Still Eating Meat? Don’t Be Shocked if We Face a Future of Pandemics

The voices of those who see a connection between diet and rogue viruses 
are getting stronger and the market for meat substitutes is flourishing

Anat Georgy
Anat Georgy
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A package of pea protein-based meatless burgers by Beyond Meat in June 26, 2019.
A package of pea protein-based meatless burgers by Beyond Meat in June 26, 2019.Credit: John Raoux / AP
Anat Georgy
Anat Georgy

In June 2019 Chinese researchers identified a virus that causes swine flu and warned that if it mutated, it could lead to a pandemic, as happened in 2009. To prevent that, China killed about 1 million pigs suspected of being infected. Shortly afterwards, Vietnam followed suit and killed almost 3 million pigs. The outbreak never came.

But only a few months later a mysterious new lung disease originating in bats began to spread in China. This time human beings were also infected by the virus, and COVID-19 to date has claimed over 1 million lives worldwide.

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The coronavirus crisis has begun to raise questions about the connection between meat consumption and pandemics. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says animals are the source of 75 percent of infectious diseases. Most of those animals are consumed or traded by human beings, such as swine, fowl and wild animals.

Zoonotic diseases, those that originate in animals, pose a persistent pandemic threat. That’s what happened in the late 1970s, when the Ebola virus developed in the bodies of monkeys and fruit bats, and was transmitted to human beings. It happened again with the AIDS pandemic that erupted in the early 1980s, apparently as a result of hunting chimpanzees that were carrying the virus. It was also the case with the SARS pandemic, which began in 2002 and originated in a carnivore called the Asiatic palm civet.

“There’s a direct line that connects our nutrition, which is largely based on animal produce – beef, pork and fowl – and the destruction of the natural environment, of habitats, and at the end of the day – the outbreak of viral epidemics such as COVID-19. It’s an elusive connection, far away and hidden from the eye, but it’s very powerful,” says Dr. Asaf Tzachor, a researcher at the University of Cambridge and a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya.

Meat stalls are seen at a market in Beijing, China, March 25, 2016. Credit: Jason Lee / Reuters

“Since the beginning of the coronavirus, people have been talking about the huge health-related and economic crisis, about remote learning the day after, and about the face of future medicine. But the close connection between eating meat and the ecological crisis, and as a result the probability that pandemics will erupt, is outside the discussion,” adds Dr. Alon Sapan of the environmental studies department and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University, and the chairman of the Israeli Forum on Sustainable Nutrition.

Tzachor says that recent decades have seen a “disastrous consolidation” of trends that favor the eruption and spread of epidemics like COVID-19.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, over the past 50 years consumption of animal proteins has grown by about 30% per capita in developed countries and by about 110% in developing countries. All told, animal products provide more than 30% of the global consumption of proteins; by 2050, the figure is expected to grow by over 70%.

Overall deforestation or dividing the forest into disconnected enclaves, which causes the unique animal habitats to become more crowded, turns them into a hothouse for accelerated development of viruses.

“In effect, we’re creating ideal conditions for virus variations and mutations,” says Tzachor. “At the same time, we’re building settlements in the areas that were formerly forest and raising farm animals there, swine and fowl, in dangerous proximity to bats infected with a tremendous variety of viruses. This is an ecology of disasters.”

These habitats become larger breeding grounds for viruses when the animals are raised in poor conditions. “That’s the situation in many developing economies. You see terribly crowded conditions on small farms – stagnant water and feces that are not cleared away. Viruses love those places.”

The tourism link

The next link in the chain is the crossing over of the virus to human beings through eating, trading in wild animals or visiting “wet markets” where farm animals and exotic animals are sold live. “Of course most of humanity does not consume exotic animals,” says Tzachor. “But wet markets are a grotesque tourist attraction in many countries. Exotic animals are brought in cages, some of them carrying viruses, attracting tourists and encouraging the inquisitive to approach and pet them.”

Under the circumstances, many researchers say the coronavirus was a disaster waiting to happen. “The coronavirus is in effect begging us to stop helping the viruses to mutate and flourish, to stay away from them,” says Tzachor.

