Alternative Proteins: Satiating World Hunger Through Innovation?

Studies have shown that alternative sources of protein such as vegan or lab-grown meats are a more sustainable and equitable option which could help to end world hunger. Yet, five years after the release of the Impossible Burger, world hunger is still a grave concern.

Mar 26, 2021 | By Abram Yum
Image Credit: Courtesy of NatashaPhoto

As Earth’s population of 7 billion people continues to increase, so do the concerns surrounding our ability to keep ourselves fed. It is for this reason, that many are advocating for the switch to a plant-based food which require less time and resources to produce than meat, and are potentially cheaper as well. Research and development (R&D) in meat alternatives have increased in recent years, led to the creation of products like the Impossible Burger, championed as the future of food, and our solution to ending world hunger. However, millions still suffer from chronic hunger in the less-developed nations in spite of these innovations. Thus, to believe that these advancements on their own will solve world hunger is folly. We take a look at these alternative proteins and why world hunger still remains unresolved.

As countries develop and their citizens become wealthier, one of the first things they demand with their increased sending power is better food, which usually means more meat. However, it is an extremely resource-intensive source of sustenance. To raise animals for their meat and other products like milk, requires a tremendous amount of land, energy, water, and ironically, food. Where this ties into the issue of world hunger is the fact that we actually have enough food to feed all 7 billion people on Earth. However, much of the food crops grown are used to feed livestock rather than the millions suffering from malnourishment and chronic hunger. To put this in perspective, the food consumed just by the world’s cattle have enough calories to sustain 8.7 billion people, a number greater than our current population. In short, much of the calories we produce is fed to livestock, and of this, only a small percentage of the calories originally produced as food crops, ends up in our bodies after we consume animal meat.

Raising livestock is a resource-intensive; Image Credit: Courtesy of Lynda Hinton on Unsplash

In comparison, research has shown that plant-based food is a more efficient method of attaining the required calories. It requires less time and resources, and more of the food produced would be used to feed people rather than animals. According to the United Nations, an acre of land used for raising cattle would yield a mere 20 pounds of protein, while that same acre would yield 365 pounds of protein when used to cultivate soybeans. However, the fact remains that meat, in the minds of many, remains the tastier choice, which contributes to the higher demand for animal products. In a bid to convince people to switch over to green stuff, companies have invested in R&D to create plant-based products with the same looks, tastes, and nutritional values as genuine meat. These utilise a myriad of innovations in food technology to recreate the taste, texture and appearance of meat using plants.

Impossible Foods achieved this in their range of meat-free offerings by leveraging on heme, a component of the hemoglobin in our blood, obtained from the roots of soybeans. By using heme, they were able to give the Impossible Burger the red colouration and juicy, meaty flavour of a beef patty.

The Impossible Burger’s main selling point was that it “bled”like real meat, and had the same great taste and juicy texture; Image Credit: Courtesy of The Spoon
Juicy Marbles used a proprietary technology to replicate the structure of a steak’s protein fibres to give their vegan steak an authentic texture; Image Credit: Courtesy of Juicy Marbles
Exo’s protein bars are made using cricket flour which is protein rich and cheaper to produce than traditional protein powders; Image Credit: Courtesy of Exo

Juicy Marbles recently created a vegan filet mignon, advertised to have the same satisfying texture of a nice steak. This was achieved using proprietary technology to precisely arrange and layer fibres of soy-based proteins, replicating the mouthfeel of a filet mignon.

On top of these, there are several other examples of alternative proteins. These include Meatable’s venture into cultivated meat, grown from cells in a laboratory and which requires no slaughtering of animals, as well as experiments with protein powders made from crickets. While innovative and a definite step in the right direction, these alternative food products are unlikely to solve the world’s hunger problems on their own.

A burger made from Cultured Beef, developed by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands; Image Credit: Courtesy of David Parry/PA

For starters, these alternatives are still significantly costlier than traditional options. The technologies and methods of manufacture used in these products are largely proprietary and still fairly new, which requires greater costs to operate, translating into higher retail prices.  For example, despite further cutting prices to distributors, the lowest possible price for the Impossible Burger is US$6.80 per pound. In comparison, ground beef can be had for around US$2-3 per pound. This is due to the lower demand for animal-free protein alternatives. As demand remains low, there exists little motivation for companies to invest in more R&D and production, preventing these companies from achieving economies of scale. In addition, more unconventional alternatives like the use of insects as a source of protein while common in developing countries, don’t sit well within the social norms of developed western countries. In order to fully realise the potential of these alternatives, people have to be educated on its benefits to help change perceptions. Collaborations with food writers and celebrity chefs would also go a long way towards helping animal-free meat alternatives become more widely accepted.

Another issue is being able to get the food to those who need it most. A large number of those suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition reside in regions of the world that lack modern infrastructure like roads and buildings making it difficult to set up modern agricultural centres and distribute food products to those in need. Further exacerbating the problems are conditions largely beyond our control, such as droughts and civil wars. Droughts make it almost impossible to raise sufficient livestock and grow crops in these areas which leads to a lack of food to sustain the population. To make matters worse, civil wars in these areas break out with factions fighting for control over these limited resources. Even if international aid workers did manage to get food into these areas, chances are that they would end up in the hands of one of these warring factions rather than the civilians suffering on the side-lines.

The civil war in Somalia (1993), made famous in the film Black Hawk Down, involved warring tribes of militia fighting for control of food aid brought in by the UN, leading to massive starvation and violence; Image Credit: Courtesy of  Norbert Schiller

Given the myriad of problems contributing global hunger, it is naïve to think that merely making the switch to innovative meat alternatives will feed the world’s growing population. More must be done. People need to be educated on the benefits of these alternatives and the inefficiency of a meat-based diet. Beyond being able to produce greater quantities of food, a solution to end hostilities in these developing countries is needed so infrastructure can be established, bringing greater investments into their economy. With these investments come jobs, financial stability and the facilities needed to produce sufficient food. Only then can we finally resolve the issue that is world hunger.

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