Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said plant-based food has the potential to improve humanity by a factor of tenfold or more.
Is he right? And are the plant-based food options sweeping supermarket shelves worldwide, often promoted as alternatives to meat, good news for people and planet?
For Eric Schmidt, the tech and innovation movement leading the plant-based revolution is one he labels: Nerds over Cattle. So how important is it that the nerds win?
There is no silver bullet when it comes to transforming food systems. Farmers are working hard to offer products that are more sustainably made. And an overnight switch from one method of production to another simply isn’t realistic or wanted by many.
But nobody is questioning the need for food system transformation. Over 821 million people are starving; and with the global population predicted to hit 10 billion by 2050, up from 7.8 billion today, the race is on to develop sustainable food systems.
One major obstacle in this race is industrial meat production, which continues to rise worldwide. According to a UN report, called Livestock’s Long Shadow, raising animals for food is a top three contributor to water pollution, soil desertification, loss of rainforests, loss of biodiversity and climate change. Meaning animal agriculture is more harmful to the climate than the combined impact of all transportation. According to European think tank, Chatham House, nations will have to slash their meat consumption drastically, or the Paris Climate Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2°C above pre-industrial levels is unachievable.
Speaking at an event in Melbourne last year, the internationally-renowned agricultural scientist, Dr Howard-Yana Shapiro said: “Food production is the biggest threat to our planet – 70% of the biodiversity loss, 70% of the fresh water use, 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions come directly from that. While 85% of the marine stocks are exploited.” To reverse the trend, he says: ‘let’s breed plants that are ‘more nutritious, that are higher-yielding, that are resilient to climate change, resistant to pests and disease and water and nutrient sufficient’.
The message is getting through, as plants are already reshaping the meat industry. Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Leonardo DiCaprio, are among the big name investors in plant-based and clean meat alternatives. Leonardo DiCaprio said on social media of his investment in Beyond Meat, a popular brand in this burgeoning market: ‘Beyond Burger uses 99% less water, 93% less land, nearly 50% less energy and generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than it takes to produce one 1/4 lb. U.S. beef burger’.
Climate-friendly meat options like these are winning fans and making headlines across the world. Another reason for this is that these new products are winning on taste. Forget nut cutlets, this is food you want to order at a restaurant. Which Bruce Friedrich, Executive Director of the Good Food Institute (GFI), says is vital to mainstreaming these products.
“We take inspiration from companies like Beyond Meat, and Impossible Foods, companies that have come along and said: our market is not vegetarians, and we don’t care what vegetarians eat. Our market is meat eaters,” he said. “We want to help create vegetarian meat, plant-based meat that meat-eaters like every bit as much, or even more so, than the meat they are eating right now.”
Fixing broken food systems is a complex business but new meat innovations are going to be part of the solution, especially when research overwhelmingly confirms the many benefits of plant-based foods. With research from Oxford University confirming that eating more vegan and plant-based foods is the single biggest action we can take to minimise our impact on the planet. While plant-based meats are shown, in part, to be better for you.
It all adds up to plant-based food products having plenty of plus points for the planet but with similar fat, salt and sugar content as regular processed meat, the nerds still have a bit to go on the nutrition front.