Agricultural Innovations for a Greener Future
Plant-based meats and cellular agriculture offer greener alternatives to the traditional livestock farming processes that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
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Global warming and overpopulation are two of the most pressing issues facing humanity today. The Earth’s climate is rapidly changing due to human activities, leading to rising sea levels, more frequent and severe natural disasters, and the loss of biodiversity. At the same time, the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050, putting immense pressure on the planet’s resources, including food, water, and energy.
The agricultural sector is responsible for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide and methane. Its high usage of land, water, and energy resources leads to deforestation, soil degradation, and water scarcity. Within the sector, the cattle industry is the worst offender. The slaughtering and consumption of cattle is an extremely inefficient method of energy transfer, with 90 percent of energy lost in the form of heat. These environmental concerns lead many to seek alternative diets, such as vegetarianism and veganism. Unlike their meaty counterparts, plants are about 100 times more energy-efficient as they bypass the middleman: primary consumers. While livestock account for 77 percent of global agricultural land, they only produce 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein per person. As the population continues to grow, the demand for food will only increase, putting further strain on the agricultural sector and exacerbating these problems.
However, hope on the horizon comes in the form of changing the production of food to make it more sustainable, efficient, and clean. Two of the new innovations––plant-based meat alternatives and cellular agriculture––show promising results in reducing the environmental impact of agriculture and bringing humanity closer to a world with zero-net carbon.
Until a few years ago, plant-based meats got a bad reputation for their lackluster taste and unappealing texture. Yet since the emergence of soy protein in meat alternatives in the 1980s, the industry only continues to expand. The introduction of new ingredients—such as peas, wheat, and potatoes—offers consumers options beyond meat. The plant-based industry has experienced tremendous evolution and expansion in recent decades due to the development and research of new techniques that bring these products even closer to the flavor profile of real meat. In 2022, the U.S. retail market for plant-based foods was worth $8 billion, up from $962 million in 2019.
Plant-based companies, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, have created burger patties using a variety of natural ingredients. Apples, beets, tomatoes, and pomegranate seed extracts are used to give plant-based patties the distinctive red color of meat. Coconut and sunflower oils are added for saturated and unsaturated fats, potatoes for carbohydrates, and yellow peas, lima beans, and mung beans for protein. To hold all the ingredients together, a cellulose-based culinary bind is used. However, the most difficult part of creating plant-based alternatives lies in replicating the unique taste of meat. Scientists have identified the primary flavour compound in meat—heme proteins—and their extraction methods. Heme is an iron-containing compound found in the root nodules of soybeans. This molecule is responsible for creating the rich-umami flavour of meat through the release of volatile aroma molecules released during the cooking process. Through a combination of genetic engineering and fermentation technologies, heme is isolated from soy plants and added to plant-based ingredients to enhance both the color and taste of plant-based meat products.
All of these ingredients come together to form a plant-based patty that is designed to resemble beef. Taste, texture, color, smell, and nutritional value are closely controlled to match that of real meat. These patties even mimic the way beef sizzles on a hot grill, so that environmentally conscious meat-lovers won’t have to sacrifice the experience of eating meat. Large companies are designing these products to ease the transition from largely meat-based diets to plant-based ones. With these developments, plant-based alternatives have become almost indistinguishable from their animal counterparts.
On the other hand, cellular agriculture provides another promising alternative to consuming traditionally farmed animal products. Cellular agriculture involves harvesting small samples of cell lines in controlled laboratory settings. Scientists collect cell samples from live animals, ranging from chickens to Pacific salmon. The cells are then submerged and grown in high-tech cultivation systems that replicate the internal conditions of the corresponding animals. These machines regulate pH, nutrient concentration, and oxygen saturation to ensure efficient growth. Furthermore, transcription factors in a solution cause embryonic stem cells to specialize into muscle tissue and fat. Once the cells grow into a visible mass, they are seeded into scaffolding made from plant-based ingredients and placed back into the cultivators. These plant-based structures guide and physically shape the growth of muscle, connective, and fat tissues into natural shapes and structures. Because these cells can grow almost indefinitely, the cell lines are effectively immortalized. This means that a small sample of harvested cells can lead to the sustainable cultivation of millions of pounds of meat without harming a single animal.
Interestingly, cellular agriculture can also be adapted to seafood. The company Wildtype, for instance, uses this process to create lab-cultivated, sushi-grade salmon. Not only does this innovation eliminate the fishing industry’s enormous stress on the ocean’s ecosystem, but it also has upsides for humans; lab-cultivated salmon contains the same nutritional benefits as wild and farmed salmon without the toxic mercury, microplastics, antibiotics, and other contaminants found in wild fish. Furthermore, it takes only four to six weeks for cells to transform into the final product––10 times faster than the traditional farm-raised method.
Likewise, lab-cultivated meat products are much more efficient than traditional farming or fishing practices. In these sterile cultivation systems, nutrients are delivered directly to cells, whose sole purpose is to grow and multiply. This eliminates the energy and resources required for live animals to sustain homeostasis. Energy is not wasted on respiration, growing internal structures such as organs and bone, responding to stimuli, or fighting off infections. By growing only the desirable parts of an animal in a highly efficient manner, lab-cultivated meat can reduce water usage by 77 percent, greenhouse gas emissions by 96 percent, and land usage by 62 percent.
Lab-cultivated meats give humans much more control over the final product, allowing them to manipulate the growth rate and composition through the use of gene-editing technologies. These innovative processes provide options for a greener world.