Fleshing out the future

Harraways visiting Prof Rickey Yada says plant-based foods are making great strides but there's...
Harraways visiting Prof Rickey Yada says plant-based foods are making great strides but there's still work to do ensure they don;t come up short in the nutrition stakes. Photo: Gregor Richardson
The world of food production is changing, moving from the paddock to the lab and other newly engineered environments. It’s something we might need to get used to, visiting food scientist Prof Rickey Yada tells Tom McKinlay.

The plant-based burger has taken off in Prof Rickey Yada's home country of Canada.

Burger chain A&W launched a plant-based meat-like burger, the Beyond Meat Burger, in its 850 outlets across the country last July to a frenzy of interest.

As reported online: "People who hadn't eaten fast food in years dropped everything to run to their nearest A&W to get the alternative burger, and there have been plenty of rave reviews".

Those reviews were all about the way in which the plant-based patty mimicked the texture and flavour of meat. It didn't bleed, as another plant-based concoction, the Impossible Burger, does, but otherwise it was greeted as a pretty passable facsimile of flesh.

Not only that, but it presented, on the face of it, as consistent with Canada's new healthy food guide, which emphasises a plant-based diet.

"There was a time when you couldn't get it even if you wanted it," Prof Yada says of the early demand for the product, with not a little bemusement.

And yet, on the professor's University of British Colombia campus you can't buy one of these new fangled burgers.

The challenge with some plant-based meat-like products is when you look at the nutritional composition, Prof Yada says.

"They are relatively high in fat [from plant-based oils], high in sodium and the price right now, it's pretty high."

This was brought to the professor's attention by the university's executive chef, one David Speight, who pointed out that they were, for a start, beyond the budget of students.

"He is strong promoter of healthier choices and David is the one who kind of pointed it out to me - it is not really a healthy choice," Prof Yada says.

"So that is a challenge now for food scientists I think, to give people the meat-like properties with a healthier composition."

Ethan Brown, founder and chief executive of beyond Meat. and guests. ring the opening bell to...
Ethan Brown, founder and chief executive of beyond Meat. and guests. ring the opening bell to celebrate his company's IPO at the NASDAQ, New york last month. Photo: Reuters
This of course side steps for now the question of why those looking for a healthier plant-based alternative need white-coated lab workers to first make it look and taste like meat. Prof Yada is as puzzled about that as you are.

Chef Speight and Prof Yada's reservations won't be troubling Beyond Meat particularly, the shares of Beyond Meat Inc recently surged 27% in the United States after a forecast that sales would more than double this year after tripling in the first quarter.

But this is not a story about Beyond Meat, it is just standing in here as an example of early plays in a food revolution many say we need to make, for both health and environmental reasons.

Vancouver-based food scientist Prof Yada - dean of the University of British Colombia Faculty of Land and Food Systems - is in New Zealand as the 2019 Harraways visiting professor. He was recently awarded an honorary Doctor of Science for his global contributions to food science and technology. He thinks about all this stuff as his day job and will be talking about it while he's here.

He'll be talking to people involved in our food systems, including researchers at the University of Otago, and indeed has a new consultative role with AgResearch looking at what their focus should be into the near future.

His own research has involved looking at the structure and properties of proteins in order to identify how to better use them in food as well as in other ways. He's a noted authority on potatoes. For example, his research has included looking at the composition and physiology of potatoes in order to identify how to get the best flavour, colour and texture in finished products such as potato chips.

He says a renewed emphasis in society on food, diet, health and exercise means there's more focus on the nutritional content of new food products. Done well, these foodstuffs can play a preventive role in health care, heading off some of the hugely expensive - particularly end of life - curative health care society carries now.

It's like Hippocrates said: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food".

But it's not just our physical health that Prof Yada is thinking about. The headline issue of our time, climate change, also looms over food systems like a dark cloud. The health of our environment is part of the picture.

We have little more than a decade, to cut global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 45% if we are to limit heating to 1.5degC. That's according to the IPCC. Many say we have less time than that. How we produce our food is part of the picture. Annual total non-CO2 GHG emissions from agriculture in 2010 made up 10%-12% of global anthropogenic emissions, animal GHG emissions comprising 60% of the total agricultural emissions.

The man behind the Impossible Burger, Patrick Brown has said his burgers will "save the world from the biggest environmental catastrophe that it faces, which is the insanely destructive impact of the meat industry".

That reads like pretty good marketing, but it's not far from the more sober observation of the international EAT-Lancet Commission's work on a "Great Food Transformation".

The commission's study says sustainable food production for the 10billion people projected to fill the planet very soon "should use no additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and manage water responsibly, substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, produce zero carbon dioxide emissions, and cause no further increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions".

There's a lot to consider. A recent study published in Science magazine underlines some of the reasons we need to shift our sources of protein. The study, from last year, found that producing 100g of beef created, on average, emissions equivalent to 50kg of CO2, required 164sqm of land and had significant impacts in terms of soil acidification, eutrophication and water use. By comparison, producing 100g of protein from peas produced just 0.4kg of CO2 equivalent and required just 3.4sqm.

An unrelated study done on the Beyond Burger found it generated 90% less GHG emissions, required 46% less energy, had 99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than US beef. So maybe those plant-based burgers can be part of the solution. They apparently look the part and taste the part. Now, if they can just convince the executive chef at the University of British Colombia.

It's a puzzle waiting for food and nutritional scientists to solve together, which Prof Yada says is often not the way they work.

"Food scientists are traditionally the ones that put the science behind the development of a food product; nutritionists, by definition, look at the nutritional content and, surprisingly, - and I think this is globally, not just in New Zealand or Canada - the working relationship between those two hasn't been as good as it should have been."