In addition to a ban on wet markets, we should enforce international conventions that forbid trading in exotic animals and declare the world’s few remaining forests nature reserves, he says. But, in the end, the real solution is for humanity to reduce meat consumption.

An aerial picture of a deforested area close to Sinop, Mato Grosso State, Brazil, August 7, 2020.Credit: Florian Plaucheur / AFP

“That’s the fastest, thriftiest and most elegant way to prevent turning forests into animal feed,” he says. “In this complex system, each of us has a simple task: to reduce our consumption of meat, milk and eggs. Even the Mediterranean diet, which is considered healthful, focuses less on reducing meat consumption. Aside from individual choice, we have to embark on a more organized process. To change the structure of incentives as well as our manufacturing policy and food consumption in order to improve the public’s health.”

In general, all the positive nutritional values contained in meat, milk and eggs can be found in plant-based foods, says Omri Paz, CEO and founder of Vegan Friendly, which promotes veganism in Israel. Meat substitutes are also rich in protein. In addition, plant-based food contains no saturated fat or cholesterol, as does meat.

The recommended substitute for animal protein is called “alternative protein” and is produced three main ways. The first is replacing animal protein with plant-based protein, in products such as corn schnitzel or soy milk. The second is fermentation production – micro-organisms that have undergone a genetic change so they can manufacture proteins identical to animal proteins. This method is used to produce milk proteins (casein and cheese water protein), and proteins that imitate the taste of meat.

The third, which is the method attracting most of the attention, is cellular agriculture – taking a biopsy from animals and causing it to develop into fat and muscle cells and tissues, like those found in animal meat.

The cells are grown in a device called a bioreactor, in conditions of acidity and temperature similar to nature. The cells grow and multiply until a sufficient concentration of edible cells and tissues is formed.

Sales of vegetarian meats have spiked during the pandemic for various reasons, including the suspected connection between the meat of exotic animals and the virus, according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Sales of fresh meat also increased, but not nearly as much. In the first months of the virus, sales of substitutes in the United States alone soared an estimated 200%.

The business world is responding: Investment in meat substitutes reached a record sum of $1.5 billion in the first seven months of 2020, 80% more than in all of 2019.

Ronny Reinberg, executive director at The Modern Agriculture Foundation and vice president for technology affairs at Israel’s Intec Pharma, says the meat industry has reached its limit in terms of exploitation of resources, mainly land, but water and energy as well. He notes that raising livestock accounts for 18% of greenhouse gases and that it’s impossible to continue this way.

In Israel, a movement away from meat is in the air, although there is a long way to go.

This month huge posters featuring a blindfolded figure and the slogan, “Eating animals causes pandemics! Go vegan,” were erected across Tel Aviv. The ads are sponsored by the NGO Freedom for Animals. Last month an ad aired at the end of the reality show “Survivor” to raise awareness of the connection between the consumption of animal products and the animals’ suffering after 4,000 people contributed to a 500,000-shekel ($148,000) crowdfunding campaign.

Soy meat substituteCredit: John Raoux / AP

Reinberg estimates that in Israel there are about 400,000 vegans, but in the same breath notes that the past decade has seen an increase in the per capita meat consumption in Israel to about 80 kilograms a year.

“In Israel there’s a dichotomy between a relatively high percentage of vegans and vegetarians in the population, and the high per capita meat consumption,” says Sapan. “Israel is also the world’s biggest consumer of poultry per person. We have lots of room for improvement on this issue.”

More vegans

On the other hand, the number of vegans in Israel has increased from 1% eight years ago to 5%, Paz estimates. Another 4% are vegetarians and another 9% are trying to reduce their meat consumption for ethical reasons.

Paz says that while there may be fewer people eating meat, there are many who are consuming more of it than ever. But he remains optimistic. “We believe that the transition to plant-based food will continue to grow, and that within five years the quantity of meat substitutes and milk substitutes consumed will double. We can see it in the field, too. Large companies have added meat-substitute products to their lines, and some have reduced their animal-based products,” he says.

