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A meaty issue. Nature. April 2017

Our insatiable appetite for red meat is bad for our health and for the planet. Sustainable alternatives are in the pipeline, but will they convince us to make the switch? As the burger hits the pan, it sizzles. A familiar smoky aroma fills the air. The first bite reveals a juicy pink centre. But this is no ordinary hamburger. It’s formed entirely from plants and was made to mimic a burger in every way by scientists in California’s Silicon Valley.

“Meat is really delicious stuff, but it’s created by a very inefficient process,” says Chris Davis, the biotechnologist who leads research and development at Impossible Foods in Redwood City — the company behind the Impossible Burger. “And in the last 40–50 years it’s gone from something that’s eaten on special occasions to something that’s eaten all the time.”

By 2050, the human population is expected to increase by around 15% to more than 9 billion people, bringing unparalleled environmental and nutritional challenges. During the same period, the global demand for meat is expected to rise by 73%, and meeting this demand will require an additional 160 million tonnes of meat per year.

Our planet cannot easily keep up with the anticipated demand for meat. “We’re running out of good land,” says Davis. Thirty per cent of Earth’s land surface is already devoted to livestock production, a practice that accounts for nearly 15% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Cows are the worst culprits, not only because they emit a lot of methane, but also because the production of beef uses vast quantities of water — 15,415 litres for a kilogram of beef — as well as land.

What’s more, eating red meat in high quantities — as is typical in developed countries — is bad for our health, and typically associated with a higher risk of diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Switching to more sustainable protein sources would both ease health concerns and help to tackle climate change, but there’s a problem: many of us are unable to wean ourselves off beef. Despite a change in tastes in Western countries over the past three decades that has seen people swapping their steak for chicken and pork, public appetite for beef — particularly in the form of hamburgers — remains strong.

 

Read the full article on Nature.com here (behind a paywall).

Olive Heffernan

Olive Heffernan is a London-based freelance environment writer. Olive mostly writes about climate change and its impacts, but also writes more broadly on sustainable resource use. Here you can find an archive of her recent articles, link to her Twitter feed and her blog.

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