Americans Typically Consume 260 Pounds of Meat and 570 Pounds of Dairy per Year
Maybe we should try something different and celebrate those people who are trying to devise solutions rather than just complaining about what a lousy hand The Other Guy has dealt us.
It might be about dealing with climate, like that fellow who’s floating a plastic-eating technology in the ocean, or the slipping reading tradition, like those who volunteer time towards literacy and tutoring, or the many hands who are reaching out to house or feed the migrants to which our society increasingly wants to express blindness.
We all recognize that tornado damage doesn’t clean itself up or that the national and international scenes of hunger won’t disappear without investment in sustainable systems as well as immediate aid. Access to clean water is becoming increasingly troublesome in a world committed to industrial growth in fragile areas.
The list goes on – as does the opportunity for the clever to come up with possible solutions. We might highlight some as we come upon them to help us think through what goes into solution-making to make it effective.
One such effort is growing – literally – in a Southern California experimental pond farm. As I learned from a report in The Washington Post, if it succeeds, something called duckweed may become humanity’s first new major crop in more than a century and prove to be an effective way to unlock how plants could replace animal protein on an unprecedented scale.
We face two big problems with food production: Even if we produce enough food, much of it goes to animal feed and population growth creates worry about hunger issues around the globe, and our livestock-heavy dependency is seen as contributing to destruction of the environment through uncontrollable methane releases.
The Alliance to End Hunger just noted that “26.5 million Americans reported food insecurity as of June 19, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey — the most thus far in 2023 and the highest number since December 2020.”
In addition, the warming climate is troublesome for an animal-based food universe because swaths of the planet will become unproductive, clean water scarcer and a healthy proportion of shrinking agriculture is going for animal feed.
However, humans still prefer meat to plant-based alternatives. Our literal and social tastes, honed over centuries, are hard to change. Global meat consumption reached a record high in 2021, double the amount in 1990. Americans typically consume 260 pounds of meat and 570 pounds of dairy, according to government statistics.
After early success, sales by “alternative meat” producers like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have faltered, and plant-based milk only accounts for 9 percent of U.S. sales.
Enter Plantible Foods, this new Southern California company, which wants to grow and harvest a “robust, sustainable and scalable supply chain that harnesses the power of plants to produce novel foods.” In ponds, the company is growing duckweed; within each tiny floating aquatic plant is a molecule colloquially called rubisco. Without it, most plant life on Earth would cease to exist, the Post explained.
Plants use rubisco protein, arguably the most abundant protein on the planet, as the catalyst for photosynthesis, combining carbon dioxide from the air with the building blocks for sugars and carbohydrates composing the base of our food chain. Rubisco is found in every green leaf, but it is locked inside plant cells, spoiling almost as soon as it comes into contact with the outside world. For now, eating salads is the only way to consume much of it.
What Plantible does is to process the leaves into forms resembling egg whites, meat, milk, gluten or even steak — all extracted from leaves. So far, it’s biggest use has been in bakery products – the company is working with a baking company – and has been successful in limited experiments, according to the Post’s taster, Climate Advice Columnist Michael Coren, in making the results unrecognizably different from non-plant foods.
Taste is important because the trends show meat consumption continuing to rise. As The Post put it: “The challenge, then, is not to persuade people to eat more vegetables. It’s how to make plant proteins taste better than their animal counterparts.”
Many foodies complain that alternative plant products can be grainy or otherwise fall short of the appeal from eggs, dairy and meat.
Unlike the plant protein in soy, wheat and peas, Rubisco may provide a non-allergenic, easily digestible, and complete set of all nine essential amino acids our body can’t produce on its own. It can bind, emulsify, foam, or change more easily than other plant derivatives. Our taster said that in baked goods, the protein mimics butter, and eggs; as a binder in plant-based meats, it retains the taste of a juicy burger. In a fluffy omelet or whipped meringue, it replicates the function of eggs.
Specific problems have been the processing to keep it usable and scalable. Even at high concentrations, such as in spinach, rubisco represents just a tiny percentage of the plant’s biomass. At Plantible, co-founder Tony Fekini, a former agricultural commodities trader, says his answer is harvesting duckweed, the world’s smallest flowering plant, basically a weed. While duckweed or lemna is regarded as a plant nuisance, its quick growth and simplicity make it a better bet for processing as protein. Lemna’s prodigious growth means strains can be selected and improved in weeks.
Today, just four crops — wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans — supply two-thirds of human calories. Plantible’s pilot farm is more than a dozen cement ponds, each covered with a luxuriant mat of lemna in greenhouses. Machinery crushes the leaves into a paste for cooking in a few hours, and dried as a flavorless, flour-like powder.
Plantible, a private company, is being backed by Kellogg’s, among other investors.
Who knew? Duckweed burgers with a doughnut for dessert.