Putting the top spin on health and climate change concerns, is that we in the developed world are being joined in our taste for real meat by more and more people in the developing world.

At the same time, population growth means there is more competition for the land where our food has traditionally been grown. Suburbs and lifestylers are spreading out, while in other parts of the world forest is being cleared for the likes of the ubiquitous palm oil plantation - again impacting atmospheric GHG levels.

These things all factor into the movement towards plant-based food, Prof Yada says.

"The big challenge in the future will be, how do you feed an urban population with a really declining rural landscape? That will spawn some real creativity around food production; concepts like vertical farming, aquaponics - being able to grow vegetable or plant material with fish - will probably be some of the technologies we see a lot more of in the future."

And this must all be done without falling into a pattern of monocultural production around foods identified as healthier, as that just opens up the prospect of catastrophic losses to disease. Think Irish potato blight, the professor says.

The Beyond Meat Burger; the same but different. Photo: Getty Images
The Beyond Meat Burger; the same but different. Photo: Getty Images
Canada's prairies host oceans of canola and wheat, he says.

"It is going to be a combination of various systems. It will be a bit of `what can we do locally to grow enough food for our population'. I know in the Vancouver area, where I am from, we have this thing called the Fraser Valley which follows the Fraser River - high agricultural productivity. But again, it is starting to disappear as we urbanise. So we are going to have to rely on technology, such as possibly vertical farming, where we are going up instead of sideways."

Here too. Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods announced on Thursday $2.5 million in funding for work on growing plants under UV light as part of plans for vertical farming.

But in some ways, that's the easy bit. Scientists and engineers can be relied upon to sort the how. The tricky bit might be getting people to eat the result.

"There are elements of society who go, `hey, I don't want any technology introduced'," Prof Yada says. "So if they are not going to be accepting of the technology, and companies, industries are responsive to market demand, will that technology ever see the light of day?"

Nanotechnology in food, for example, has had a bumpy road through regulatory bodies, he says.

It promises foods packed with health-promoting bioactive compounds. But there is a growing resistance to science among some sections of the public.

"We need to do a better job as scientists of engaging the public I think early on in the development of a technology, rather than at the end of the line and saying, we have developed this wonderful thing, don't you think it's great?"

Those involved in these developments have to consider all aspects all the time; the science, the psychology, the sociology and the marketing.

Contrast that with pharmaceuticals, Prof Yada says, which can arrive as bitter pills or rankly chemical solutions with the fingerprints of the laboratory all over them. Yet most people, he says, hardly consider the technology used to produce them.

"Whereas, if you were to turn that around on food, they go, `hey, ah, maybe not'. That's because food is used in many forms, right. It's social, right. We use it to celebrate, we use it to feed ourselves, right. It's a lifestyle kind of issue."

Let's head back to the counter at the A&M burger bar and those suspiciously meat-like patties one last time. Are the nutritional goodies we get now from more traditional food sources still going to be there in these creations of food science, or is there something ineffable about the way nature puts it all together that makes it better suited to animals like ourselves?

Prof Yada thinks it's a fair question.

"It would be interesting to ask a nutritionist: does that plant-based burger truly mimic the nutritional qualities of something we took from a land-based animal and ground up? Do we have those same properties?" Prof Yada says.

"And I assume because it has given people that whole sensation of, `oh, I can't tell if it's plant based or a meat-based burger', I think they have done probably a pretty good job."

The technologists behind the burgers have reverse engineered, looking at the properties people like in a land-based product and then deconstructed those properties, he says. Processes and technologies have been chosen to mimic those properties.

Impossible Foods chief executive Patrick Brown has had a crack at explaining why the "heme", or soy leghemoglobin, at the heart of his "mince" does the trick.

"It catalyses reactions in your mouth that generate these very potent odour molecules that smell bloody and metallic," he has been quoted as saying.

Blood and metal, that's the secret. For the record, Beyond Meat uses pea rather than soy protein.

Much of this casts a shadow across New Zealand, the land of the long white sheep flock.

The money New Zealand makes from exporting meat accounts for 60% of the country's total primary exports. The good economic news is that the Ministry for Primary Industries expects that income to keep on growing in a hungry, growing world. On the other hand, a report it completed with Plant & Food, The Evolution of Plant Protein, says the mood for more sustainable and healthier lifestyles again indicates a shift to plant-based protein.

Another report, out this week from global consultancy AT Kearney, predicts 60% of the meat people eat in 2040 will be either grown in vats or replaced by plant-based products that look and taste like meat.

Prof Yada counsels against panic. The future will be multi-factorial, he says.

"There will always be a segment of the population that will gravitate towards animal protein and we need to be able to supply that to them."

There will be change, he says.

"This is the whole ethos of science," he says. "It evolves. So we are trying to improve the way we do animal husbandry, right. So we reduce greenhouse gases ... from manure or the belching of cows, or whatever. We will develop feeds that will reduce that kind of thing. So I think there will be improvements in various ways we handle agriculture in general to try to reduce all of the environmental impact."

Prof Yada's immediate future is a little more down to earth.

As the Harraways visiting professor he'll be touring not only Harraways' Green Island mill but the fertile fields of Otago and Southland where its fabled oats are grown. Following the process from field to bowl.

"Harraways is a good example of a company that tries to minimise the amount of processing that goes on in their products," Prof Yada says.

It's about sustainable, local and natural.

So, porridge. We should be good to keep starting our days with porridge. Lunch, who knows?

"It is a wonderful time to be a food scientist," Prof Yada says.

Public lecture

Prof Rickey Yada, the 2019 Harraways visiting professor, will give a free public lecture ‘‘The shift to plant-based and flexitarian diets: environmental pitfalls and possible solutions’’ at the University of Otago College of Education Auditorium, on Thursday June 20 at 5.30pm.

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