"A meat-eater with a bicycle is much more environmentally unfriendly than a vegetarian with a Hummer."
--Dr Mark Post
The world's largest food concern, Unilever, has opened a new research lab at the world's most prestigious agricultural university, the University of Wageningen (the Netherlands).
Unilever will locate all elements of its foods R&D there. A spokeswoman on Dutch radio stressed plant-based meat alternatives as an important research subject.
Wageningen University has strong credentials in that respect, with the development of shear cell technology.
Shear cell technology strings plant proteins together in tightly controlled fibers, resulting in a meat substitute where texture (fibrousness, bite, mouthfeel) can easily be controlled, and changed at will. This, combined with 3D food printing, offers the possibility of creating multiple meat (substitute) variations in future.
Unilever's food campus is open to startups, innovators and partners. One of the first to have build its own lab on the same grounds is Symrise, an industrial flavours and scents group.
About half of Dutch people call themselves 'flexitarians'. This means that they don't eat meat with their main meal at least three times a week. The proportion of vegetarians is stable, at just under five percent of the Dutch population.
Wageningen researchers believe, however, that feeding 9 billion people with animal meat will not be sustainable for the planet.
I'm an enviro-vegetarian who has studied some of this stuff, so here's the short skinny on the subject:
It's possible to raise meat in an environmentally friendly way. Not only that, it's what a lot of people did for millennia prior to the advent of industrial agriculture. There are 3 main ways to do it:1. Mixed agriculture: Farms were generally mixed between a variety of crops and animals, the animals got to eat some of the crop, and produced meat, leather, wool, hair, eggs, milk, and manure, all of which were used. This worked well from an environmental standpoint because this was an integrated system, with every organism feeding other organisms. If you hang around with "back-to-the-land", Whole Earth Catalog hippie types, they'll be happy to talk your ear off about doing this kind of thing. This is also what many third-world farmers are doing, and what intentionally low-tech people like the Amish do.2. Pastoralism: The animals are grazed on land that produces stuff that they can eat but humans can't. This works just fine as long as you don't do it so heavily that the grasses or other plants can't regrow before you bring the herd around again. This is only a slightly-human-influenced version of what herd animals will do anyways. In theory at least, this is one use of BLM land on the east side of the Rockies, and there are supposed to be scientific types making sure that there isn't overgrazing.3. Hunting / Fishing: The animals are in the wild until they get slaughtered and eaten. This also works out fine as long as you don't do it too heavily, and can be extremely useful in environments where there are animals lacking natural predators. In modern times, this translates to people with hunting licenses going out and getting their deer for the year, and that's something I wholeheartedly approve of doing.
The problem is that the way most meat is produced for the US market has little if anything to do with any of that. What's happening instead is:1. Petroleum is drilled out, and converted into chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are shipped to the crop farmers. There are of course all kinds of pollution problems from this stage.2. Major agribusiness companies produce large quantities of GMO seeds for crops that can handle having large quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides dumped on them. These are also shipped to crop farmers. There are also lots of pollution problems from this stage, and also patent problems because it's generally illegal to save the seeds from these crops.3. Crop farmers plant those GMO seeds and spread those chemical fertilizers and pesticides in as large a quantity as they can get away with to maximize output, to grow feed crops such as field corn. In addition to the pollution created by running their tractors and such, there are major problems with runoff from the field leading to such fun as Lake Erie turning fluorescent green during the summer due to algae blooms.4. The feed crops are shipped to what the industry calls "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations", but used to be called "feed lots". Basically, thousands of animals of the same species crammed into as small a space as possible. Which, if you think this is a recipe for disease spreading very quickly, you're right, so most animals are heavily drugged with antibiotics (leading to resistant bacteria that can infect humans) and all sorts of other interesting treatments. When the animals are done, they'll go to a meatpacking plant to be butchered by illegal immigrants working in incredibly dangerous conditions, and from there make their way to McDonald's and the like.5. Remember all that poo that the old-school integrated farmers were composting into fertilizer for the next year, which represents most of the substance of what that animal ate? For example, each pound of beef = 26 pounds of dry cow pies. In these operations, that poo is siphoned off into giant lagoons of poo, where it's combined with anaerobic bacteria to try to break it down a bit, but this also produces all kinds of environmental problems including nasty gasses that give nearby people asthma, as well as large quantities of methane (one of the worst greenhouse gasses around) and CO2. Some of that processed poo turns into fertilizer for the crop farmers, but a lot of it just kinda sits there. And if there are floods or hurricanes or similar problems, guess where that poo goes?
The problem isn't meat per se, it's switching from integrated cyclical food production, where "waste" isn't waste at all but food for something else, to industrial linear food production, where inputs come from outside the system in the form of petroleum and chemical processes and much of the output is "waste" and sent off into the environment. A vegetarian diet cuts out steps 4 and 5 of the industrial system above, and it's far more efficient to grow, say, 3 pounds of crops for 1 pound of plant food than it is to grow 27 pounds of crops for 1 pound of meat and 26 pounds of poo.