs to either abandon animal food altogether or look for some more effective alternative that would be able to “outwit” the trophic pyramid to return a large part of farmland to nature and thus save the global ecosystem from devastation and, on the other – to feed people.
In short, the main goal is to reduce the eco-footprint of food production. And it is this problem that various food biotechnologies are trying to solve, from cellular agriculture to chemical and enzymatic systems. It is with their achievements that I propose to read in this publication, which is a brief overview of English-language sources.
I will not go into too much technical detail in this publication, but will touch more on economic and environmental issues. So, let’s start the review with the most pressing issue – meat. Today, there are three main alternatives: vegetable “meat,” meat substitutes, and cultivated meat. The first two groups of products already cover a significant market share, although it is not always easy to find the difference between them. If we talk about vegetable “meat,” it is primarily products made from soybeans, peas, wheat, etc. For example, this includes soy burgers, sausages, cutlets, etc. So far, this is the most developed market segment. In 2020, its total amount was $ 4.3 billion. According to forecasts, its annual growth will average 14%, which will bring it to the level of 8.3 billion dollars. in 2025. The leading consumer of these products is Europe.
The problem with this alternative is the inability to fully copy the taste of the meat, which makes it less limited. Attempts to improve the taste of these products lead to their rise in price, which makes their price higher than ordinary meat. The main component of this area is soybeans, but recently more attractive and better quality products made from peas and their varieties, which to some extent improves the marketing prospects of this group. Read more here.
Another alternative is the so-called meat substitutes based on mushroom or vegetable protein (seitan, tofu, tempeh, etc.). The market volume of this group of products in 2021 is $ 1.9 billion, and the annual growth rate will be about 13.5% and will reach $ 4 billion in 2027. The leader in the production and consumption of these products are Asian countries. Modern technologies allow to reduce their production significantly, and in terms of taste, they are at least not inferior to vegetable meat, and even surpass it. Read more here.
However, the main competitor of both the first and second groups of products is cellular meat. Let me remind you that it is not a surrogate or a substitute, but really the muscle tissue of animals grown from their cells in special bioreactors on a nutrient medium. The nutrient medium is made either from crops (soybeans, corn, etc.) or from the biomass of algae, which are grown in special tanks.
So, on the one hand, this technology allows you to leave the meat with meat, and on the other – to “outwit” the trophic pyramid and reduce the environmental footprint. According to Oxford University experts, if all 27 EU countries completely abandon meat farming and switch to farmed meat, then total EU greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 43% per year, total water consumption will be reduced by 21%, and 38 % of EU territory will be exempt from commercial use.
The first startups are already entering the market of cultivated meat. According to forecasts, in 2025, the global market for these products will reach $214 million. Of course, this is a relatively modest amount, but its one-year growth by 2032 will be 15.7%, and in 2032, it will reach $ 593 million. Poultry production will be the most active, and the primary consumers of both farmed meat in general and poultry, in particular, will be the United States and Canada, which in 2021 will have the largest share of the market, which was actually just born. Read more here.
Figures of $8 billion and even more than $0.2 billion seem to be as small as children’s toys today compared to $838 billion – the amount of the market for meat production by current livestock in the world in 2020. But do not forget that now the changes in the world are happening very rapidly.
Technologies for the production of cultivated fish fillets and seafood are developed according to the same principle. This direction is most actively promoted in the United States. One of the advantages of such production is the coolness of marine organisms. Therefore, the energy consumption of bioreactors per unit of production should be lower than in the production of cultivated meat.
In vitro seafood production can help reduce the eco-footprint in the aquatic environment and save some marine organisms from extinction. The first achievements in this direction have already allowed obtaining salmon fillets, horse mackerel, carp, and shrimp. However, they are still being tested and are not sold. Crab and lobster meat is on the way.
So far, the market size of such products is not counted. Like any new product, cultivated seafood will initially be expensive, but it is obvious that as production increases, the price will fall. However, marketers fear a slightly different problem.
Many buyers perceive the natural origin of fish and seafood as a delicacy, which is primarily the reason for their popularity. Will buyers accept cultivated seafood? It’s hard to say. Therefore, their production should be accompanied by socially solid and eco-educational advertising. Given the slower development of this area compared to farmed meat and the current threat to many marine species, some environmentalists believe that the production of cultivated seafood should be combined as soon as possible with an improved legal framework to prevent overfishing. Read more here.
Animal products are not limited to meat and fish. Food technology is developing in other directions. Another original product is vegan eggs. This time the Swiss inventors stood out. The product is based on soy protein. Eggs have been sold in major cities in Switzerland since November 2021, although prices are still biting: the cost of one egg is about 1.1 francs. Before producing vegan eggs, a marketing study was conducted in Switzerland, according to which 30% of consumers were willing to buy such a product, but it simply did not exist. Now the product is there, and the only question is to improve and reduce the cost of production.
American innovators took a different path in creating eggs without chickens. A startup for the production of eggs based on mycoproteins, i.e., fungal proteins, has already been launched in the United States. Read more here.
Soy and nut milk has been known for a long time, but now milk made from oats is making a breakthrough on the market. Relevant dairy products are also made from it: yogurts, ice cream, custards, and spreads. One of the leaders in this direction is the Swedish company “Outi.” The environmental issue is one of the leading ones in the company’s policy, and it indicates explicitly indicates the eco-imprint of its CO2 products on the packaging.
