Food’s Future Summit: Reflecting on the Future of Protein

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of attending the annual Foodie’s Food Future Summit held at Hotel Icon. Not only was there an abundant selection of FREE vegan delights (including Pana chocolate, pili nuts, chocolate cake and more) at the food market, I also got the chance to listen to a panelist of influential speakers from the food industry and their take on the food crisis that has undoubtedly began.

One member from the audience commented that this was the best set of panelists she had ever encountered, and although I haven’t been to many, I couldn’t agree more. Hosted by Green Queen Sonalie Figueiras, the panel consisted of Nathan Green, the chef and founder of Rhoda, Lisa Terauchi, the co-owner and executive chef of Confusion Plant Based Kitchen, and Simon Newstead, founder of BiteSociety and admin of the Hong Kong Vegan Facebook group.

The interviewees all come from a diverse set of backgrounds, so the discussion was kept engaging through the clash of perspectives and opposing viewpoints. Despite the few disagreements that came up during the interaction, all were extremely open-minded, and the back and forth was conducive to improving the audience’s understanding of the issue at hand.

In this post, I will be reflecting on a few of the most controversial topics that were broached during the discussion:

1. The presence of animal-tested heme in Impossible meat

As someone drawn to the realism and tastiness of meat alternatives such as Beyond and Impossible meat, I never paid much attention to the ingredients because health was not a reason for my transition into veganism. When Lisa brought up the several experiences where customers have approached her about the controversial Impossible beef being present on her menu, I learnt that it contains an ingredient called heme (which gives the ‘meat’ its ‘bleeding’ appearance) that has been tested on rats.

Many “militant vegans” find it hypocritical for companies that encourage widespread support for veganism to perform testing on animals as this is contradictory to their mission as it continues to harm animals and exploit animals in the process of production, but like Lisa, I believe that these innovative brands such as Impossible and Beyond are the most effective ways to convert or maybe guide people in the direction of consuming fewer animal products. Letting them experience the taste of a meatless burger acts as a foot in the door to show omnivores that there is this possibility - that they can gradually reduce their meat consumption by replacing burgers with equally delicious but less harmful alternatives.

The problem of animal testing is only relevant to vegans who are so because of the ethical reasons, and if these companies exist due to the environmental harm created by the animal industry, then it is not their duty to ensure that no animal testing is performed to create the final product. How I understand the situation is that even if their emphasis is on the ethical aspect of animal agriculture, the testing performed on a few lab rats will in no way compare to the lives of animals saved by the final product of ‘meat’. The benefits, in this case, far outweigh the costs, therefore I view this as a completely reasonable decision, especially as the dilemma was unavoidable.

2. The production of clean/lab grown/cellular/cultured meat

This is clean meat. Possibly, and hopefully, the future of our protein. It involves a science lab and the replication of stem cells from an animal to produce almost infinite amounts of real meat. This is not meat that attempts to resemble the taste and texture of real meat; it is the real thing. Nathan Green pointed out his skepticism regarding the quality and authenticity of clean meat, but to me, this is the future.

Cultured meat tackles the three main concerns that often cause people to turn vegan: ethics, the environment, and our health. By painlessly removing a feather from their healthiest chicken, JUST was able to obtain the chicken’s cells and replicate them for further production. By reusing and regrowing cells from a single feather to generate vast amounts of lab-grown meat, the amount of animals required is drastically reduced - thereby exposing more land for purposes other than animal agriculture. As for the health issue, processed meat consumption is evidently linked to various health epidemics such as Salmonella, Swine Flu, and Mad Cow Disease, and Clean meat radically transforms the nutritional value of these traditional products while maintaining the exact same taste.

Being an exact replica of the original animal meat means that omnivores won’t have to sacrifice anything to contribute to sustainable development, and it’s a win-win situation for everyone. Of course, this is still extremely expensive to introduce as a common product, but as innovation continues and scientific research deepens, we will inevitably begin to see a growing appearance and a decreasing price of lab-grown meat.

