The Age of the Flexitarian is upon us. A reported 22 million people in the UK alone have consciously reduced the amount of meat they eat per week, with one in three of the population identifying themselves as semi-vegetarians – what happened to good old bacon and egg! A tipping point seems to have been well and truly reached whereby people are actively reducing their environmental impact through food.
Not enough land to go around
The global population is growing exponentially. As it grows so does the amount of food we need to produce per m2 of land. However, fertile arable land is at a premium. In the last 40 years alone one third of the world’s arable land has been lost due to erosion and pollution. As yet we haven’t found an effective way to replenish this – it takes about 500 years for nature to create just 2.5cm of topsoil.
How then are we going to meet demand for food? By 2050 food production will need to increase 60% on 2005 levels. Agricultural innovations and technology are helping to meet this challenge – enabling farmers to become more effective – to grow more, milk more and raise more livestock, but more isn’t always the answer. The environmental footprint from animals (and animal feed) far outweighs that of other crops. In fact, over 80% of arable crops are used to feed livestock – which provide just 18% of the world’s produced calories. Basically, if we all ate less meat many (not all) of our food-based problems would be solved. Hence the rise of the Flexitarians.
Despite this movement towards flexitarianism, meat consumption is expected to double in developing countries in the coming decades as the population grows – something that our world clearly can’t sustain. Is lab-grown meat the answer and will people even eat it? Well, it’s happening. The world’s first meat ball (OK perhaps it wasn’t a meat ball, more a patty or a mound, but hey we’re in Sweden) was grown in a lab from real pig and cow cells not that long ago. And people seem to like the idea of eating it. In fact, 45% of people would be happy to eat lab-fish and over 75% would eat lab-beef.
Pictures: Mikael Westh
What is a real burger anyway?
But it’s not just meats that are being created in labs. Plant protein burgers that look and behave (bleed when cooked or eaten) like real meat are now being produced in labs around the world. You might think this is unnecessary when you can make a good old veggie burger but plant protein burgers are flying off the shelves. It seems getting people to eat less meat is easier if they can eat a “real” burger.
And why is this so important again? It takes 1 m2 of land to produce a gram of protein from beef. That same gram of protein can be gotten from maize and pulses with just 0.01 m2 of land. With too little land to produce the food we need, maize and pulses and the like seem to make a lot of sense for the good of all our futures.
But as always the choice is yours.
This piece was inspired after Gigafood came by our office with some great protein-based “brain food” for the whole of Daresay at one of our weekly competence lunches. If you have any thoughts on the future of food we’d love to hear from you.