Lab-grown and plant-powered products are now seen by many as the only way to deal with the fact that by 2050 the world's population will hit 10 billion, rendering the demand for meat higherthan the industry's ability to supply it. But how does a redblooded meat-opia like Aotearoa promote what's being labelled clean-meating?
It seared. It sizzled. It bubbled blood.
It didn't just look like meat; it tasted like meat.
To the Business Premier passengers travelling aboard an Air New Zealand Boeing-777 out of San Francisco last year, the Impossible Burger seemed an odd yet tempting entry to their in-flight menu.
To the Stanford University biochemist-cum-Silicon Valley entrepreneur who engineered the meatless patty, Dr Patrick O Brown, it represented a lucrative revolution, and a noble quest to save the planet by disrupting the cow.
But to National's agriculture spokesperson Nathan Guy, it was tantamount to treason.
Why would the national carrier of a red-blooded meat-opia like Aotearoa promote what he dubbed a GE substitute meat burger?
Lobby group Beef+Lamb NZ also couldn't resist barbecuing the airline.
"Call us biased, but wouldn't you rather your first introduction to the great tastes of New Zealand be some grass-fed, free range, GMO free, naturally raised New Zealand beef and lamb instead?" it tweeted.
Headlines predictably followed. Quicker than a steer out of the gate, the sustainable spirit of Air New Zealand's promotion was overshadowed by a national debate over whether Kiwis should be welcoming this so-called "fake meat".
It was a beef, one would've thought, that should have erupted long before that.
After all, supermarket shelves around the country were already stocked with plant-based sausages, hot dogs, patties and mince – not to mention curious items like "bacon-style rashers" and "chicken free chicken".
But then, Kiwi consumers might not have been prepared for the uncanny, actual meat-like qualities that San Francisco-based Impossible Foods had given its burger.
Thanks to its heme – that's an iron-containing, oxygen-carrying molecule that makes for meat's red colour and distinctive flavour – the patty actually bled.
It's quite literally the taste of a "clean meating" future, with a rising number of lab-grown and plant-powered products coming on to the market.
Ditching animal protein is seen by an increasing number of people as the only way to deal with the fact that, by 2050, the world's population will hit 10 billion, rendering the demand for meat higher than the industry's ability to supply it.
As Impossible Foods founder Brown told the Herald in California last year: "Every time we sell 2000 burgers, that's one less cow."
According to the journal Science, animal farming provides just 18 per cent of our calories, yet 83 per cent of agricultural land is dedicated to it, while greenhouse gas emissions, water and over-zealous antibiotic use pose further problems.
"We also can't gloss over the animal welfare concerns of intensive farming methods," University of Auckland microbiologist Professor Siouxsie Wiles says.
"As if all that wasn't bad enough, studies suggest climate change is going to lower the yields and nutritional value of staple crops like corn and wheat, expand where crop pests can survive, as well as making it more difficult for farm workers to work at certain times of day.
"In other words, we simply can't rely on our current land-hungry, water-thirsty, pollution-heavy and extinction-inducing ways of producing food if we are to feed the ever growing human population as our environment changes around us."
THE RISE OF FAKE MEAT
The Impossible Burger was among a growing range of brands bursting on to the global marketplace with their meatless innovations, with the likes of billionaires Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson throwing in their backing.
One recent forecast projected the alternative meat market to reach $212 billion over the next decade – potentially capturing about 10 per cent of the $2.1 trillion global meat industry.
That was even despite plant-based meat substitutes costing an average of 43 per cent more than their animal equivalents.
If the double-digit, year-on-year growth chalked up by plant-based food companies is anything to go by, consumers around the globe are warming to these products.
Here in New Zealand, where home-grown companies like the Alternative Meat Co and Sunfed Meats were offering their own products, a recent survey found millennials to be the most likely demographic to adopt a mostly meat-free lifestyle in the next decade.
"In many countries, people are so disconnected with how their food is made, that they won't view synthetic meat negatively, but as a great technological advance," Wiles says.
Unsurprisingly, New Zealand's beef industry was acutely aware of this market threat.
One industry report out last year found that alternative proteins were likely to become a major competitor to some of New Zealand's red meat products - and that the sector must respond with a clear strategy.
It found that although alternative proteins are currently manufactured in small volumes, large-scale production of burger patties and mince was likely to be a reality within five years.
But the biggest area of threat for the sector related to claims that these alternative proteins had a significantly reduced environmental footprint compared to red meat.
"The drivers of growth appear to be primarily social responsibility in the sense of the impact of intensive animal production on air, water and soil," explained Professor Julian Heyes, the head of Massey University's School of Food and Advanced Technology.
"They also include concerns for animal welfare and advice for Western consumers to reduce - not eliminate - red meat consumption for health."
Finally, there was consumer concern about animal-to-human transmissible diseases, at a time scientists were warning about the worrying rise of antibiotic resistance.
Yet a threat could also be seen as an opportunity.
New Zealand, Heyes says, could position itself as a provider of premium, sustainably raised, pasture-fed and ethically produced red meat.
