I am a meat eater. But, sitting in a little café in Greenside, Johannesburg, peppered with posters declaring that “straws suck” and “there is no culture left in commercial agriculture”, I ate a burger made entirely from plants.
The texture was remarkably meat-like to my admittedly unsophisticated palate. Apart from a slightly nutty aftertaste, it was eerily convincing. And delicious — if rather pricey at about R150.
But it may only be a matter of time before these products — rather than being relegated to upper-income, vegan outposts — can compete in the mass market.
Globally, plant-based meat alternatives are riding a wave of public interest. Beyond Meat, which makes the Beyond Burger I tasted, is just one company garnering rising investor and, more importantly, meat-lover appetite for its products.
As Beyond Meat prepared to go public, the Impossible Whopper, trialled by fast-food chain Burger King, was wooing burger fans in the United States. The trials were so successful that the company plans to flip them out at restaurants nationwide. Manufactured by California-based Impossible Foods, the burger patty is also made of plants — although using different technology and methods (see “Knowing your Impossible from your Beyond”).
A major selling point for both these food companies has been the effect that the disruption of the global agriculture value chains can have on slowing down global warming, saving water and improving biodiversity through better land use. Livestock production accounts for 15% of the most important greenhouse gases emitted by human activity, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Science.
This is what Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods want to upend.
A study conducted by the University of Michigan for Beyond Meat found that, when compared with a quarter-pound of US-produced ground beef, the Beyond Burger generated 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, required 46% less energy to produce and has 93% less of an effect on land use.
A spokesperson for Impossible Foods illustrated: “Switching from one quarter-pound beef patty to an Impossible Burger saves as much water as a 10-minute shower, spares the equivalent of driving 18 miles [about 29km] in greenhouse gas emissions and liberates 75 square feet [about 7km2] of arable land for wildlife or biodiversity.”
Plant-based meats are increasingly providing stiffer competition to traditional meat. Meat sales in the US last year grew by just 2%, whereas plant-based meat alternative sales rose by 24%, according to a report from market research company Nielsen, commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association.
The Impossible Burger is not available in South Africa yet. The company picked Asia as its first international market because it makes up 44% of the world’s growing demand for meat — but it said its “long-term goal is to transform the global food system and have products in all key regions globally”. Burger King South Africa’s group marketing executive Ezelna Jones said in a statement that since the launch of the Impossible Whopper, there has been an increase in requests for it here.
But the burger franchise is in the product development phase for a local vegetarian or vegan option, in line with its commitments to source products from local suppliers.
The company previously launched a vegetarian option but it was discontinued because of difficulties localising its supply. It aims to relaunch its vegetarian option by the end of the year.
The Beyond Burger, however, is available in South Africa and has made it to venues typically patronised by meat lovers — such as the Butcher Shop and Grill and select outlets of Hudson’s Burger Joint.
The Beyond Burger is distributed in South Africa by Infinite Foods, co-founded by entrepreneur Michelle Adelman.
She said that in the six months since the firm began trading last year, the Beyond Burger has become available in 150 locations across South Africa and Botswana.
Infinite Foods plans to expand into Mauritius, East Africa and further into the Southern African Development Community throughout the rest of this year, Adelman said.
“The reception has really been amazing,” she said of the response to the Beyond Burger. “Of course the vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians are going to be your early adopters. But we’re also seeing steady acceptance by meat lovers, including people who are on Banting or ketogenic diets. This is providing them with a healthier alternative to eating a lot of meat.”
Adelman said Infinite Foods is open to constantly evaluating South African- and African-innovated products. But the reality, she said, is that hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing into research and development by foodtech companies developing these products and “whether we like it or not, most of that money is sitting in the United States, it’s sitting in Silicon Valley”.
African countries nevertheless can compete, albeit in a different role, Adelman argued. The rise of plant-based alternatives herald “a shift in food commodities. If we are suddenly eating eggs made out of mung beans and hamburgers made out of peas and soybeans … We now need to grow, at scale, these input ingredients.”
The continent has some of the most “untapped, under-yield agricultural land”, where about 60% of people are employed in agriculture. “If it can become a hub to grow and manufacture these kinds of products, this could catalyse the transformation of agriculture in Africa”, she argued.
In the same way that technology has helped African countries leapfrog problems such as access to banking and telephony, Adelman hopes that the growth in plant-based meat alternatives will help African countries access healthier, more sustainable protein and skip the negative health effects that processed food has had in developed nations.
“Just like we went from no phones to mobile phones, and just like we went from no banking to cellphone banking, can we go from no food to healthy food?” she asks.
Knowing your Impossible from your Beyond
Founded in 2011, Impossible Foods created its plant-based meat by isolating heme — a molecule containing iron that is found in plants and animals. An abundance of heme is what gives animal muscle its signature meaty taste, according to the company.
Impossible Foods gets its heme from soy protein — specifically leghaemoglobin, which is found in the plant’s roots. Using genetically engineered yeast and a fermentation process, the company produces the heme to create its patties, adding other ingredients such as coconut and sunflower oil in the process.
Impossible Foods is not listed, but garnered $300-million in its latest funding round. It is backed by the likes of Bill Gates, who is also an investor in rival Beyond Meat.
The burger can be found in about 5 000 restaurants in the United States, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore and is set to be on supermarket shelves in the United States later this year.
Established in 2009, Beyond Meat produces its plant-based meat products using ingredients that include pea protein, coconut oil, bamboo cellulose and beetroot juice extract.
The company argues that all the essential elements of meat, such as amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins and water can be found in plants.
Using a proprietary system that involves heating, cooling and pressure, it aligns plant proteins in the same fibrous structures found in animal proteins — essentially mimicking the composition of meat.
Beyond Meat held its initial public offering earlier this month, seeing its share price soar 192% from its listing price, making it one of the most successful listings this year, according to Fortune magazine.
Beyond Meat products, which include burgers, sausages and beef crumbles (think mince), can be found in 40 countries globally, including South Africa. — Lynley Donnelly