By the way, conflicts do not bypass this direction. For example, some cow’s milk producers require that the word “milk” not be used on plant products of this type. Cow’s milk producers are in principle right, but this is unlikely to change the situation in this area. And of course, the chemical composition of such products also differs from natural milk and resembles it only in taste.
However, there is already such a recipe and technology for milk production without animals when it is difficult to prove that the product is not milk. Israeli scientists from the University of Tel Aviv have invented the ability to produce milk by microbiological means. They have bred a special strain of yeast that can be used to produce milk in bioreactors. Unlike vegetable “milk,” this yeast product is really milk in its chemical composition. At the same time, manufacturers can adjust its composition, for example, to make it without lactose. It is clear that the somatic cells of cows such kind of “milk,” of course, does not contain. At the same time, Israeli scientists emphasize the ecological component and the ethical one because it is a question of stopping the exploitation of warm-blooded animals in agricultural production. Artificial milk developers soon planned to reach a price that would not exceed the cost of cow’s milk. Read more here.
Cultivated meat or vegetable milk, in any case, requires basic vegetable raw materials, even in much smaller quantities than in classical animal husbandry.
However, technology has already been created that allows the production of basic organic matter from inorganic. This breakthrough was made by scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which synthesized starch from carbon dioxide. This technology is a decisive step towards autotrophic food production.
According to Chinese inventors, their technology is many times more efficient than the natural process. Natural photosynthesis requires about 60 chemical reactions, and scientists have found a “hybrid” solution, which they call a chemical-enzymatic system. Due to this, the number of critical reactions was reduced to 11. The production of starch by this technology is 8.5 times more efficient than its synthesis by corn.
Artificially synthesized starch has the same structure as natural, but its production requires a much smaller area. The annual amount of starch that can be produced in a bioreactor with a volume of 1 cubic meter is equal to the amount of starch produced by corn per 3,000 sq.m. Given the whole chain of the technological process (and not just the place occupied by the bioreactor), the technology reduces land and water use by 90%. Chinese scientists note that in addition to the apparent savings in resources, this invention makes it possible to avoid using pesticides completely. Read more here.
I guess some readers may have questions about the “health” of cultivated food. This issue is really debatable. However, the remark of Chris Braent, a researcher at the University of Bath, is correct: “Many people are worried that meat grown from cells is not natural. Of course, people rarely think about the fact that meat grown by current technology is definitely far from being natural! Animals are raised to gain weight unnaturally fast and are pumped in large amounts with hormones and antibiotics to make them grow faster. Pure [cellular] meat can actually avoid this practice. ”
Let’s try to look at the situation realistically. Primitive humans ate the cleanest food but rarely lived to 30 years. In the twentieth century, humankind has already eaten “chemistry,” used antibiotics en masse, and as a result, we have more than 7 billion people on the planet. This does not mean that natural food is bad. It means that everything has its time. People can and should be persuaded to give up or reduce their consumption of animal products, but most people will not be persuaded in short to medium term. Therefore, one of the main components of solving the problem may be biotechnological food. By and large, we have no other acceptable options; otherwise, the classic agricultural production and its related industries will eat and poison the global ecosystem.
It is clear that agriculture is unlikely to disappear completely. If biotechnology replaces livestock and even most cereals/legumes for direct human consumption, it is unlikely that drastic changes will affect vegetables and horticulture. Fresh fruits and vegetables are likely to remain a healthy food brand forever, especially when it comes to organic production. The latter can be a certain compensator for biotechnological cooking.
By the way, food biotechnology can free up space not only for wildlife but, to some extent, for growing organic products. It is also worth noting that biotechnological food will accelerate socio-cultural change, as most food production moves to cities. This will have a corresponding effect on the disparities between urban and rural populations. It is possible that the function of the countryside will change over time from food to environmental. Of course, it is difficult to predict how it will go next, so the views expressed in the publication are not valid in the last resort. The field for discussion remains wide. However, it is essential to note the following. The technologies described above do give a ray of hope, but one must be careful not to fall into the “heresy of techno-utopianism.” Their environmental efficiency is possible only in combination with educational, economic, and administrative-legislative instruments.
As an example, there’s the production of electric vehicles. Who could have imagined ten years ago that one developed country after another would start passing laws that simply ban the sale of cars with internal combustion engines in the period 2030-40?
The availability of technology that can solve the problem does not mean its application if society is not ready for such technology. A simple example: the availability of reliable and inexpensive contraceptives has not helped solve the problem of population explosion and famine in Africa. Moreover, a misunderstanding of the purpose of technology can exacerbate the problem.
“Green” revolution in agricultural production of the twentieth century had to solve the problem of hunger and instead caused a population explosion, because both individual nations and humanity as a whole believed in the “rubber” capacity of the planet, so little was done to address the causes of environmental threats: excessive appetites and thoughtless reproduction. If appropriate comprehensive measures are not taken, the introduction of the technologies described above carries precisely the same risks as the “green” revolution of the twentieth century.
Thus, if one of the main goals of food biotechnology is the liberation of territories from anthropogenic captivity to return to their nature (rewilding), then this goal must be persistently pursued through their implementation.
Restoration of wildlife in cities increases resilience to climate change. What to do to speed up this process? Read more here.