The Mad Mad World of Fake Meat

It must have been 2014 or 2015 when fake meat started to become big news. While photogenic, colourful ‘nourish’ and ‘rainbow’ bowls were all over Instagram encouraging us to eat plant-based, tangled up to some extent with the craze for clean-eating, vegan junk food suddenly exploded. There was tofush and chips, a seitan chicken shop and a vegan pub that served pulled jackfruit tacos (both in East London). Even Wetherspoons offered a vegan menu. Every week we were told about a new vegan meat substitute that was just as good as the real thing. Most recently, banana blossom has been touted as a way of making vegan fish substitutes. We all become increasingly aware of the environment and more amenable to reducing our meat and dairy intake, no doubt in part due to initiatives like Meat Free Monday and Veganuary.

Meat substitutes were a rather novel thing in the UK until quite recently. Quorn and Linda McCartney products were viewed as something you could feed vegetarians guests and tofu was something weird for hippies. Meat substitutes are however nothing new. They date back to seventh century China, following the arrival of Buddhism and vegetarianism from India. Buddhist monks developed fake meats made from tofu or seitan which were served at banquets to visiting guests.

Tofu is fermented bean curd, made from soy milk, curdled and pressed into curd. It comes in silken, soft and firm. Seitan is made from the gluten in wheat and is arguably one of the more popular meat substitutes currently. Tofu is eaten throughout China – Jade Rathore explains how making and eating tofu was part of village life where her parents grew up in rural China (Lott-Lavigna, 2019). They moved to the Midlands to start a tofu business in the 1970s. In Indonesia, tempeh is made from whole crushed soy beans, rather than soy milk. Jackfruit grows in south India and Sri Lanka, the latter also being home to banana blossom, where both are prepared in savoury curries.

Nut roast, if you want to call it a meat substitute was invented in 1906 by Harvey Kellogg, who belonged to the Temperance Society. Closer to home, products were developed in response to fears that the planet would be unable to feed the world’s population, an issue which intensive farming seemed to solve for a short time. In the UK, TVP or textured vegetable protein, made in fact from soy flour, was invented in 1960 by an agricultural commodities and food processing company. It comes in chunks and mince but it seems to have been rather eclipsed by its freezer dwelling sibling, Quorn.

Quorn (named after the Leicestershire village) was first sold in 1985. It is made of fungi or mycoprotein and it took twenty-five years and £180 million (or two billion pounds in today’s terms) to develop. 700 tonnes of Quorn products are manufactured each week at the company’s factory in Yorkshire. (They recently launched a vegan Quorn range, which took four years to develop.) In 1991, Linda McCartney launched her range of vegetarian products. Quorn initially made an alternative version of mince but Linda McCartney made burgers and sausages. (I was mightily amused to read that when visiting Stella in Paris, Paul McCartney always filled in a feedback card saying that the Eurostar first class vegetarian option would be better if they used Linda McCartney products. Paul and Linda also appeared in a Simpsons episode, telling Lisa about their products and claiming that if you played Maybe I’m Amazed backwards, you could hear a recipe for really ripping lentil soup.)

Greggs launched its vegan sausage roll in January 2019, in partnership with Quorn. Several years in the making, it is now one of their five best selling products. I shared one with a colleague and felt no desire to eat another. It tasted greasy and processed and I’d rather save my calories for puris. Rumours circulated that Piers Morgan had been paid by Greggs to express his irrational, Gammon-tastic rage; his outbursts only seemed to boost sales. (Other notable fake meat products include the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. There was quite a lot of fuss around the use of beetroot juice to mimic blood. Ugh. I always thought one of the advantages of vegetarianism was the absence of blood in what I eat)

The boom in demand for meat replacements is welcomed by animal rights’ activists and environmentalists alike: could this be the solution, if we can just get people to eat meat substitutes? But alas, the dieticians, doctors and nutrition experts shake their heads, pointing out that relying on swaps is risky and we shouldn’t assume things are healthier because they are vegan. Plant-based milks are often criticised as expensive water, containing but a fraction of the protein and B12 in dairy milk. (In theory, this could probably be remedied quite easily, at least the B12. No-one objects to nutrient-enriched plain flour or breakfast cereals.)

But what are we swapping? Surely no-one grabs a vegan sausage roll from Greggs as a healthy option, instead of a sweet potato falafel & beet smash salad from Pret? The latter is incidentally vegan too. Is it that difficult to tell the difference between a healthier and less healthy option? Would it be that much of a chore for people to eat more sweet potato falafel & beet smash salads with the odd vegan Greggs’ sausage roll as a treat? I don’t see the difficulty in eating more plant-based meals. Christ, office workers up and down the country are grabbing sweet potato falafel & beet smash salads, thinking, ‘Oooh that looks nice’. (I’d like to say well done to Pret for their efforts in supplying the nation with veggie and vegan lunches. Well done.)

