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The Future of Meat


Many of us have eaten meat our whole lives without giving much thought to where it comes from, how it is raised, or its impact on the environment. This may not be sustainable behavior in the future.

Sustainable is the keyword. Before we dive into that, let's consider the current state of meat by the numbers in the US and around the globe.

  • The USDA reports that Americans eat on average 274 pounds of meat per year. It's no surprise that this is way more than the recommended amount. However, it's interesting to note that the amount of beef consumed has decreased while poultry has increased.
  • The North American Meat Association reported that American meat production was 52 billion pounds and poultry production was 48 billion pounds in 2017.
  • The United Nations estimates that animal agriculture accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwatch Institute's estimation comes in at a staggering 51%.
  • The world's population is 7.8 billion people currently and will likely grow to 10 billion by 2055. These people will need to eat, which means we will need more land for agriculture.

The data show us we produce, eat and export a lot of meat and poultry. A lot! We know animal agriculture adds to climate change by producing greenhouse gases. We also know that population growth will require more food. The question here becomes how do we meet that demand for meat and poultry while minimizing the harm done to the planet?

Some would say to stop eating meat, but the number of vegetarians is not changing significantly, according to the nonprofit news organization Sentient Media. The percentage of people who maintain a vegan diet has only gone up by one percent from 2012 to 2018. Instead, many are betting on a change in how we raise cattle, plant-based meats, and even cultured meats.

Grass-fed and finished beef

You may have noticed that options in the meat aisle are increasing. There are plenty of organic, free-range, and now grass-fed meats and poultry. It's essential to understand the labels to know what you are buying exactly. It's not easy to get the USDA Organic certification; however, organic does not mean grass-fed. Also, there is no guarantee that beef labeled grass-fed means that the animal never ate grain. Many cattle ranchers feed young cattle grass for some time before moving them to feedlots prior to slaughter.

True grass-fed and finished meat is only kept on open pasture grazing on grass and other forage. There is a premium to purchasing this meat, so it's recommended you get familiar with the farmer and learn about his processes before purchasing. Learn how a local DeKalb, IL family farm sustainably raises grass-finished beef.

Grass-finished beef also has the health benefits of being less fatty and higher in Omega-3s. Many consider it a heart-healthy option.

Plant-based meat

Impossible Meat and Beyond Meat, plant-based meat products, are in our grocery stores and restaurants. What do we know about them? They generally appeal to people who eat meat but are concerned about the environmental consequences of eating meat.

Beyond Meat gets its protein from plant sources, including peas, mung beans, fava beans, and brown rice. The Impossible Burger gets its protein from soybeans and the meat-like flavor from heme. Heme is an iron-containing compound also found in meat. In the Impossible Burger, the heme is soy-based and comes from yeast fermentation. Both products also include coconut oil, beets, potatoes, and a variety of additives.

By some estimates, the sales of plant-based meats went from $118 million in 2017 to $7 billion in 2020. However, the question remains whether plant-based meat is healthy, and not all health experts are eager to embrace them. Both brands mentioned here are highly processed and are high in both sodium and saturated fats. Impossible Meat products contain GMOs in the soy.

Another hurdle they face is Big Ag and the meat lobby. Both are very powerful when it comes to protecting their revenue. However, plant-based meat companies are also looking into creating substitutes for poultry, fish, and seafood.

Cultured meat

Cultured meat may be a thing in the future. Simply stated, it is meat cultivated or grown in a lab using animal stem cells. The idea originated in 2013, and the Good Food Institute indicates there are now 60 companies across six continents hoping to produce cultured meat products. Despite more than $450 million in investments, no products have made it to market in the US at this point.

Research and development are sure to continue on cultured meat because it doesn't require land or as much water to produce. It will be produced without antibiotics and likely will not carry bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses.

We don't know exactly what the future of meat looks like, but it's likely to be very different from what we know today. 

Photo Credit: Kyle Mackie on Unsplash

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