“Would you eat a commercial sausage made from maggots? What about other insect larvae and even whole insects like locusts?”
Those questions were posed by a University of Queensland science professor who has found some stomach-churning, high-concept alternatives to meat and dairy products. The professor, Louwrens Hoffman, said the global livestock industry won’t be able to continue meeting the demand for meat. He said people may soon have to swallow some unusual, but equally delicious, dishes. “The biggest potential for sustainable protein production lies with insects and new plant sources,” he said.
People are opening their wallets and their palates to new innovations in meatless products. On Thursday, shares soared on the first day of trading of Beyond Meat BYND, +165.63% a company that produces plant-based “meat” sold at Whole Foods and TGIF. Hoffman said it’s an industry that will continue to grow. “An overpopulated world is going to struggle to find enough protein unless people are willing to open their minds, and stomachs, to a much broader notion of food,” he said.
Chicken with 15% larvae still tastes good and has the same juiciness, tenderness and aroma, he said. “Insect protein needs to be incorporated into existing food products as an ingredient,” he said. “For example, one of my students has created a very tasty insect ice cream. Poultry is a massive industry worldwide and the industry is under pressure to find alternative proteins that are more sustainable, ethical and green than the grain crops currently being used,” Hoffman said.
The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at the University of Queensland has a mission to create a more sustainable food culture. Larvae (maggots) from the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) are a perfect protein source for chicken production, for instance. Livestock farming requires massive resources. The production and transportation of a beef steak uses 160 time more land, water and fuel than a vegetarian dish, according to the nonprofit Four Paws US.
Many meatless products are already made from soy plants and genetically-engineered yeast, which is a fungus. Burger King QSR, +0.58% said this week it will roll out its meatless Whopper — a vegetarian patty by Impossible Foods that tastes and bleeds like real beef — nationwide. The meatless Whopper costs about $1 more than its beef brother, the original Whopper. It’s the latest fast-food chain to jump on the meatless bandwagon following others like White Castle and Carl’s Jr.
The world’s largest food company, Nestle NSRGY, -0.59% also recently announced plans to debut plant-based burgers across supermarkets in the U.S. and Europe later this year. “The Awesome Burger” will be on sale where Sweet Earth products are sold. The country’s largest meat producer, Tyson Foods TSN, +0.40% the maker of hot dogs and chicken nuggets, will soon offer vegan protein, and recently rolled out a meatless version of tuna.
Food companies are also growing meat in labs. Last year, German drugmaker Merck MRK, +0.70% and European meat processing group Bell Food Group invested $8.8 million in Netherlands-based Mosa Meat, by growing cattle cells. Finless Foods’ bluefin tuna is grown from tuna cells grown in a lab. It won’t come cheap and the Berkeley, Calif.-based startup plans on selling the lab-grown meat to high-end restaurants, The Wall Street Journal reported.
There’s demand for fake meat. Retails sales of plant-based foods in the U.S. that replace animal products grew by 17% to $3.7 billion in 2018. The total U.S. plant-based retail market is worth more than $4.1 billion, according to Nielsen and the Good Food Institute. There’s good reason for finding substitutes: Relying less on animal agriculture can help the environment, too, considering land used for grazing and raising livestock emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Up to 40% of food goes uneaten in the U.S. Americans throw away $165 billion in wasted food every year, according to Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental action group. Some 160 billion pounds of discarded food also clogs up landfills. “Food waste is responsible for over 7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it a key challenge in tackling climate change,” the UN says.
Food production comes with a steep environmental cost. Meat is the worst food products for producing greenhouse gases due to their production, packaging, transportation and consumption, data from the Environmental Working Group concluded. Lamb is the worst offender, causing 39.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions for every kilogram eaten. To put that in context: Lentils produce less than 1 kilogram of carbon dioxide for every kilogram eaten.
Hoffman said people shouldn’t balk at larvae and locusts. “It’s all pretty logical,” he said. “Chickens in the wild don’t eat feed preparations. They eat insects and larvae. And, while insects are largely foreign as a food in Western cultures, for many millions of people around the world they are a familiar part of the diet. There needs to be a better understanding of the difference between animal feed and human food, and a global reappraisal of what can constitute healthy, nutritional and safe food for all.”
(Jacob Passy and Jeanette Settembre contributed to this story.)
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