New Age Beef

Grilling season is here. Science offers climate-friendly burgers.

What’s at “Steak”

We Americans love our red meat, especially beef. But did you know beef is the biggest producer of greenhouse gases of any protein source, pound for pound, on the planet?

One obvious way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to cut back on the amount of red meat you eat. It’s better for your heart, too. This article in Nature describes the optimal diet for both human health and the planet’s health.

But for those of you married to your steaks and burgers, read on! Science has ways to make your burger more climate-friendly. Some options include plant-based simulated beef, actual beef cultured in labs, and real cattle that produce less methane.

Vegan Beef

My spouse does not want to give up red meat. The more beef, the better! So I was hopeful when I heard about the new simulated beef products.

Impossible Burgers aren’t available in our supermarket, but we’ve tried Beyond Burgers. I think it’s tricky to distinguish Beyond Burgers from beef in chili or marinara sauce. My spouse says the jury’s still out.

The Impossible Burger, which wins most of the taste tests, is notable for its “bloody” appearance, created by leghemoglobin. This compound occurs in the roots of soy plants, offering flavor and color similar to blood. Impossible Foods inserts a synthetic version of soy DNA into yeast, which can produce leghemoglobin quickly, writes Candice Choy for AP.

What are the other ingredients in vegan beef? According to Alina Petre in Healthline, “Soy and potato provide most of the protein in the Impossible Burger while peas, mung beans, and brown rice are the main sources of protein in the Beyond Burger.” The two products have similar nutritional profiles. Both are vegan and gluten-free.

Vegan meat substitutes are catching on. According to a recent industry study, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 27 percent in 2020, compared with the overall food market, which grew 15 percent. Sales of plant-based meat substitutes grew 45 percent in 2020.

Cultured Meat

Suppose you want meat, not vegan substitutes. In that case, you soon may have access to beef without the greenhouse gas footprint of cattle. Cultured meat is grown in a laboratory without a living, methane-burping animal. Cultured meats’ advantages include reduced greenhouse gas emissions, no animal slaughter, and less use of antibiotics, according to Damian Carrington in The Guardian.

About 30 companies around the world plan to produce cultured meats, writes Chase Purdy in Quartz. One U.S. company, Eat Just, recently received approval to market its cultured chicken nuggets in Singapore. Good Meat, a subsidiary of Eat Just, explains the process on its website:

“We begin by sourcing a small amount of animal cells from high-quality poultry or livestock. We then feed those cells nutrients... These nutrients grow the cells into meat. The entire process takes place in a safe and controlled environment, much like a beer brewery.”

Some companies are culturing beef, too. The tiny bits used in hamburgers are relatively easy to grow. The challenge is getting it to form larger pieces, like steak. An Israeli research team succeeded in growing steaks on a 3-D scaffold of soy protein about a year ago, wrote Charles Choi in Inside Science. The scaffold holds the beef tissue together and makes its texture more realistic.

Low-Methane Beef

Not interested in vegan meat or laboratory meat? Cattle produce far less methane when a type of red seaweed is mixed into their diets. This matters because methane is about 28 times more powerful as a warming agent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. And cattle produce a lot of methane.

Australian researchers first tested seaweed after observing cows grazing on seaweed on the beach. When two percent of cattle feed consists of the red seaweed Asparagopsis taxiformis, it alters which microorganisms grow in cows’ digestive tracts. The modified microbiome produces less methane. In the laboratory, red seaweed reduced methane emissions by up to 99 percent, but real-world results were a bit more modest.

University of California researchers tested the seaweed on dairy cows and found it eliminated 80 percent of methane emissions from the cows’ digestive process. The seaweed did not affect the animals’ food intake or their milk yield. A follow-up study on beef steers published in 2021 found similar results: an 80 percent reduction in methane. As a bonus, the steers eating the seaweed grew 20 percent more efficiently, saving farmers’ money on feed.

A company in New Zealand is developing a red-seaweed-enhanced cattle feed. But the availability of seaweed could limit how widely farmers could adopt this solution.

In response, a company in Sweden is growing Asparagopsis commercially. The company says the seaweed does not affect the taste of either meat or milk, writes Adele Peters in Fast Company. And a Massachusetts-based company, Clean Harvest, is combining Asparagopsis farming with fish farming, according to a story by Callan Boys in Good Food.

And just in case the world can’t produce enough red seaweed, Australian and New Zealand scientists are working on developing genetically engineered cattle and sheep that naturally produce less methane.

At our house, we grill steaks once a week. But we limit our red meat consumption to that one day for our health and the health of the planet. With luck, the emerging solutions covered in this story will soon allow us to eat a bit more beef—without excessive greenhouse gas emissions.

Bonus Video

Project Drawdown offers a series of informative videos on the five primary drivers of climate change—and how to reduce emissions in those sectors. Start at 8:05 in this video to learn more about greenhouse gas sources in the food sector and ways to reduce our impact. It’s a quick 2-minute segment, well worth your time. #ClimateEmergencyWeek