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The Global Dilemma of Food Production

The United Nations refers to food, energy, and water as the ‘nexus’ of sustainable development. As the global population increases, the demand for all three has seen a rapid increase. They are also strongly interlinked: food production requires water and energy.

Feeding 8 billion people worldwide (according to the UN as of mid-November 2022) would no doubt require a lot of water and energy.

Ensuring everyone in the world has access to a sufficient and nutritious diet (in an environmentally sustainable way) is one of the greatest challenges we face.

The Food Conundrum

Agriculture is the leading source of pollution in many countries. Pesticides, fertilizers, and other toxic chemicals used by farmers can poison fresh water, marine ecosystems, air, and soil.

These chemicals can remain in the environment for generations. Many pesticides are suspected of disrupting the hormonal systems of people and wildlife. Fertilizer run-off impacts waterways and coral reefs.

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Source: Our World in Data

Here are some insights on the environmental impacts of food production:

  • 94% of non-human mammal biomass is livestock (meaning farm cows, pics, lamb, etc., outweigh wild mammals by a factor of 15 to 1).
  • 78% of the global ocean and freshwater eutrophication (pollution of waterways with nutrient-rich water) is caused by agriculture.
  • 71% of bird biomass is poultry livestock (meaning farm chickens, turkeys, etc., outweigh wild birds by a factor of more than 3-to-1).
  • 70% of the global freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture.
  • Half of the world’s habitable land (ice- and desert-free, estimated 51 million km2) is used for agriculture.
  • Food production accounts for 26% of global greenhouse emissions (13.7 billion tonnes of CO₂ equivalent).

As you can see, the environmental impacts of food production are nothing short of staggering. Then again, ignorance is bliss. Take beef for example, people have eaten the flesh of bovines since prehistoric times. Little do we know that they are the single highest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

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Source: Our World in Data

We Need a Better Way

It goes without saying that meat production is one of the biggest threats to the world’s ecological balance. According to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 14.5% of global CO₂ emissions are linked to livestock farming.

While it remains to be seen if we can convince people in reducing meat consumption in their diet, there are already efforts to generate alternatives that would allow us to enjoy meat products while reducing adverse effects on the environment.

In short, researchers are looking for a way to establish a meat industry without animals. Yes, it may sound absurd, but decades ago people couldn’t imagine cars without a combustion engine right?

We’re not far off either. In the past decade, two types of farmed meat alternatives have been increasingly part of the mainstream discussion: plant-based meat and cell-based meat.

1. Plant-based Meat Substitutes

These are essentially food products made from vegetarian or vegan ingredients with the intention to mimic the textures, flavors, and possibly the nutrient profiles of farmed meat or seafood using non-animal ingredients. Some of the most spectacular results have been with plant-based meat substitutes. This is because meat substitution with plant-based foods has a long history.

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McDonald’s McPlantTM – Plant-based burger launched in 2019.

Soy protein isolates or soybean flour and gluten are usually used as the foundation for most meat substitutes that are available on the market. Soy protein isolate is a highly pure form of soy protein with a minimum protein content of 90%. It is therefore considered a ‘complete protein’ as it contains all the essential amino acids that are crucial for proper human growth and development. Other core ingredients include wheat and corn.

A challenge to consider in the production of plant-based meat substitutes is that they rely heavily on crops, such as soy, wheat, and corn, which contribute to groundwater contamination due to nutrient runoff.

2. Cell-based Meat Substitutes

Scientists have found out that muscle fibers and thus meat can be cultivated using muscle cells from animals. That’s right, meat can now be grown in vitro from a petri dish.

To be more precise, lab-grown meat is obtained by harvesting cells from muscle fibers, called myocytes.

These cells can be cultured in a bioreactor to artificially create the meat that animals produce in their bodies. The cultures would be useful for producing things like minced meat to make hamburgers or sausages.

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A visual representation of lab-grown meat by Anyaivanova via GettyImages

Unfortunately, certain factors are hindering cell-based meat substitutes from large-scale production. Among the many challenges faced in this sector include its current high production costs (compared to other meat substitutes as well as farmed meat products for that matter), the addition of other cells such as fat cells to emulate the natural-tasting meat, as well as generating the structures needed for a specific cut (like steaks).

3. Insects as Meat Substitutes

Yes, this may be appalling to some, but it turns out that eating insects is common in a number of countries. This includes Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, China, certain parts of Africa, The Netherlands, and even the United States.

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Grilled insects on sticks by Ivan via Getty Images

Did you know that insect-based food products contain about 60% protein and are full of vitamin B12 and contain more calcium than milk? In fact, more than 2,000 insect species worldwide are considered edible.

Growing mealworms (and processing them at the larvae stage) produce only a tenth of the emissions and take up much less space than conventional meat production.

4. 3D-Printed Meats

In Israel, the company Redefine Meat has produced complete steaks, which try to recreate the texture and flavor of a real steak, using 3D printing technology in which the raw materials are soybeans, peas, beets, and coconut oil.

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Redefine Meat’s 3D-printing process. Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters

While meat lovers would argue that properties identical to those of conventional meat will never be achieved, it is interesting to note that there is an increasing demand for meat substitutes.

We believe that with consistently increasing demand, meat substitutes may end up being cheaper than farmed meat by a factor of five, resulting in demand for beef and dairy in the U.S. plummeting by about 80-90% by 2035.


What we eat and how we produce our food plays a key role in tackling climate change, reducing water stress and pollution, restoring lands back to forests or grasslands, and protecting the world’s wildlife. This is indeed an ongoing challenge, as agriculture is the world’s largest industry. It employs more than one billion people worldwide and generates over 1.3 trillion dollars’ worth of food annually.