Fungi-based Meat Alternatives Can Save Half Of Earth’s Forests

Substituting just a fifth of meat from cattle with microbial protein, a meat alternative produced in fermentation tanks, by 2050 could halve deforestation.

This new analysis by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) has been published in Nature. The market-ready meat alternative is very similar in taste and texture but is a biotech product that by replacing beef involves much less land resources and greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture and land-use change.

This goes under the assumption of a growing world population’s increasing appetite for beefy bites, and it is the first time researchers have projected the development of these market-ready meat substitutes into the future, assessing their potential impact on the environment.

“The food system is at the root of a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, with ruminant meat production being the single largest source,” says Florian Humpenoder, a researcher at PIK and lead author of the study. That is because more and more forests that store a lot of carbon are cleared for cattle grazing or growing its feed, and because of further greenhouse-gas emissions from animal agriculture. Part of the solution could be existing biotechnology: Nutritious protein-rich biomass with meat-like texture produced from microbes like fungi via fermentation, what scientists call “microbial protein”.

“The substitution of ruminant meat with microbial protein in the future could considerably reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of the food system,” says Humpenoder. “The good news is that people do not need to be afraid they can eat only greens in the future. They can continue eating burgers and the like, it’s just that those burger patties will be produced in a different way.”

Sustainable burgers: replacing minced red meat with microbial protein

The team of researchers from Germany and Sweden included microbial protein in a computer simulation model to detect the environmental effects in the context of the whole food and agriculture system, as opposed to previous studies at the level of single products. Their forward-looking scenarios run until 2050 and account for future population growth, food demand, dietary patterns as well as dynamics in land use and agriculture. As meat consumption will likely continue to rise in the future, more and more forests and non-forest natural vegetation may be doomed to extinction for pastures and cropland.

“We found that if we substituted 20 per cent of ruminant meat per capita by 2050, annual deforestation and CO2 emissions from land-use change would be halved compared to a business-as-usual scenario. The reduced numbers of cattle do not only reduce the pressure on land but also reduce methane emissions from the rumen of cattle and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizing feed or manure management,” says Humpenoder. “So replacing minced red meat with microbial protein would be a great start to reduce the detrimental impacts of present-day beef production.”

Microbial protein can be decoupled from agricultural production

“There are broadly three groups of meat analogues,” Isabelle Weindl, co-author and also a researcher at PIK, explains. “There are plant-based ones like soybean burger patties, and animal cells grown in a petri dish also known as cultured meat, which is so far very expensive, but got a lot of public attention recently. And there’s fermentation-derived microbial protein, which we consider most interesting. It is available in a large variety already today in supermarkets, for example in the UK or in Switzerland, and, importantly, it can be largely decoupled from agricultural production. Our results show that even accounting for the sugar as feedstock, microbial protein requires much less agricultural land compared to ruminant meat for the same protein supply.”

Microbial protein is made in specific cultures, just like beer or bread. The microbes are living on sugar and a steady temperature and getting out a very protein-rich product that can taste like, feel like and be as nutritious as red meat. Based on the centuries-old method of fermentation, it was developed in the 1980s. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) greenlighted a microbial protein meat alternative (mycoprotein) as safe in 2002.

Green biotechnology needs to be fuelled by green energy

“Biotechnology offers a promising toolbox for a number of land-related challenges from ecosystems preservation through improving food security,” says co-author Alexander Popp, leader of the Land Use Management group at PIK. “Alternatives to animal proteins, including substitutes for dairy products, can massively benefit animal welfare, save water and avert pressure from carbon-rich and biodiverse ecosystems.” However, there are crucial questions attached to shifting more and more production from livestock to fermentation tanks – most importantly the energy supply for the production process.

“A large-scale transformation towards biotech food requires a large-scale decarbonisation of electricity generation so that the climate protection potential can be fully developed,” Popp adds. “Yet if we do this properly, microbial protein can help meat-lovers embrace the change. It can really make a difference.” (ANI)

India’s Cities, New & Old, Sitting On Brink of Disaster

Last week, a portion of a busy, motorable over-bridge in the heart of Kolkata collapsed taking its toll on a few human lives and wounding many others. A couple of years ago, experts had warned that the more than half-a-century old bridge was in serious need of a revamp and that its structural faults could lead to a disaster of the sort that occurred on a weekday afternoon. Yet, Bengal’s government and its relevant authorities did nothing. Such urban disasters are waiting to happen, not only in Kolkata, which has its share of decrepit infrastructure and shoddily constructed facilities but also in almost every other city, large or small, in rapidly urbanising India.