3. ‘Sustainable’ animal agriculture

Can animal agriculture ever be sustainable? Nathan Green’s job revolves around the production and consumption of so-called ‘sustainable’ meat production - where he monitors his sources to secure non-industrial and organically grown meat. The beef he sells at his restaurant are all derived from grass-fed cows, and he limits the quantity of animals purchased and slaughtered per month to ensure that no food goes to waste.

It was fascinating to experience the interaction between two individuals who stood on polar ends of the ‘vegan spectrum’. On one end, we had Nathan Green - head chef of a meat-based restaurant - and on the other, we had Simon Newstead - founder of the Hong Kong Vegans Facebook group. The former believed that as long as we limit our consumption, it is already making a positive impact, whereas the latter mentioned that grass-fed beef actually emits more methane gas emissions than does those grown in an industrial manner, and it is much better to simply avoid meat at all costs.

I personally still feel slightly conflicted on the topic of consuming ‘sustainable meat’; I’m not sure if this is ever really possible because of the strain on our natural resources that stems from meat production. I do believe that the most sustainable option would be to consume no meat at all, but I understand that the demand for animal products is still high, and the transition will not and cannot be instant. However, if anyone is to continue producing and selling these goods, the best option is to do it in the most resourceful - and least harmful - way possible. As I mentioned in my previous post, What Does it Mean to be Vegan?, it’s always better to do something than to do nothing, and we should never let the excuse of having to do something perfectly prevent us from doing anything at all.

There were a few extra questions that I think are worth contemplating, so here are my quick re-cap answers to them:

  • What will happen to the animals if everyone suddenly stops eating meat?

If everyone suddenly stopped eating meat, that would be brilliant. But that’s also unrealistic. People are gradually beginning to reduce their meat consumption, and it’s similar to the straws situation: just like how restaurants need to finish their batch of plastic straws before giving out no straws to their customers, the animal industry needs to finish selling all their animals before they can entirely eliminate the industry.

  • Can Impossible and Beyond be produced at a scale to entirely replace meat burgers?

Without the industrial practices of the animal industry, of course not. But it won’t be necessary because people don’t eat burgers every single day (or at least I don’t think so). Impossible and Beyond burgers - just like regular burgers - are a luxury good; people will have to learn to make do with what is available to them (which is a lot). These are not the only products that vegans rely on to maintain a fulfilling diet!

  • Lots of poor people rely on cheap meats (such as McDonald’s) to keep themselves satiated…if this were to disappear from the economy, how would those living under the poverty line survive?

The power is in the hand of the government to ensure that they are subsidising the correct industry. Currently, in many countries, subsidies are going to soil-eroding crops and fossil fuels. Instead, they could spend this money on high-protein sources such as legumes!

  • The skills of animal farmers are not always transferable, so what will happen to the workers who belong to this massive industry? Will this lead to a decline in the growth of the economy?

This question is one that I have been contemplating for awhile, and surely, the loss of one of the largest industries in the world would lead to a declining economy. But just like how everything worked out in the past, the markets will correct themselves - animal farmers will transition into new workforces that require more labour, and with more innovation and sustainable research and development, more sectors will be opened for people to assume these positions.

Overall, the panel discussion was extremely engaging, and I am very glad that I decided to sacrifice homework time to attend this inspirational and thought-provoking event. As Cheryl (@6thshare) and I discussed after the event, it can be difficult sometimes to explain to others why we choose to avoid the consumption of animal products - especially when most of the information we have received comes from online sources and not through verbal education. Memorising facts isn’t always the easiest way to educate others, and I feel like I now have a much stronger understanding of the problem and the future of protein. It was truly a valuable experience, and although we were the only two non-adults who attended the event, I am excited to say that I now feel more confident about my knowledge on the harm caused by the animal industry - especially from beef production - and I feel a renewed sense of passion, excitement, and optimism for the future of our planet.