“You ARE already eating bugs!”
Gaia Vince argues for meat alternatives
The award-winning science journalist explores alternatives to meat – including plant based diets and the insects you are already unwittingly eating
We need to dramatically change how we feed ourselves.Gaia Vince
By Gaia Vince
Gaia Vince is an award-winning science and environmental journalist and broadcaster. Her latest book, Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval, is longlisted for the Financial Times Business Book of the Year award.
Today, four fifths of the planet’s ice free land is used to grow our food. Of the 300,000 species of edible plant, we rely on just 17 species to make up 90 per cent of our diet.
Much of this is farmed monocultures of cereals, produced by depleting aquifers, exhausting soils, killing pollinators and other insects, and polluting waterways. The essential activity of creating our food also involves the inhumane treatment of animals, and is mired in social desperation and poverty that leads to farmers taking their own lives. All of these troubles pale in comparison to the impacts of climate change on today’s food producing areas over the coming decades. One third of global food production is threatened by climate change this century, according to an analysis in 2021.
For a plant based diet
With limited agricultural land available, by far the most effective and biggest change we will make will be to adopt a plant based diet in which meat and dairy are expensive luxuries.
We don’t need to stop eating meat completely – livestock will still play a role in agriculture – but farmed animals will need to be far fewer, free ranging, grass and pasture fed, with a little seaweed added to their diet to reduce methane burps. Wild foods such as fish, and cattle products such as dairy, will be priced based on their availability and environmental impact, and thus, in most places for most people, rarely eaten – as caviar or game birds are today. After all, we will lack the grazing areas or resources to keep farmed livestock at anywhere approaching today’s scale.
We don’t need to stop eating meat completely
However, this will not be a hardship or deprivation because our nutritional needs can be met fully and easily without animal products, and our palates amply placated with a variety of alternatives, all of which have far lower environmental costs.
There are signs the transition has started. There are already a wide variety of meat substitutes, particularly for processed foods, made from plant and fungi proteins such as nuts, soya and pea. While soya likes a long, warm growing season, and has struggled to grow in northern regions, conditions in most of northern Europe and Canada, for instance, will be able to support the crop within a couple of decades. Peas, meanwhile, are already tolerant of temperatures as low as –2°C, so agricultural expansion for these meat substitutes shouldn’t be restricted by our northern migration.
A wide variety of plant based dairy products is also disrupting the global livestock market, which is worth $1.2 trillion a year but receives $100 billion per year of meat and dairy subsidies. Once they dry up, investment in alternatives will boom.
Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, is ambitiously targeting 2035 for the end of industrial meat farming and deep sea fishing. The alternative, as the World Resources Institute calculates, is a world in which we would need 600 million more hectares of cropland and pasture – an area bigger than the EU – by 2050 to enable continued meat and dairy consumption. In other words, there is no alternative.
Producers are using biotechnology to create fake meats that bleed like beef – the Impossible Burger is made from a soy protein with a yeast that has been genetically modified to produce leghemoglobin, an ironcarrying molecule like haemoglobin that gives the burger its meaty bloodiness. However, most of what we enjoy about meat is the taste and aroma of the Maillard chemical reaction: this is the fusion of sugars and amino acids that occurs when the food browns during cooking. This can now be convincingly replicated with plant based molecules.
For those who want to bite into flesh, the next generation of lab grown meats will reach mass market later this decade, as huge investment in this new industry grows – it increased sixfold in 2020 alone. The meat is created from single cell dividing muscle and fat cells that are grown in chains that are layered up, stretched and relaxed in a growth medium, until a steak accumulates. The advantage of this is that the labs can be located anywhere, and the biotech industry will be a large job creator for migrants in many new cities.
Investors, including Google cofounder Sergey Brin, are betting on huge bioreactors to produce a cheap range of popular meat cuts for a fraction of the ecological cost. Some 80 per cent of people in the UK and US are open to eating meat produced in a factory rather than a field, according to a study in 2021, with the researchers concluding that cultivated meat is likely to be widely accepted by the general public. Lab meat will likely be a luxury product, though, because of the hefty energy costs involved.
The potential of insects
The lowest impact meat comes from insects, which are currently enjoyed by 2 billion people in 130 countries. If you eat anything with carmine, a red food colouring in sausages, pastries, yoghurts and juices, it’s likely you’ve been eating the cochineal scale insect. The bugs are farmed on cacti in Peru in an industry worth some $38 million per year, which supports more than 32,000 farmers.
Insect farming has huge potential as a sustainable animal feed and an addition to human diet, and creates useful byproducts that can be used as fertiliser and material for medical purposes. Insects can be bred in significant numbers without taking up large amounts of land, water or feed – in fact they can be fed on our waste products, including human sewage, in a pleasing example of the closed loop economy.
Consider that the average farm animal converts just 10 per cent of the calories it eats into meat and dairy foods, and just 25 per cent of the protein. Crickets or black soldier flies, by contrast, need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half that of pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Insects produce body mass at an astonishing rate, in part because as cold blooded animals they don’t need to expend energy on regulating their body temperature.
In particular, insect farming has huge potential for farmed fish feed, providing a higher quality, protein rich substitute for existing, unsustainable wildcatch fish protein. And insects make a much more efficient livestock feed than grain: it takes about a hectare of land to produce a ton of soy per year; the same area could produce up to 150 tons of insect protein. The industry has attracted significant investors in the past five years, hoping to disrupt the $400 billion global animal feed market.
As migrant populations concentrate in cities in the north, insects will be the most versatile and appropriate livestock. Black soldier fly larvae could be farmed in multi storey buildings or basements located around our cities, where they can make use of municipal waste streams. The entire insect is edible and the powder produced is a superfood, high in protein and essential fats, and rich in micronutrients such as iron and vitamins. This will be a primary source of protein and fats for our nine billion population by midcentury.
It’s not difficult…
Most people will transition to a plant based diet over the next decade with little effort or conscious decision making on their part, given the right nudges. One study showed that where menus are 75 per cent vegetarian, meat eaters will tend to order plant based dishes.
I am not a vegetarian, yet I mainly eat plant based foods, use plant based oil and butter substitutes, and make my porridge with oat milk. The main occasions I eat meat or dairy are when I go out to eat, and choose something from a menu that I wouldn’t cook for myself – it’s a treat. The point is, I haven’t made any difficult decisions to eat a mainly plant based diet. Neither will you.
I haven’t made any difficult decisions to eat a mainly plant based diet. Neither will you.
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What’s so good about this?
We are facing a species emergency. We must do everything we can to mitigate the impact of climate change, because the brutal truth is that huge swathes of the world are becoming uninhabitable.
This is an edited extract from Gaia Vince’s Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval (Allen Lane, 2022), republished with author permission. She provides an examination of the most pressing question facing humanity.
Meet the writer
Gaia Vince is an honorary senior research fellow at UCL and a science broadcaster interested in the interplay between humans and the planetary environment. She has held senior editorial posts at Nature and New Scientist, and her writing has appeared in the Guardian, The Times and Scientific American. It’s 15 years since the environmental journalist began her 900-day journey around the world to take stock of humanity’s impact. With Adventures in the Anthropocene (Chatto & Windus, 2014), she became the first woman to win the Royal Society’s Science Book of the Year. The wandering adventurer also fronted UK series Escape to Costa Rica (Channel 4). By holding up a mirror up to humanity, she urges us to think about human sustainability.