The levels of fat and salt in some vegan products are often raised as an issue. Is this a criticism of vegan food or simply of our modern taste buds, of the ultraprocessed foods we are so used to eating? Therein lies my lacklustre attitude to meat replacement products and indeed my scepticism that I am supposedly missing out by not eating meat. People seem to love things in sticky sweet, vinegar-based sauces. I hate them – BBQ sauce, sweet chili sauce and Chinese stir fry sauces to name a few. I’m always disappointed by pulled BBQ jackfruit – it’s far too sweet and tastes processed. What is it about chewy in a sugary, vinegar-based sauce that people love so much? I’ll have a masala dosa, thanks.

It seems quite easy to point the finger at China and America rather than changing our diets. Americans have some of the highest meat consumption figures in the world, a country of 328 million eating 100-153 kg of meat per person per year. Furthermore, America extensively uses antibiotics in agriculture to promote growth and limit infections spreading between animals kept in artificially close proximity. Huge quantities of antibiotics continue to be used yet clear data is hard to obtain due to political interests; America does not seem to want to be transparent about its antibiotic use. (McKenna, 2019; Barnett, Gilbert & Spellberg, 2013) We cannot ignore the risk of increasing antibiotic resistance and what this means for the human race.

China may be home to the world’s oldest meat substitutes but it plays a big part in the ever increasing consumption of meat and the associated environmental impact. Reliant on imports from abroad to meet its food demands, much of the deforestation of the Amazon is due to Chinese demand for meat. While the last pandemic strain of swine flu began in the US, bird flu came from China and Covid-19 is thought to have originated in Wuhan’s wet markets. What China and America do with their animals has an enormous impact on the rest of the world.

Vegan or not, we’ve become ever more aware of the environment. We banned plastic straws almost over night and it’s commonly acknowledged that we need to reduce consumption of meat and dairy. Beef and dairy attract attention due to their carbon and methane footprint. Giles Coren, who used to mansplain how stupid vegetarians and vegans were, has now adopted Jonathan Safran Foer’s ideas of having a vegan breakfast and lunch. Now he mansplains how pointless vegetarians are, as they are not vegan.

Safran Foer discusses the different types of meat production and their impact on carbon and methane emissions. It’s a point I’ve heard from British farmers who resent being lumped in with US mega farms or those on deforested Amazonian land. He suggests that if people eat meat, it should only be from smaller, family-owned farms, where livestock are grass- rather than grain-fed. This is significant as huge quantities of grain and legumes are grown to feed livestock which could be used far more efficiently to feed humans. Furthermore, grazing livestock maintains healthy soil. It should however be noted that intensive farming is used in the UK, generally for pigs and poultry but there are reports of increasing numbers of large scale beef farms. Quite rightly, there is a strong voice of concern that farming in the UK must not be allowed to go the way of the US.

This model of vastly reduced meat consumption presents a conflict. On one hand, we float the idea of occasionally eating meat that is raised in a more humane way and minimises environmental impact. On the other, we have a planet of seven billion people with a seemingly insatiable appetite for meat, consuming 65 billion animals a year, producing more carbon than our transport combined.

Whichever way you look at it and whatever you eat, it seems clear that a radical shift is needed in the way the world eats. There are many voices in this debate and some of them are very much in favour of eating meat, yet they all agree that the entire food system is broken and that consumption must reduce. The farmer Simon Fairlie who runs (the vegetarian) Monkton Wilds Dining Room in Dorset estimates he eats meat twice a week and advocates a war-time approach to it; pointing out that rationing was in fact was very good for the nation’s health.

Professor Frederic Leroy advocates a re-boot of the world’s food supplies but takes issue with the Impossible Burger being given Champion of the Earth status by the WHO. He strongly objects to the idea that the answer to the world’s problems is eating ultraprocessed foods made by big business. While I have ranted before about ultraprocessed foods, I do wonder if it is a step in the right direction for now, a step to getting people used to the idea of plant based-foods.

Professor Tara Garnett, head of the Food Policy Research Network at Oxford University describes the current food production systems and resultant inequalities as ‘weird and unacceptable’. (I would agree that growing crops to fatten cattle to then feed to people is weird and unacceptable, let alone hugely inefficient.) “The solutions don’t just lie with producing more food but changing the systems of supply and access…’

Lab cultured meat has been suggested as the solution. The idea was developed by a Dutch man named William van Eelen who was kept as a prisoner of war in Japanese-occupied Indonesia during WW2. Treated brutally and almost starved to death, he noted how his captors treated animals even more poorly than humans. Haunted by what he had seen, he dedicated his life’s work to producing meat that did not come from an animal. Van Eelen was a teenage POW during the second world war yet we are not short of troubling images of animal treatment today. The documentaries Cowspiracy and What The Health made a lot of people very concerned about where their food came from, the treatment of animals and the effect it was having on the planet. Recent abuse of sheep and cows in UK slaughterhouses prompted calls for all abattoirs to be fitted with CCTV. Worryingly in the US, there is no single federal law regulating animal welfare and filming in slaughterhouses is illegal and covered by ‘ag-gag’ legislation in many states. In the UK we had the BSE or ‘mad cow disease’ scandal in the 1990s due to herbivorous cattle being fed parts of animal carcasses. The horsemeat scandal in 2013 revealed that many people were unwittingly enjoying horse lasagne. And let’s not forget that Covid-19 is said to have come from the wet markets of Wuhan.

