Beefless Meat, Chickenless Nuggets, Fish-Free Seafood … a Sustainable Trend?
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Michael Pollan, teacher/writer/activist, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2007
The last decade saw many despairing over the future of the planet, but its counterpoint was the head-spinning popularity of plant-based burgers launched at the top of the ‘20s. Add the fierce race for chickenless nuggets and the stunning success of fish-free tuna. Suddenly, the scenario posited by Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown—to replace the use of animals as a food production technology globally by 2035—seemed possible. Can the plant-based movement sustain the world?
As innovation lead at global sustainability consultancy Quantis, Jon Dettling says it’s a question he’s asked frequently. There’s no simple answer, but the most impactful path may be a large-scale shift toward plant-based diets occurring concurrently with dramatic sustainability improvements to the existing meat supply chain.
“We’ve profiled beef farms able to potentially reduce their environmental impact to that of plant protein,” says Dettling. “While these are the rare exception now, it demonstrates it may not be necessary to eliminate all beef production to have a healthy planet, but to produce less, and very differently.”
At this point, “the environmental benefits of plant-based products are huge in comparison to conventional beef production,” says Dettling. According to recent studies from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, their burgers use up to 99 percent less water, 96 percent less land and generate 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to beef.
All set to unapologetically ruffle some feathers is Rebellyous CEO Christie Lagally, whose aim to “make plant-based ‘chicken’ nuggets better than animal meat in every way” perfectly mirrors the passion of her burger counterparts.
“Reducing meat consumption is one of the most powerful actions humanity can take to protect the environment,” she asserts. “But plant-based meat is expensive to produce. There’s only enough made to feed every person in America one meal per year.”
A former mechanical engineer, Lagally realized a complete redesign was needed in the way plant-based products were made.
“The majority are made using decades-old food-grade extruders and off-the-shelf meat processing equipment,” she explains. “We’re designing new processes and engineering machinery specifically for plant-based meat production, allowing for lower costs and high, continuous throughput. Our mission is structural change. … we’re in it for the long haul.”
The quest for the perfect plant-free nugget also inspires NUGGS, a start-up that operates like a software company, continuously releasing improved versions based on user feedback.
“Unlike our competitors at traditional companies, we’re able to respond and innovate quickly,” says spokesperson Dini von Mueffling.
Even seafood is riding the plant-based wave a la Good Catch’s uber-popular, six-legume-blend tuna. But it was no small task mimicking tuna’s texture and taste, recalls CEO Chris Kerr.
“Cooked fish has a marked, thin layering of protein, and we were laser focused for 18 months to get this right before even digging into capturing authentic seafood flavor,” he says.
“We’ve created something that tastes great, provides the nutritional benefits of real fish and will hopefully have a massive, positive impact on the environment.”