The global crisis has turned into a major opportunity for the meat-substitute industry. Shares of Beyond Meat, one of the largest companies in the business, soared 48% during the first months of the coronavirus. Venture capital funds are investing in startups developing better ways to produce meat in a laboratory and in other plant-based substitutes.

“Meat substitutes are nothing new,” adds Sapan. “But at the same time, today there’s a wide variety of substitutes and manufacturing technologies. There’s the use of plants as a substitute, there’s 3-D printing, the creation of meat from cells and more. You can also see that most of the big food companies are entering the field ... and that means that interest in substitutes is steadily growing.”

Those players include Tyson, Smithfield and Hormel foods, which all started investing in meat substitutes even before the outbreak of COVID-19. Nestle decided about a year ago that the time had come to enter the market, introducing a vegan hamburger. In February, PepsiCo spent $705 million to buy Be & Cheery, a Chinese snacks manufacturer that recently launched a plant-based hotdog. Novameat, a meat-substitute company from Barcelona that uses genetically engineered tissue, began to develop pork substitutes.

In Israel, Kibbutz Gan Shmuel hopes to take advantage of investors’ growing interest in alternative foods by selling shares in its company Vgarden on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Vgarden manufactures substitutes for hard and white cheeses (for the general market) and meat substitutes from pea protein (only for the institutional market), which are sold under the brand name Mashumashu (Hebrew slang for something extraordinary).

The first foodtech research and development partnership, called Millennium Foodtech, recently went public on the TASE. The partnership made its first investment in SavorEat, a startup that has developed technology to make cellulose-based meat substitutes by 3-D printing, and followed it up with one in Phytolon, which develops natural food colorings.

Around the world, the foodtech industry has been gaining momentum. Investment in startups has soared from $2.2 billion in 2013 to about $20 billion in 2019, according to Agfunder, a venture capital platform. In Israel, there are about 250 foodtech companies, and investment has grown from $52 million in 2013 to $135 million in 2019.

Chinese market

China is regarded as having the greatest potential for a mass transition from meat to meat substitutes. One reason is that quite a number of viruses have developed in the country. In addition, Beijing has to feed 20% of the world’s population, but has only 7% of the world’s agricultural land.

However, despite the large investments and the business potential, the meat substitutes industry is still in its infancy and is confronting regulatory problems and quite a few hurdles. The three main ones are: limited manufacturing capacity, high manufacturing costs and consumer skepticism, mainly when it comes to meat produced from stem cells.

The first hamburger created in a laboratory seven years ago cost 250,000 euros ($292,000) to make. Since then, according to Thomson Reuters, the price has plummeted dramatically, but it is still about $100 per kilogram, making it much more expensive than prime Argentine beef.

“There is quite a lot of market research that shows people will try non-meat beef products, if they aren’t more expensive and are equally tasty. That’s why suspicion is gradually waning,” says Reinberg. “Even government authorities are more open to the idea – there are quite a few companies that have received a green light from the Agriculture Department and other regulators in the United States.”

Manufacturing costs are still almost 40 times that of real meat, but Reinberg says he is confident that within a few years the prices will fall.

“If a steak from meat substitutes went on the market now, it would cost 30 or 40 times more than an ordinary steak. That’s why at the moment these products are considered premium products. They’ll be sold mainly in luxury restaurants, certainly not to the general public,” he says.

When it comes to the scope of production, Reinberg agrees that there’s a problem: “In order to replace 10% of the amount of meat in the world with this technology, you need 40,000 bioreactors operating full time. Today there are a few hundred, and it will take quite a few years until there are enough plants to manufacture the necessary amounts. The goal is for alternative protein to replace 10% of the consumption of animal-based products by 2030.”

However, Bar says the crux of the issue isn’t people but animals. “There’s no question that the meat industry is a great danger to human beings. But we mustn’t forget its main victims,” he says. “Most of the sentient creatures that live within the borders of human society are nonhuman living creatures, and they experience almost indescribable suffering in the pens and the slaughter of the animal-based food industry.”

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