Eco-Friendly Burgers: Substituting Beef with Microbial Protein

One dilemma that today's society is faced with is establishing how the current food system will support a growing population in a changing environment. The impact of the meat industry on deforestation is vast, with beef production alone accounting for 36% of all agriculture-linked forest replacement, according to the World Resources Institute.

Eco-Friendly Burgers: Substituting Beef with Microbial Protein.

Image Credit: Potsdam Institute For Climate Impact Research

Now, a group of researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have published a study in the journal Nature which presents evidence that claims that replacing meat products with a microbial protein - a meat alternative produced in fermentation tanks - could reduce deforestation by 50% by the year 2050.

The fungi-based meat could not only help save the Earth’s forests, but it could also offer consumers a conscious climate-friendly choice without compromising on taste and texture as the meat alternative closely resembles the characteristics of beef products. 

Based on the age-old method of fermentation, the process for producing microbial proteins was initially developed in the 1980s. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved microbial protein meat alternatives as safe for human consumption in 2002.

Lowering Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Less land and resources are required to produce the biotech beef substitute, therefore having a direct impact on lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

The food system is at the root of a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, with ruminant meat production being the single largest source.

Florian Humpenöder, Researcher at PIK and Lead Author of the Study

Reducing the need to replace forested areas with cattle-friendly plains for grazing or growing feed would help protect the natural environment while lowering emissions from cattle-based agriculture. Consumers would still receive a protein-rich meat substitute that tastes good using the process of fungi-fermentation, meaning that people still get to enjoy the types of foods they love.

The good news is that people do not need to be afraid they can eat only greens in the future. They can continue eating burgers and the like, it’s just that those burger patties will be produced in a different way.

Florian Humpenöder, Researcher at PIK and Lead Author of the Study

With a more climate-conscious population attuned to the need to take up alternative lifestyles, more and more people are already turning towards meat alternatives and plant-based foods. The only real challenge these days is finding an alternative that not only does good but tastes good.

The Impact of Replacing Meat with Microbial Proteins

To see how the microbial protein meat alternatives could offer environmental benefits, the researchers ran a computer simulation to identify the effects and impact on the wider agriculture and food industry.

Devising a series of different scenarios, the researchers focused on various areas of study, such as future population growth, future food demand and changing dietary patterns, in addition to dynamic changes in land use and agriculture up until 2050.

As it is anticipated that, due to population growth, meat consumption will potentially continue to rise in the future, it could pose a significant problem for forests and non-forest natural vegetation, with even the risk of extinction for various plant and even animal species being a very real possibility.

Offering a viable alternative that would satisfy the nutritional and dietary needs of the wider population while providing a product people enjoy consuming would be an excellent way to reduce the negative impact that the meat industry has on the planet.

Green Solutions for Green Solutions

Biotechnology has much to offer in terms of being an environmentally compatible approach to tackling various land-related challenges, from the preservation of ecosystems to improving food security for a growing population. Yet, to ensure the production process is truly environmentally friendly, the energy supply must also be considered when manufacturing at scale.

Therefore, green solutions also require green solutions. So, while meat alternatives and other plant-based products can protect the land, improve animal welfare and save water, the production of these solutions must not come at the cost of high-energy demands.

A large-scale transition toward biotech food also demands the widespread decarbonization of the electricity supply so that climate protection can realize its full potential. So, if executed properly, the production of microbial protein meat products could not only see meat-lovers embrace the transition, but it could also make a real planetary difference.

References and Further Reading

Pik-potsdam.de. 2022. Fungi-based meat alternatives to help save Earth’s forests — Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. [online] Available at: https://www.pik-potsdam.de/en/news/latest-news/fungi-based-meat-alternatives-to-help-save-earth2019s-forests

Humpenöder, F., Bodirsky, B., et al., (2022) Projected environmental benefits of replacing beef with microbial protein. Nature, [online] 605(7908), pp.90-96. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-04629-w

Research.wri.org. (2022) Deforestation Linked to Agriculture | Global Forest Review. [online] Available at: https://research.wri.org/gfr/forest-extent-indicators/deforestation-agriculture?utm_medium=blog&utm_source=insights&utm_campaign=globalforestreview

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David J. Cross

Written by

David J. Cross

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.

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