There is something intriguing about the smell of steak on the BBQ, or bacon in the frying pan, but is the positive reaction of our olfactory system innate, or is it acquired and a matter of habit? Also, is this attractive smell related to the meat-nature of foods, or is it due to complex chemicals that could be produced otherwise as well? Depending on the answer to these questions, a follow-up question arises: why do we bother imitating meat in and not rather go straight to consuming what animals eat?
The backdrop to these questions is the fact that the world’s current meat consumption is not sustainable, let alone the upwards trend in meat consumption. According to my own findings, in 2100, with a projected world population of 11 billion, the major part or our diet will need to be plant based, with a little bit of dairy per day. Meat will only be available as a treat, perhaps a slice of ham or a bit of chicken from time to time, or an occasional Sunday roast. The daily beef burger is off the menu, sorry. Again, should we bother creating meat substitutes then?
Short answer: yes, plant-based meat alternatives to meat offer food at a considerably smaller ecological footprint with a similar taste experience.
Human Affinity to Aromatic Chemicals
Let’s address the first set of questions. What is it that makes grilled food so attractive, and is this limited to meat alone. To start with, the smell and taste of grilled food can be decomposed into two aspects. First, the grill taste is due to compounds released in the pyrolysis of lignin, an important constituent of wood (and consequently of char coal), which yields a host of aromatic compounds (see The Chemistry of Barbecue); hence they are not related to meat as such. The second aspect is the production of aromatic molecules during heating of a combination of amino acids and simple sugars in the so-called Maillard reaction, when carbohydrates and proteins are broken down. As long as the necessary ingredients are present in food to be cooked, these complex aromatic compounds are created, from browning of toast over roasting coffee or nuts to grilling meat. The Maillard reaction is not limited to meat either.
With the chemical mechanisms explained, an importation question still remains unanswered: why? I haven’t done a thorough research but I am sure there are many sensible, partly evolutionary explanations. For instance, cooking meat helps a) in breaking down food substances in order to allow easier digestion, and b) with sanitising it by killing germs and parasites. Perhaps a positive association between the measures needed (heat of the open fire) and its by-products (Maillard reaction and pyrolysis) became ingrained in our minds. An other factor is habits and customs: wake up on a Saturday morning to the smell of a cooked Full English breakfast, creating a positive association between weekend and smell.
Whatever the mechanisms and reasons are, our affinity to aromatic compounds in grilled food is real and has to be accommodated by a diet. The good news is that these chemicals are not limited to meat alone.
Feeding the World in 2100
According to Our World in Data the world population is expected to climb up to about 11 billion by 2100. If mankind aims to feed every person on the planet by then, affording every human being about 2000kcal/day, the required accumulated food energy over a year would be 8*10¹⁵ kcal. On the other hand, 51 million km² of the Earth’s surface is currently used for agriculture, comprising both arable land (cropland, 15 million km² or 15*10¹² m²) and land used for grazing (pastureland, 36 million km² or 36*10¹² m²). Whether all 11 billion people can be fed given the agricultural land available depends on the diet (details in How to Feed the World Population Sustainably by the End of the Century).
- Plant based diet — at 1.5m²/1000kcal land use or 666.7 kcal/m² land efficiency: a balanced mix of maize, rice, potatoes, lentils, beans, wheat & rye, various nuts as well as derived products such as tofu to obtain the necessary inputs of protein, fat, carbohydrates and nutrients.
For demonstration purposes, the entire cropland available would be able to produce an astounding 10*10¹⁵ kcal per year, about 120% of the projected 8*10¹⁵ kcal/year needed in 2100. Consequently, everybody would have more than enough to eat.
- Red meats — at 120m²/1000kcal land use or 8.3kcal/m² land efficiency: this comprises beef, lamb and mutton.
For demonstration purposes, the entire cropland available would be able to produce a meagre 1.25*10¹⁴ kcal per year, about 1.6% of the projected 8*10¹⁵ kcal/year needed in 2100. Therefore, only 1.6% of the world population would have enough to eat on that extreme diet; these lucky ones have a steak every day, the rest has nothing.
In summary, a plant based diet is about 80 times more efficient than one on the red meat and is more likely to feed the entire world population. This does not necessarily preclude a limited consumption of red meat if produced sustainably from pastureland. These 36*10¹² m² should provide plenty of space for less intense rearing of cattle and sheep for red meat or dairy production to complement the pant-based diet.
Synthesis — Putting Things Together
Accepting both the human proclivity towards aromatic compounds in cooked foods (pyrolysis and Maillard reaction) and the resource constraints in food production to feed the entire population of the planet, the synthesis is simple: imitating meat. This is possible because all chemicals that make cooked meat so tasty can be generated with plants, too.
Producing meat substitutes that exhibit all properties of meat such texture, taste, nutrients, calories, cooking behaviour etc requires a certain amount of processing. The less industrial the processing, the more efficient. On one side, closer to the real red meat production, trying to create synthetic meat from cells in an industrial Petri dish that have to be fed the right amino acids will perhaps be quite capital and energy intense. On the other side, minimal processing for nuts, pulses and grains involves harvesting, cleaning, perhaps milling, then simply assembling into dishes at home. There are opportunities for a wide range of business, more or less processed food : a question of convenience and preference¹.
A transition towards plant-based foods will certainly be helped by internalising some of the externalities of industrial meat production such as methane and nitrate release, carbon footprint, transport and energy costs, or deforestation in the Amazons through legislation at an international scale. The European union, for instance, is working on the Revision of the Industrial Emissions Directive that will add farms above a certain size, depending on the kind of animal produced, to the list of industries whose emissions require regulation. As a consequence, meat is bound to become more expensive as it should, given the inefficiency as protein and energy converter, making meat alternatives more economically viable, even more profitable².
All measures combined and a new meat alternatives on the market are likely to wean mankind off the meat consumption frenzy. Gradually, one would hope, mankind will learn to acquire a new taste, or perhaps go back to the cuisine of olden times which was mostly vegan or vegetarian in most cultures, like Turkish or Indian cuisine.
- My personal preference is either a) vegan/vegetarian meals prepared by myself using basic ingredients and trying to make them taste nice, e.g. a buckwheat & cashew butter stew, or b) meat from a source I have confidence in, e.g. reared on pastures. However, I do recognise that for some people convenience is more important.
- Being from a farming background, I do recognise that adding more regulations, will directly or indirectly increase the production cost. I only do hope that supermarkets won’t play consumers against farmers and consumers put their money where their mouth is by accepting higher food prices as a consequence of preserving the planet.