a bloodless revolution
MEATLESS MEAT IS NOTHING NEW
But it is getting tastier and more popular
ONE NOZZLE moves back and forth piping red goo into a rectangle. Another follows adding white layers of a similar substance. The nozzles are labelled “muscle” and “fat”. A third, marked “blood”, works alongside them. They are part of a machine, developed by Redefine Meat, an Israeli startup, that can print a steak made entirely of plant-based ingredients.
This method may seem like something out of science fiction, but what it produces has a long history. For hundreds of years humans have sought alternatives to animal milks and meats because they were scarce and expensive.
During the Tang dynasty (618-907 ad), cheese was increasingly brought from Europe and India to China. Little dairy milk was available so the Chinese used the same method as Western cheese makers but substituted soya milk for cows’ milk to create their own “bean cheese”: tofu. During the late 19th century this gained, if not popularity, at least a certain acceptance in the West.
But in America the expansion of the railways, commercial refrigeration and intensive farming made meat cheaper and more readily available from the 1880s. One man was convinced this was a mistake. In 1896 John Kellogg, breakfast revolutionary, started to sell “Nuttose”. Around three years later he followed that with “Protose”, concocted from peanuts and wheat gluten. Both were marketed as the “perfect substitute for flesh food”.
Kellogg’s meat substitutes did not catch on, perhaps because canned, room-temperature, nut-flavoured slurries are not terribly appealing. Today others are proving more popular. Over 1,000 different plant-based meat products are available in America according to data from Instacart, a food-delivery company. Almond milk—which records suggest was first used in Europe during Lent in the 13th century—and its newer competitor, oat milk, are both growing in popularity. Between 2019 and 2020 total sales of plant-based food in America increased by 27%, to $7bn.
Plant-based food sales are expected to rise even further in part because of concerns about the environmental impact of the world’s diet. The global food system currently accounts for 21-37% of human emissions. The oecd, a club of mostly rich countries, reckons that growing, wealthier populations in developing countries will mean a 14% rise in global meat consumption by 2030.
Some in the rich world are reducing their meat consumption. Nearly one-third of Americans said they had eaten less meat in the past year compared with the year before, according to a recent survey from YouGov, a big cheese in the world of polling, many for environmental reasons. Flexitarianism—eating less meat rather than refraining from it entirely—will probably drive demand for meat-free products more than strict veganism, especially if companies succeed in producing steaks and pork chops in labs, without any involvement from animals. Those who insist on sticking to a meaty diet could end up looking pig ignorant.
ILLUSTRATIONS: MANUEL BORTOLETTI