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Mimicking meat

As more Americans consider switching meat for alternative proteins, the beef industry focuses on beef’s nutritional contribution to the food supply.

Relying on three generations of wisdom, Matthew and Jessica Hanslik have a deep understanding of their cattle and land. The Texas producers’ knowledge, and continued learning about best practices, is a powerful tool in ensuring they raise healthy animals and high-quality beef in the most sustainable way possible.

“We raise Charolais cattle because they adapt well to the Texas climate, have great mothering instincts, have good genetic consistency, grow rapidly, and have ideal conformation for producing high-quality cuts of beef,” says Matthew Hanslik. “The quality calves they produce are a direct representation of how well our herd is managed and taken care of.” 

From the moment calves are born, they are raised on pasture alongside their mothers who provide nutrient-dense milk (about a gallon per day). Their diet also includes a bermudagrass hybrid and 12% protein range meal. In addition, a molasses lick tub, salt block, and vitamin/mineral mix are available for cattle.

Detailed records document how each animal is managed and cared for. “It’s important that we produce a high-quality product to not only feed our family but the rest of the world,” says Jessica Hanslik.

For years, the family has been experimenting with chicken manure as an alternative to traditional fertilizers. Within the first year’s use, Matthew says the results were staggering. “We didn’t realize the effect the micronutrients and organic matter in that manure would have on the land,” he says. “It’s also when we discovered the importance of soil health.”

The manure has led to increased hay and corn yields and improved grazing land.

Cattle’s Place in the World

As a result of scientific and technological advancements, Ashley McDonald says the U.S. cattle industry is more sustainable than any other country. Statistics quantify the strides made. Between 1961 and 2018, the U.S. beef industry reduced emissions per pound of beef by more than 40%, while actually producing more than 60% more beef per animal.

“The cattle industry continues to innovate to maintain that status,” says McDonald, executive director of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.
However, many Americans believe the nation’s diet could become completely plant-based by 2039, according to a survey conducted by marketing research firm OnePoll. One in three respondents agreed everyone will be consuming meatless food in the future, signifying a major consumer shift.

It starts, says Patrick Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, by recognizing the problem isn’t that consumers don’t love meat, but rather that it’s produced the wrong way. From Brown’s perspective, “animals are a prehistoric, massively inefficient, and catastrophically disruptive technology for turning plants into meat.

In a recent paper that has not been formally peer reviewed, “Eliminating Animal Agriculture Would Negate 56% of Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas Emissions Through 2100,” Brown and coauthor Michael B. Eisen outline the potential impact eliminating animal agriculture would have on atmospheric greenhouse gas levels and global warming.

Alison Van Eenennaam says the authors make several startling assumptions and calculations. “According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture, forestry, and land use are associated with 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Total emissions from global livestock including feed and land use represent 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. For the removal of livestock to ‘negate 56% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions’ takes some motivated reasoning,” says Van Eenennaam, Cooperative Extension specialist at University of California-Davis.

In the United States, eliminating livestock from the food supply chain would reduce greenhouse gas emissions only by 2.6%, according to “Nutritional and Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Removing Animals From U.S. Agriculture,” written by Robin R. White and Mary Beth Hall and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2017. 

A Complex Argument

The arguments for and against the efficiency and sustainability of animal- 
vs. plant-based food production are complex. While much of the discussion centers around doing away with livestock to save the planet, how that change will affect food security must also be considered.

“If you eliminate animal agriculture, you take about 40% of the protein out of the global protein market. Today, there are 105 countries around the world that are protein insecure,” says Vaughn Holder, ruminant research director, Alltech. “Before we decide to take beef off the table, we must first figure out how we are going to replace that protein.”

Few foods offer the nutritional mix that beef provides. “It’s what makes it so unique,” says Shalene McNeill, executive director of nutritional science, health, and wellness at National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “You can get protein from other sources like alternative meats, but you don’t get the same mix and quality of nutrients such as iron, zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins like you can from beef.”

Also beef is leaner today. Nearly 40 cuts of beef meet the government guidelines for lean protein. 

“A recent study from Duke University [A Metabolomics Comparison of Plant-Based Meat and, Grass-Fed Meat] shows that if you compare the metabolites, or the makeup, of a plant-based burger to a grass-fed beef burger, they are very different,” McNeill says. “Beef is a practical choice for building a healthy diet, and mimicking the natural quality and matrix of nutrients beef provides is difficult.”

Some companies are taking a different path by growing meat from animal cells in vats. Yet, creating a product that is nutritionally equivalent to real protein is one of the biggest problems the cultured meat industry faces. 

“If cultured meat is to match or exceed the nutritional value of conventional meat products, nutrients found in meat not synthesized by muscle cells must be supplied as supplements in the culture medium,” Van Eenennaam says.
Cultured meat will also have to replicate the taste and texture of meat from animals, and like the plant-based market, it must be done in a way that is cost-competitive.

