The consumption of meat is the subject of a trickle of news and controversies, sharpened in the last decade, which are now also extending to alternative sources of protein. Ethical, environmental and health issues seem to have cornered intensive farming (whose activities in any case continue to thrive) and exploded the market for Altmeat.
The need to obtain proteins from alternative sources, with the least possible impact on the environment, thus inspires research and innovation in the various fields of biology and biotechnology, agronomy and food technology. The results, however, tend to reflect the not always noble objectives of each initiative. A brief review of existing and evolving solutions. (1)
1) The omnivore's dilemma
'When it is possible eating almost everything that nature has to offer, deciding what is good to eat inevitably generates a certain apprehension, especially if certain foods can prove harmful to health or even lethal'. (2)
The dilemma of the omnivore was proposed by Michael Pollan way back in 2006, the geological era before global financial crisis (2007-2009), the pandemic crisis (2020) and the third world war at the door (2022-to date).
The share of the population really unable to afford a balanced diet rich in fresh foods is therefore tapered, as is the middle class in Western countries. And it is still possible to exercise some basic choices.
2) Global consumption of meat
Global consumption of meat have increased 5 times in the last 60 years, from 50 million tons in 1961 to over 300 million tons today. Well over the world's population (3 to 7,6 billion people). To the point of exceeding 80 kg per capita annually, in the richest countries, where 26 kg would be more than enough for a healthy adult. (3)
Vertical growth of global meat consumption must also be attributed to the unexpected 'Westernisation' of the lifestyles of the populations of emerging economies, especially in Asia. FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) forecasts a further increase in the demand for meat, +75% in the coming decades, due to the increase in the world population (which in 2050 is estimated to reach 11 billion people).
3) Global meat production and resource constraints
FAO (2019) he recommended a series of interventions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in animal husbandry. UNEP (2020) has in turn highlighted the urgency of addressing the issues of antibiotic resistance (AMR) and animal welfare.
The limit more serious than farms – stressed also from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (2022) – is the absorption of three-quarters of agricultural land available to produce feed.
4) Alternative sources of protein
La food safety – #SDG2, Zero Hunger – is a problem of such breadth and extent, and growing, that it cannot be solved with a single solution. IPES Food (2022) better than others clarifies il role of farms in peasant and regenerative agriculture.
Alternative protein sources, in turn, have an essential meaning to the extent that populations can be placed in the effective capacity to produce them, as well as to consume them. Without having to depend on patent licenses, million dollar investments or authorizations novel food exclusive. Access to food and food sovereignty.
4.1) Vegetable proteins
The pairing of legumes, cereals and seeds lets get proteins with a high biological value, thanks to the combination of the amino acids contained in the various matrices.
Wheat, for example, is characterized by glutamine (amino acid that makes up muscle fibres). In addition to the presence of minerals (iron, potassium and phosphorus) and vitamins (B1, B9, PP and H).
Vegetable proteins the most used are glycine, neighborlin, legume and albumins, globulins and glutelins from legumes and seed oil; gluten, gliadins and glutenins from wheat, rye and barley; beta-conglycinin from soy. (3)
4.2) Mycoproteins and microbial proteins
Mycoproteins, contained in the cytoplasm of fungi, contain the eight amino acids essential to humans (4,5). In particular lysine, which is deficient in plant proteins. Their growth potential is promising, as seen.
Precision fermentation (fermentation-based cellular agriculture) instead uses microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, yeasts, fungi, microalgae), to produce organic molecules similar to those of animal origin (eg. milk).
4.3) Algae and microalgae
Algae and microalgae are characterized as renewable sources of proteins, Omega 3 fatty acids and micronutrients, with unparalleled environmental performance (negative carbon footprint). (6)
Several research projects, also in the EU, are therefore dedicated to reduce their costs of production e promote their use in a variety of foods, traditional and innovative.
The insects at the table they are a millenary tradition for many populations, from Central America to Africa and Asia. their food use it is vice versa marginal in Europe.
The extraordinary ability of insects to convert organic waste into proteins (e.g. lateral flows of agricultural and food processing) and their minimal environmental footprint are attracting growing attention, also by the FAO (2003). (6)
5) Altmeat. Industrialization of meat-like products
Altmeat it is a concept that expresses the industrialization of products similar to meat, with proteins from alternative sources and organoleptic properties - appearance, texture, taste - similar to those of meat and derivatives. This product category consists of plant-based meats e lab meat.
5.1) Plant-based meats
Plant-based meats is an oxymoron referred to designate – with names inspired by those of meat and derivatives (meat sounding) – products of similar appearance but made with vegetable ingredients. The ingredients used are often soy proteins and/or other legumes and/or cereals, sometimes with the addition of mycoproteins and soy legemoglobin.
The products plant based with mycoproteins are generally obtained by submerged liquid or solid culture of filamentous fungi and edible fungi. Mushrooms, whose fibrous structure is similar to that of muscle tissue, can among other things be cultivated by means of upcycling of agricultural by-products.
5.2) Lab meat
Lab meat it is the meat obtained by cellular agriculture. An innovative technology that has gathered in a few years billionaire investments and uses cells that multiply in vitro or in bioreactors using biotechnological processes as a protein matrix. (8)
The cells used to start the culture can be obtained through biopsies from the muscles of live or slaughtered animals. That is through cell lines (stem cells) with methods of genetic engineering, gene editing or induced or spontaneous mutations. With possible addition of others ingredients derived from GMOs (e.g. heme).
6) Provisional conclusions
Technology it cannot be enough to resolve the social and geopolitical crises on which the health and food, as well as physical, safety of populations depend.
The ten basic criteria of agroecology (FAO, 2019) must in any case guide the transition towards integrated and sustainable food systems.
- diversity; synergies; efficiency, resilience; recycling; co-creation and sharing of knowledge,
- human and social values; culture and food traditions,
- responsible governance; circular and solidarity economy. (9)
Dario Dongo and Giulia Pietrollini
Footnotes to the story
(1) Singh A., Sit, N. (2022). Meat Analogues: Types, Methods of Production and Their Effect on Attributes of Developed Meat Analogues. Food Bioprocess Technol 2022, 15, 2664–2682 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11947-022-02859-4
(2) Michael Pollan. The Omnivore's Dilemma. Penguin Press, NY, 2006. ISBN 9781594200823
(3) Charles Godfray, Paul Aveyard, Tara Garnett, Susan A. Jebb et al. (2018). Meat consumption, health, and the environment. Science 361, eaam5324. doi: 10.1126/science.aam5324
(4) Dario Dongo, Andrea Della Penna, Novel food. Green light in the EU for proteins from mushrooms, rice and peas, insects, milk and new sugars. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 14.1.23)
(5) Dongo and Della Penna, Proteins from fungi and microfungi, mycoproteins, the ABC. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 12.10.22
(6) Dario Dongo, Andrea Della Penna, Insects as novel foods, state of the art in the European Union and the UK. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 18.8.22
(7) Dario Dongo, Andrea Della Penna, Algae and microalgae for food use in Europe, the ABC. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 14.11.2022
(8) Dario Dongo, Israel, Future Meat. The first laboratory-grown meat industry is launched. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 4.7.21
(9) Dario Dongo, Camilla Fincardi. Agroecology, SDGs, salvation. The FAO Decalogue. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 12.4.20