“Meat” a New Sustainability Solution
Hybrid meat may sound like a science project gone wrong, but that is not the case. Hybrid meats are products made from a mix of animal- and non-animal-based meat and are a new way that people can go green in the kitchen. In order to understand how this new food is changing the market, let’s delve into what it is, how it impacts the environment, and why consumers are choosing this new product.
When you combine animal-based meat and non-animal-based meat, you get hybrid meat. The animal meat can come from livestock or be lab grown. Lab-grown meat, also known as cell-based or cultured meat, is created when a small amount of tissue from a live animal is collected and put into conditions that allow it to proliferate into meat. While there are a few companies that use lab-grown meat in their hybrid products, it is not very common. The non-animal component can come from mushrooms, plants, seaweed, or any other non-animal source. Some examples of hybrid meats are burgers made out of beef and mushrooms, or ground beef that is a blend of beef and veggies.
But, why mix and match? Why not make ground beef out of just beef? One reason is that animal-based meat has a high carbon footprint, and using less of it is a way to be more sustainable. The New York Times article “Your Questions about Food and Climate Change, Answered” reports that to produce enough beef for fifty grams of protein, on average 17.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. Fifty grams of protein is about the same weight as ten #2 pencils, and 17.7 kg is about how much a four-year-old weighs. That is a lot of carbon dioxide for very little protein. In contrast, producing fifty grams of bean protein emits 0.4 kg of carbon dioxide. For reference, 0.4 kg is about the weight of four sticks of butter.
One of the reasons that the carbon footprint of animal-based meat is so high is that producing it is a two-step process. First, farmers need to grow the animal feed. The greenhouse gas emissions in this step come from all kinds of sources, such as the energy needed to fuel farm machinery and the fuel used to run the tractors that harvest the crops. Second, farmers need to raise the animals, which again results in greenhouse gas emissions from processes such as heating animal pens. In contrast, for beans or any other plant-based product, only part one of this process happens. This is one of the reasons the overall carbon footprint of farming plants is lower than farming livestock.
Farming livestock also has a high water footprint. Farmers need water to grow the crops the animals eat and use water to care for the animals. In fact, the Water Footprint Network (as cited on the U.S. Geological Survey website) reports that it takes an estimated 500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of chicken. In contrast, a pound of wheat takes about 110-250 gallons of water to grow. Therefore, when your burger, hotdog, or chicken nugget is 50% plant-based, you are reducing the carbon and water footprints of your meal.
Research on lab-grown meat is not as definitive. Some studies have found lab-grown meat to be a more sustainable alternative. For example, the study “Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production” by Hanna L. Tuomisto and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos found that “cultured meat involves approximately 7–45% lower energy use (only poultry has lower energy use), 78–96% lower GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water use depending on the product compared.” On the other hand, the study “Considering Plant-Based Meat Substitutes and Cell-Based Meats: A Public Health and Food Systems Perspective” by Raychel E. Santo et al. found that “[c]ell-based meat could provide benefits as well for most environmental concerns, with a few caveats: the GHG footprint, blue water footprint, and industrial energy use could be higher than those of farmed beef in some cases.” As lab-grown meat becomes more widely produced, researchers will be able to better understand its true environmental impacts.
When reading about the 500 gallons of water needed to produce a single pound of chicken, it may seem like switching to hybrid meat isn’t enough to make a significant change. But even small changes are meaningful. The previously mentioned New York Times article reports that if someone with a typical Western diet partly replaces their meat and dairy intake with plants, they can reduce their personal food-related emissions by 30%.
It is not just the earth that will thank you, but your body as well. According to Hayden Stewart and Jeffrey Hyman in an article for the USDA Economic Research Service, the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans “recommends that people needing 2,000 calories per day include 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables in their daily diets…[but] the average American falls far short—consuming only 0.9 cups of fruit and 1.4 cups of vegetables per day.” Hybrid meats with vegetables can help you work towards filling that gap. Additionally, in the Harvard Health Publishing article “What’s the Beef With Red Meat?”, Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explains that eating large amounts of processed and red meat is linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death. Hybrid meat is a great choice for those who are trying to improve their health by reducing their meat consumption.
How does hybrid meat stack up against the other options in the grocery store? Hybrid meat still contains animal products, so if you really want to reduce your carbon and water footprint, plant-based meat is a better option. Hybrid meat is not a total health solution, either. A steak made out of hybrid meat still contains red meat, and a hot dog made of hybrid meat still contains processed meat. A veggie steak or veggie hot dog would likely be a healthier option, though how the plants in plant-based meats are processed largely impacts how healthy the product is overall.
If not for those who want the absolute healthiest or most sustainable option or those who don’t eat animal products, who is hybrid meat for? It’s for those who want to make sustainable food choices but don’t want to fully give up meat. Flexitarians, or people who follow a mostly plant-based diet with some meat sprinkled in, are one of the main groups hybrid meats were originally marketed towards.
Additionally, buyers looking for an improved taste may also choose hybrid meats, since these products focus on having an enhanced taste brought out by the added ingredients. This may seem like a limited customer base, but there is interest in the hybrid meat market. It is part of the larger meat alternatives market, which is set to grow. According to a Bloomberg press announcement, “If the alternative meat market follows a similar growth pattern to that of plant-based milk, [Bloomberg Intelligence] projects the alternative meat market to excel in size from $4.2 billion to $74 billion in the next ten years.”
Hybrid meat isn’t a perfect solution to all our environmental and health problems, but it is an important step in the right direction. So, the next time you bite into a burger, try a hybrid burger. You can change the world, one meal at a time.
Taskeen Khan has a bachelor’s degree in integrative biology and a minor in sustainability, energy, and the environment from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is passionate about science education and communication, as well as research.