A market worth watching

Currently, plant-based meat alternatives represent a very small share of the meat market, and only one company, Eat Just, has received approval to sell cultured meat to the public. Consulting firm Kearney predicts a dramatic shift by 2040. Plant-based alternatives will comprise 25% of meat consumed worldwide, while cultured meat will make up 35%, according to its 2019 report. The report also says, “Cultured meat will win in the long run. However, novel vegan meat replacements (e.g., Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger) will be essential in the transition.”

Van Eenennaam is not so optimistic. “I think we will need a multitude of approaches to address this demand for protein, but I am not remotely convinced that meat substitutes will supply 60% of global meat production by 2040,” she says. 

Consumers are going to experiment and try new products. What might cause Kearney’s predictions to become a reality?

As a food and agricultural economist who studies what we eat and why we eat it, Purdue University’s Jayson Lusk says that while the price of alternative meats would adversely affect demand, other factors such as taste and safety are more decisive influencers.

The high level of venture capital and investment money being funneled into this sector could be another factor effecting the outcome of Kearney’s predictions. “Funds are likely to be spent on science, which improves the taste and functionality while reducing the cost,” Lusk says. “However, our analysis shows consumer perceptions and preferences are currently not at a place that would support such a shift in demand.”

While Aleph Farms has created a cultured steak, the research Lusk conducted with colleagues Glynn Tonsor and Ted Schroeder notes that virtually all the innovation has focused on ground products. (See “Replicating the Rib Eye below.”) 

“Consumers enjoy the different cuts of meat beef offers,” Lusk says. “It also remains to be seen whether the science will advance to the point that these products will truly replicate the eating experience of animal-based products.”

Cattle also utilize rangeland and grassland not suitable for any other use, which means they are likely to be raised in these settings for the foreseeable future.

That said, Lusk still believes the potential of alternative meats is worth watching. It is a sector that has the Hansliks’ attention.

“In the face of a growing global population, we need ruminant animals, like beef cattle, to help make more protein with less,” Matthew says. “As beef producers, we need to keep telling our story and sharing the good news about beef.”

No matter how many ways beef’s story is shared, educating consumers on the place for this unique protein in their diets will be part of that story.

Replicating the rib eye

Globally, there are more than 70 cellular meat companies today. Statista, a market research and analysis provider, predicts the industry will make up as much as 30% of the $1.8 billion global meat market by 2040.

“Animal domestication began around 10,000 years ago by observing and replicating natural phenomena under controlled conditions,” says Didier Toubia, cofounder and CEO of Aleph Farms. “Cellular ag works in a similar way, but on the level of the edible part of the animal — the meat.”

Headquartered in Israel, Aleph Farms’ first product is a thin-cut steak. It was created using a four-step process.

Step 1. Cell sampling and isolation. Initially, a small sample of cells is collected from a healthy, living animal. “From this sample, our researchers select the best starter cells for optimal meat taste, nutrition, and efficient production,” Toubia says. “Starter cells are then stored in cell banks for use in production, without modification of their genetic material.”

Step 2. Feeding and growing cells. Cells grow inside a cultivator, which mimics the internal environment of the animal’s body. “Cells are provided water and feed to grow,” he explains. “The nutrient-rich liquid feed (growth media) contains energy (e.g., sugars, fats), vitamins and minerals, protein building blocks (amino acids), and growth stimuli (growth factor proteins).”

Step 3. Maturing cells. “Similar to the naturally occurring structural tissue in an animal, our plant-based scaffolding provides a structure on which the cells grow, organize into a shape, and mature into muscle tissue,” Toubia says. “Our plant-based scaffold plays a similar role as the extracellular matrix in the cow’s body.”

Step 4. Harvesting steak. Once the steak has grown to the desired size and characteristics, it is harvested and ready to be cooked. The company says cultivating its thin-cut steak takes three to four weeks. “This is compared with the two to three years it takes through conventional methods that include breeding, raising, and slaughtering cows,” Toubia says.

The thin-cut steak (pictured above) will be available in the latter part of 2022, pending regulatory approval. Initially, the cost of the thin-cut steak will be more than a conventional steak. However, Toubia says Aleph has a plan to achieve price parity within five years.

The company is also developing the capabilities for a second product line — a thicker, fattier rib eye steak. The underlying technology, 3-D bioprinting, enables Aleph Farms to produce any cut of steak in any dimension. 

“Our rib eye incorporates muscle and fat similar to its slaughtered counterpart and has the same organoleptic attributes of a delicious, tender, and juicy rib eye,” Toubia says, adding that it will be a few more years before the rib eye is launched.

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