"As a nation we are in a rare global position of having young fertile soils, a mild climate and adequate water - although not always in exactly the right place," Heyes says.
"Improving farming practices year on year to reduce impact on carbon emissions and water quality is our direction of travel."
Globally, the price of alternative proteins would drop as sales increased.
Thus, Heyes says, there was little sense in New Zealand aiming to increase production of plant proteins to meet global demand, "as this would be condemning us to trying to compete on price with low value, high-turnover products when we have little suitable land, high wages and suffered from the tyranny of distance".
"Similarly, synthetic meat is never going to be cheaper to produce in New Zealand than overseas and we will still be further away from our major markets," he says.
"We would need to develop a 'premium' version to give us a competitive edge."
Beef+Lamb New Zealand's market innovation manager Lee-Ann Marsh argued that there was room for both traditional and alternative proteins in the future.
After all, New Zealand wasn't out to feed the world like these new multi-nationals were.
"We realistically can only feed 40 million people worldwide - that's 0.05 per cent of the global population - and so we need to be targeting our natural, grass-fed red meat proposition to those consumers who value our products and are willing to pay premiums for them."
Research had found there was an untapped demand for naturally raised, grass-fed, hormone-free and antibiotic-free red meat.
THE 'PURE' STRATEGY
As such, New Zealand's industry had seized that market difference by launching its Taste Pure Nature NZ campaign in California this year.
It made quite the splash in America, generating 176 articles with 134.7 million potential impressions, along with videos so far viewed more than 18.5 million times, and pulling more than 63,000 people through to the campaign website.
Beef+Lamb New Zealand's marketing development general manager Nick Beeby says the move wasn't just in response to alternative meats.
"Primarily, this was driven by an awareness of a shift in red meat preferences towards favouring grass-fed products - and the acknowledgement that, unlike other major exporters such as Australia and Ireland, there was very little consumer awareness of New Zealand's point of difference to more traditional grain-fed red meat products," he says.
"When doing more in-depth consumer research, it became clear that the same ethical and environmental values driving some consumers towards alternative proteins were seeing other consumers look to more naturally raised, grass-fed red meat instead.
"With New Zealand's farming systems overwhelming fitting this model, it lined up ideally for us."
The industry's vision was for this country to be recognised not just as a - but the - world-leading producer of sustainable red meat.
So what of the real environmental and health worries surrounding the product?
For instance, one recent major global study found that just a moderate amount of red and processed meat could put you at heightened risk of bowel cancer.
Beeby responded that such concerns needed to be weighed up against health issues caused by a lack of red meat in peoples' diets – and he noted that international advice still recommended it as an essential component.
Based on the last New Zealand adult national nutrition survey published 10 years ago, the average New Zealand adult consumed about 9.3g of lamb and 41.1g of beef each day.
Current working figures showed Kiwis were eating 17.2kg beef, 5kg of lamb and 0.7kg mutton per capita.
But industry data indicated a downward trend of red meat consumption in New Zealand over the past 10 years, with beef, lamb and mutton down 38 per cent, 45 per cent and 72 per cent respectively.
At the same time, the latest statistics indicated New Zealand had concerning rates of iron deficiency.
Eight out of 10 Kiwi toddlers failed to meet the recommended daily intake or iron, while 14 per cent of children under two years, one in 14 women and more than a third of teenage girls also weren't getting enough iron.
On the environmental front, Beeby pointed out the sheep and beef industry had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by a third since 1990, and, with some 2.8 million ha of forest, could boast the largest collection of native bush outside the conservation estate.
The industry now planned to commission scientific research to compare its grass-fed footprint with the new products.
"Compared to other farming systems around the world such as grain fed, factory farming in the US, red meat production in New Zealand makes efficient use of land that is unsuitable for horticulture or arable production," Marsh says.
"Our early analysis indicates that 93 per cent of sheep and beef farm land would be unsuitable for growing plant-based protein crops, for example."
Heyes says it could indeed be argued that New Zealand's pasture-fed meat production had the potential to be more sustainable than cultured meat, counting all the engineering, energy and material costs involved in making the latter.
Nonetheless, Impossible Foods' Brown still saw his innovation and others like it as "disruptive change, potentially", to a country he credited with being the best at producing food in the conventional way.
Asked whether the beef industry saw his innovation as something of an existential threat, Brown says there was "ambivalence" – but added his company wanted to work with farmers, rather than against them.
"If you look into the future, you can see it's absolutely inevitable that there is going to be an irreversible transition away from animals as a food production system."
BY THE NUMBERS
• $212 billion: Projected global value of alternative meat industry by the end of this decade.
• 43%: Estimates show alternative protein-based foods cost 43 per cent more their animal equivalents to make.
• 134.7 million: Potential impressions from US media coverage about the beef and lamb industry's just-launched Taste Pure Nature NZ campaign.
• 38%: The recorded decrease in NZ beef consumption over the past 10 years.
• $3,091,706,548: Value of New Zealand chilled and frozen beef exports last year - seventh behind the US, Australia, Brazil, India, Netherlands and Ireland.