Whether for environmental or animal rights reasons, lab cultured meat has been suggested as the solution to both save and feed the world without people having to really change what they eat. Work on lab cultured meat is largely centred in the Netherlands and Silicon Valley. How does it work? Cells are harvested from animals and cultured in the lab, growing together around a biodegradable scaffold. The resulting tissue can be stretched and moulded. There are however two main obstacles. Firstly, the tissue is grown in a nutrient bath containing foetal bovine serum, extracted from the blood of calf foetuses. My stomach turns and I think about how Frankenstein-esque it sounds. It could be something from a sci-fi horror written by a PETA activist, imagining a horrible dystopian future. It could however be argued that even using the serum, the total animal deaths and suffering would be vastly reduced and a synthetic serum could be developed in the future. (I wrote this in April 2020. Since then, Chase Purdy published a book called Billion Dollar Burger which claims that foetal bovine serum is now plant-based. Companies however remain tight lipped as to what exactly goes into their lab-based meat.)

The process is also hugely expensive. A £1000 burger developed by Mark Post and his team in Holland was cooked and eaten at a conference in the UK in 2013. It was deemed close to the real thing and Mark Post declared it to be a good start. In 2019 Liz Bonnin visited Just, a tech company in San Francisco for the BBC to try a chicken nugget made from cells taken from chicken feathers. Although very wary, she declared she couldn’t tell the difference.

The research continues. Modern Farmer, Oxford University and consultancy firm AT Kearney have all predicted that lab-grown meat will be widely available soon, with AT Kearney suggesting the date of 2040. This attitude of relying on scientific and technological innovation has however come in for criticism.

While we know that science and technology will change things and that we need innovation, we cannot rely on them to solve problems. It is suggested that confidence in science can make us complacent, assuming that it can clear up the messes we have made. According to Daniel Nyberg, professor of Business at the University of Newcastle in Australia, “We are basically trying to materially reconfigure the Earth so that we won’t have to reconfigure our economy,”. (Here it seems pertinent to raise the very limited success to date in the efforts to find new antibiotics as global resistance to them increases.)

Charles Derber asserts that the world’s countries are governed by neoliberal institutions which are designed to make the world safe for capitalism. “Innovation, in my view, is a language of legitimization of denial of structural forces that are really central to dealing with climate change issues,” (Makalintal, 2019).

It is capitalism that feeds America high fat, high sugar, ultraprocessed foods and it is capitalism that sells these products to the rest of the world. McDonalds, anyone? It is the appeal of capitalism and an affluent Western lifestyle that leads people to abandon their traditional diets to eat imported rubbish and increasing quantities of meat. And yet there is big money to be made in solving these problems. The Impossible Burger is perhaps a case in point.

Huge sums of money are being invested in lab cultured meat. Investments have come from venture capitalists, philanthropists, billionaires and even the US meat giants Cargill and Tyson. Yet it is these very meat companies who decided there was money to be made from industrially-produced beef and getting America regularly eating cheap beef opposed to regarding it as a luxury. It is these companies who set up systems which exploited both animals and workers in order to establish a cheap beef industry (Specht, 2018). (Slaughter houses in the US, like in the UK and Ireland depend on low-paid migrant labour.) It is no doubt these companies, who have a lobby powerful enough to keep slaughterhouse conditions and antibiotics data out of view of the American public. Even if lab-cultured meat were cruelty free, would I trust it in the hands of these companies?

But who knows what the future holds? In his mockumentary Carnage, Simon Amstell imagines a future where eating animals will be unthinkable and young people are left puzzled and horrified by the barbarity that people once considered normal. Safran Foer highlights the power of the consumer, suggesting that Greta Thunberg should call a beef strike. I suspect lab cultured meat might win with the consumer, over returning to more traditional diets. The Just test-kitchen chef who made Liz Bonnin a lab-grown chicken nugget was confident that as one generation dies off, we will be left with a new type of more ethically minded consumer. He might well be right.

You might wonder about my stance on food. I feel uncomfortable with my own vegetarianism, essentially viewing it as hypocritical. I do not agree with my consumption of dairy. While oat milk has a far lesser environmental impact, so many products contain palm oil and it is very difficult to know if it is sustainable palm oil or not. It is nigh on impossible to make ethical food choices on the whole – who knows what sort of conditions the worker who picked the cauliflower in my fridge works under? And that’s before we even get to avocados or almonds. I do donate money to the Ahimsa slaughter-free dairy farm in Leicestershire to try and offset some of my guilt and have been on their waiting list for years, suggesting that there is demand for cruelty free-milk and that many, including myself, would be willing to pay more for it.

Would I eat lab-cultured meat, if they used a synthetic bovine serum? I think I’d prefer something made from chicken feather cells. I imagine myself eating it tentatively, begrudgingly at other people’s houses, slightly freaked out by the texture, with a packet of Waitrose’s aubergine and feta burgers in my handbag, just in case.


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