Katya Lipovetsky is a Libra Group intern from Israel working with Concordia’s Social Impact Department.
Before attending an event a few years ago, I requested a vegetarian meal in the food preferences section of my RSVP. At the event, when the main dish was served, it was, surprisingly, not vegetarian at all – my plate proudly featured a fish fillet along with steamed vegetables. When I asked the waiter to replace it with a dish without meat, he gave me a look and asked, “As a vegetarian, what do you even eat?”. Unfortunately, this reaction was quite common. For a long time, vegetarianism was misunderstood and misrepresented in the media, depicted as a never ending meal of pastas and bland substitutes. It left chefs stumped for creative options, and vegetarians bored (or hungry!) at mealtimes.
Today, vegetarianism is a global phenomenon likely adopted by a coworker, a family member, or even yourself. The increased demand has changed the way vegetarian food products are marketed and sold, as is the case with the level of research funding allocated for developing the next big thing.
Well, the next big thing may already be here: meatless meats produced through cell cultures and plants.
Vegetarianism began to shift in the 2000s from an animal rights motivated movement to one about culinary creativity, with supermarkets and restaurants offering customers multiple options for protein substitutes beyond the traditional tofu and seitan products. With this creativity (and a dash of scientific evolution) came new benchmarks for successful substitutions. The alternative protein industry’s target has thus evolved beyond a need for cruelty-free replacements into products that will also replicate “the real thing” – the taste of meat.
Today, it’s difficult to open the paper without reading about new alternatives. Brands like Impossible Foods, Memphis Meats, Beyond Meat, Improved Nature and others are making waves across American supermarkets and beginning to build devoted followers of vegetarians and gastronomical bravados alike. However, there remain some scientific and cultural obstacles that prevent many people from incorporating these products in their menus.
Obstacles to cultured meat
A person can choose a meat-free diet for a variety of reasons; these can include health and nutrition benefits, combating animal cruelty, and environmental conservation. Whatever the motivations, the community of non-meat-eaters often faces the dual challenge of accessibility and affordability.
To make cultured meat more of a dinnertime mainstay, greater investment is needed. This is particularly true in supporting R&D to eliminate any animal-based input in the cellular growth stage. While remarkable gains have been made in terms of affordability, cultured meat remains too costly for large scale manufacturing.
But scientific accomplishments aren’t enough either, since our food choices are very much based on social perceptions. As the old adage goes, you can lead a person to a meatless burger, but you can’t make them eat it. The prejudices we have against one product or another influence our diet, even if they are not true. On a larger scale, our cultural instincts often prevent us from consuming things labeled unnatural. We have grown up in a world that consumes animal-based meat, and it is integrated into our habits, rituals, and most basic understandings. However, for many, the expression “cultured meat” sounds like new age magic. More needs to be done to make these new alternatives more recognizable as simply “food.” Given our fragile opinions on food, consumer education that addresses both the production and consumption experience is invaluable.
Partnerships for consumer trust
To overcome investment insufficiencies in research and change consumers’ misconceptions, we must apply a collaborative approach that leverages the strengths of different actors in this field. Labs cannot conduct research without private investments, and emerging companies cannot create demand without consumer trust. Public-private partnerships (P3s) are essential to addressing these challenges.
Cross-sector collaboration allows food producers to harness investments for cultured cell research, shortening the timeline for making meatless meat more affordable. To achieve this, the private sector will have to invest in research institutes and non-profits like New Harvest and The Good Food Institute to help generate consumer demand. Food processors will have to prioritize R&D funds, and retailers will need to market and sell these products as viable alternatives to traditional meat. Governments entities like the United States’ Food and Drug Administration will have to guarantee that the products are safe for consumption. Regulation is important here — lack of direct control over the meat substitutes’ ingredients might endanger public opinion (which is already fragile enough) of meatless meats. Only if each sector has a stake in the outcome will companies be able to provide consumers with affordable and nutritious products.
After years of being a vegetarian, I’ve become quite a discerning eater, and information about what I’m consuming is now critical to me. Although there are many collaborative actions needed to incorporate meat substitutes into our diet fully, the least we can do as consumers to help those products enter our market is to get rid of our food biases and base our choices on factual information about the wide range of products available to us. Maybe then — hopefully one day soon — vegetarians will not only have a variety of menu options, but also options that make their meat-eating friends envy their dinner selection.
A lifelong vegetarian, Katya looks forward to the expansion of alternative protein products globally. Through this piece, she hopes readers will realize that becoming a vegetarian does not require giving up your favorite foods, now that there are quality meat alternatives!
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