Meat is surely one of the most preferred foods for human beings. As history suggests, mankind started eating meat around 3.4 million years ago.
What makes meat so popular is the fact that it is a major source of protein and two essential nutrients -- vitamin B12 and heme iron -- which are seldom found in other foods.
People eat more meat than ever these days since demand has risen alongside a growing global population.
By 2050, the global population is expected to increase from the existing 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion while the figure could reach nearly 11 billion at the turn of the century.
But the rising demand for meat is not fueled solely by population growth as economic development and the expanding middle-class also play a pivotal role.
This is because as people get richer, they can afford to eat more meat.
Therefore, the overall demand is expected to grow by a staggering 70 per cent in the next three decades.
Global meat production has more than tripled in the last 50 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In 2019, around 366 million tonnes of meat was produced worldwide, FAO data shows.
To meet this considerable demand, roughly 80 billion animals are slaughtered each year.
Besides, maintaining such a large quantity of livestock has serious environmental implications on greenhouse gas emissions as well as land and water use.
Cattle farming accounts for 70 per cent of the total arable land usage worldwide and 46 per cent of all food crop production for feed.
About 60 per cent of the global biodiversity loss is caused by the way we produce food, according to a study.
The world loses more forest area every year and it is estimated that almost 70 per cent of the deforested areas are converted into agricultural land that are mostly used for livestock or to grow crops like soy which is used as feed.
Meat production also contributes 18 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
But here's the billion-dollar question -- how do we cater to the demand for meat in an environment friendly and sustained manner?
The answer lies with if we can change the way meat is sourced and produced. This is easier said than done, however, history strongly backs us as around 12,000 years ago, our ancestors had revolutionised the way meat was sourced by introducing farming instead of hunting.
Experts recently introduced a novel idea they call 'meat substitute' or 'alternative meat' as a replacement for traditional meat.
But what does 'meat substitute' or 'alternative meat' refer to?
There are two types of meat alternatives: plant-based and cell-based, also known as lab-grown or cultured meat.
Plant-based meat, as the name suggests, is made from plant proteins and is meant to taste like regular meat.
It is a combination of a variety of ingredients like grains and legumes, which are utilised for their proteins, fibres, and starches and converted into isolates, flours and concentrates.
Aside from the protein components in grains and legumes, their fibers and starches are used to make the products more authentic.
Plant-based meat recently started to gain popularity in the western world, particularly the US. A study reveals that 40 per cent of American consumers have tried this food.
Global fast food giants KFC, Burger King, Subway, Del Taco, Qdoba and many others have started to collaborate with plant-based meat producers like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat.
As a result, their stock prices have soared. When Beyond Meat went public in May 2019, their stock was initially selling at $25 but eventually went up to $120 recently.
Meanwhile, Impossible Foods was able to get an additional $300 million in investor funding. The global market for plant-based meat is expected to be worth over $7 billion by 2025. 2019 was a turning point for this industry as plant-based meat sales reached the $5 billion mark with a growth rate of 18 per cent.
Slowly but surely there has been another development taking place in labs, where scientists are working to cultivate meat from animal cells, called cell-based or cultured meat.
In simple terms, stem cells are taken from the muscle of an animal and then added with nutrients, salts, pH buffers, and a growth factor before being left to multiply.
This is still in the development phase but is expected to get the nod from the regulators by 2021. The Singapore Food Agency has approved cell-cultured chicken, making the country the first in the world to give its go-ahead for selling meat created in a lab.
According to Barclays, the market for meat alternatives could be worth $140 billion within the next decade, or about 10 per cent of the $1.4 trillion global meat industry. One report estimates that 35 per cent of all meat will be cultured by 2040.
This development would certainly help the world resolve many of its challenges by eliminating the need to breed, raise and slaughter animals for food.
Figures suggest that cell-based meat has the potential to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 78-96 per cent while also using 99 per cent less land and 82-96 per cent less water.
It can create additional health benefits like extra nutrients or fewer contaminants like antibiotics, pathogens or microplastics. In the future, consumers could choose to eat chicken with added vitamins or beef with omega-3 fats.
Not everyone believes that lab meat is the ultimate solution as there are obviously a few things to yet be tested, like mass scale production capacity and distribution.
The other critical challenge lies with product cost and whether the vast majority of the world would be able to afford alternative meat.
Another important factor is the consumers' acceptance, which varies geographically. A global survey funded by the Animal Advocacy Research Fund revealed that 29.8 per cent of consumers in the US, 59.3 per cent of the Chinese consumers, and 48.7 per cent of the Indian consumers would be willing to regularly purchase cell-based meat.
This bold innovation is certainly going to be a big stepping stone towards addressing the world's most critical challenge -- ensuring food and nutrition for all.
(Views expressed here are personal)
The author is chairman and managing director of BASF Bangladesh