How will we overcome animal flesh?
There is a growing consensus that our culinary future should be meatless, for many reasons. Reducing the farming and processing of livestock—the waste, the pollution, and the greenhouse gas emissions that emanate from it—is central in our fight to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Other sources of protein are being developed, such as edible insects and plant-based staple alternatives, which have shown the ability to feed larger global populations with a smaller agricultural footprint. And no living being should ever have to endure the cruelty that is the modern industrial farming system.
With all of this, the question is not so much why, but how. How, after thousands of years of eating animal flesh, after forging cultural culinary empires around the vast spectrum of taste that meat provides, and after accelerating evolutionary developments to the human brain as a result of our apex dominance on the food chain, could we possibly give it up? It seems the battle may be just as much psychological as it is physiological.
Or can we bet on taste? Numerous scientists, chefs, butchers, and entrepreneurs supported by millions of dollars in investment by large corporations, like Google Ventures, are actively developing new alternatives to animal meat. Their goal is to find creative ways to appeal to our palates and help us embrace a more sustainable diet, because ethical should be delicious too.
The impossible meat
A growing number of Silicon Valley startups claim that we can substitute meat entirely without having to adjust our food preferences. For years now, they’ve been perfecting the recreation of the umami naturally found in meat using plant-based ingredients such as wheat, corn, soy, coconut, and potatoes.
At Impossible Foods, an R&D team has made an important laboratory discovery that has revolutionized their approach to plant-based meat: heme. This molecule, which is almost single-handedly respon-sible for that classic “meat flavour,” it turns out, is also present in plants and can be extracted cruelty-free so as to create that iron-rich, bloody, and fatty flavour profile in just about anything. The company started by growing soy plants to harvest heme, but moved on to producing the protein alone through genetic modification to lessen its environmental impact.
Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown, whose Beyond Burger has become a worldwide success, takes a similar approach to replacing meat. To him, the root of the solution is etymological: “What if you define meat by what it is—amino acids, fats, carbs, minerals, and water—versus where it is from (i.e. cows, chickens, pigs)? What you’d have is meat for the future. Meat from plants, mushrooms, even insects.”
The sausage of the future
Meanwhile, Swiss designer and researcher Carolien Niebling has been experimenting with a completely different strategy for introducing new and often neglected proteins into our diets. With chefs and butchers around the world, like Brent Young from The Meat Hook in Brooklyn and Gabriel Serero from Switzerland, she’s set her sights on our favourite tubular edible: the sausage. The oldest processed food in the world, it was invented to make use of whatever leftover scraps were available via preservation techniques like drying, smoking, salting, and fermentation.
According to Niebling, not only can the sausage help eliminate food waste, it could be a vehicle to introduce new staple ingredients into our diets, such as seaweed, kelp, seeds, old grains, nuts, weeds, fanned legumes, and insects. To make a totally animal-free sausage, butchers are striving to perfect vegetarian skins made from beeswax, algae, and plant leaves.
Niebling’s research concludes that “the most common barrier that needed to be crossed was a mental one. The machines, the techniques, and ingredients for the creation of future sausages are already in place and available, but we avoid certain foods simply because we do not like the idea of them, not because they are bad for us.” Dr. Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that disgust developed evolutionarily, from a system to protect the body from harm to a system to protect the soul from harm.
Using the sausage as a vehicle to introduce foods that, at this point in time, gross us out can help us transition to a more sustainable culinary future and stimulate our curiosity through our taste buds.
*Carolien Niebling published The Sausage of the Future (Lars Müller Publishers/ECAL, 2017), a publication cataloguing different types of sausages and presenting lesser-known ingredients, carefully selected for their potential regarding the future.
The new frontier
All right, you can get behind plant-based alternative meats and future sausages. Let’s see how you feel about this one: entomophagy. Despite the fact that we ate insects for millennia (yes, your ancestors were partly insectivorous!) and that many global food cultures regard bugs as a delicacy, most Westerners immediately recoil when faced with having to eat an insect. But that didn’t stop Josh Evans, lead researcher at the Nordic Food Lab—a non-profit investigating “food diversity and deliciousness” and associated with the Michelin-starred restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen—from going on an international quest to explore the various flavour profiles of bugs.
* These two photos were originally published in On Eating Insects (Phaidon Press, 2017). Written by the Nordic Food Lab, the book takes a holistic look at the practice of cooking with insects, presenting essays on the cultural, political, and ecological significance of eating insects, alongside stories from the field, tasting notes, and recipes. Photos: Chris Tonnesen
To him and his colleagues, it is criminal to hide crickets, mealworms, and ants in pasta dough, energy bars, or processed meats. Instead they want to celebrate the full spectrum of taste and texture that protein-rich insects can bring to our plate. From their journey, they came home equipped with new know-ledge that has already inspired creative dishes such as moth mousse with morels and smoked hazelnut, and bee larvae with clove root oil and hemp.
The Nordic Food Lab shows us that insects can be both sustenance and haute cuisine. But let’s not forget that they’re also more environmentally responsible than meat from a farming standpoint. However, if we really want these critters to make an impact, we’ll need to move beyond this debilitating mix of curiosity and disgust. What if we just accepted insects as part of our diet, so we could move forward? After all, even Justin Timberlake served garlic ants and rose oil grasshoppers to the guests at his most recent album release party.
On becoming futurivores
The future of food will be a challenge for all of us, and for good reason. With global warming looming over our heads, we must learn to seek answers in foods that not only satisfy our taste buds, but exercise our ethical muscles as well. Critics, however, rightly point out that in a post–animal food system, plant-based meat alternatives are likely to require vast monocultural operations, as well as rely on genetically modified and lab-engineered ingredients. Plus, we already know what happens when large corporations enter a new market, such as edible insect farming—profit-driven organizations tend to exploit natural resources and take advantage of vulnerable communities.
The future of food will be a challenge for all of us, and for good reason.
So where does that leave us? Are you up for the challenge of designing an impactful, responsible infrastructure for a future food industry, while scientists work out the recipes? Is your small-scale organic farm going to help provide a nation’s worth of plant-based heme? Is your restaurant ready to serve dishes fit for a futurivore diet?
One thing is for sure. We’re already beginning to ask the right questions about why we eat what we eat. Now we need to find the answers that will help heal the planet. ●
This article was initially published in BESIDE Issue 05: What’s our future with nature?