Along with that rapidity comes lack of planning and haphazardness. Overcrowding and absence of adequate infrastructure such as housing, power and water supplies, roads, and policing, have already made many of India’s cities unliveable. Blame the urban planning authorities for that. This year’s monsoon wreaked havoc on several cities, notably in Kerala where floods killed and displaced people across the states, but also in the northeastern part of India and in large cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Gurgaon. In the coastal city of Mumbai, home to an estimated 22 million people, with every monsoon comes a nightmare when the city is thrown completely out of gear by floods that take lives, damage property, bring the city to a complete standstill sometimes for days. The city is old and densely populated and its drainage system requires urgent attention that successive state governments and local authorities have failed to provide.

Older Indian cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, and also India’s capital city, Delhi, are crippled by aging infrastructure that is often wilting under pressure of their increasing population, spurred chiefly by high rates of migration. Sometimes this leads to disasters such as the bridge collapse in Kolkata; but more commonly it makes living a struggle. In Delhi’s Dhaula Kuan, a heavy-traffic area, a complex flyover was built years ago but bad planning ensures that during rush hours, fast-moving vehicles get off each arm of the clover-like flyover only to land in epic traffic jams because of faulty planning. Some years ago, when a journalist raised the issue with Delhi’s then chief minister the callous response was: “Really? But I never get stuck on it.” Obviously not because when chief ministers and other VIPs travel through the city, traffic is restricted and paths are routinely cleared by their police-escorted motorcades.

Older cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, are burdened with infrastructure that is out of date and unable to cope with the explosive growth in their population over the years but newer Indian cities are faring no better. Take Gurgaon. Few Indian cities have witnessed growth the way Gurgaon (estimated population: 2.3 million) has. In the mid-1980s, the area was a flatland of green fields, forests and cropland near the Aravalli range of mountains in Haryana. Today it is a vast and sprawling mesh of high-rise office blocks, malls, condominiums, and shopping centres, all built without a semblance of sensible urban planning.

The story of Gurgaon’s boom is often trotted out as the tale of a millennium city but on the flipside of that is a story of doom. Few Indian cities are poised on the brink of disaster as Gurgaon is. During this year’s monsoon, when the city was flooded after a bout of not-so-heavy rainfall the reason was traced to the fact that the concrete from the widespread construction had blocked the area’s natural drainage system that served to take rain water out of low-lying areas.

Gurgaon’s streets are unplanned, unnamed and, sometimes un-drivable. Residences and offices have to use their own diesel-fired generators to supply electricity for most hours of the day since the city cannot supply what is required. The public transport system is a joke; many roads have no names; and there is little zoning between residences, schools, offices and commercial establishments. Air pollution levels are almost as high as Delhi (which is, according to some surveys, the world’s worst polluted city), although Gurgaon’s population is just a tenth of the capital’s.

Gurgaon’s problem is a problem that every Indian city is beset with: lack of planning and haphazard growth. Like Gurgaon, many of India’s cities lack a masterplan that demarcates zones for commercial, residential and other use and for civic infrastructure. Gurgaon, for instance, has grown because hordes of real estate developers built swarms of mushroom-like gated colonies and office blocks with little or no surrounding infrastructure. There has also been long-term destruction of the eco-system because of quarrying, mining and deforestation, all of which have been driven by the construction boom. And what little infrastructure there is—such as roads, over-bridges and underpasses—is shoddily built and usually inadequate for the longer-term.

The Band-Aid like approach to urban planning is common in most Indian cities. Disasters, such as the recent bridge collapse in Kolkata, are waiting to happen across the country, in cities new and old. The pressure of population on India’s cities will continue. Today around 30% of Indians live in the country’s urban centres; by 2025, that is projected to grow to 60%. Will India’s cities be able to handle such growth? It’s difficult to provide an optimistic answer. When archaeologists unearthed the ruins of ancient Indian towns such as Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, they found urban facilities built in 2500 BCE that were meticulously planned to ensure that life was comfortable and hassle-free for those who inhabited them. The irony is that centuries later, India’s urban planners are struggling to ensure that the country’s cities are able to just function normally.

Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan  ]]>