Plant-based meat production 101

GFI Director of Science and Technology David Welch took to the stage at The Good Food Conference 2018 to explain why plant-based meat is a big part of the solution to sustainably feeding 10 billion people by 2050 and why we’ve only scratched the surface of plant-based meat innovation.
Plant-based hot dogs

Have you ever wondered why plant-based meat has always seemed to be made out of wheat and soy? Are you curious about why plant-based burgers have come onto the scene in a big way in 2018? Are you anxious about how we’ll feed the world sustainably in 2050 with close to 10 billion people on the planet? Yup, me too.

Fortunately, GFI Director of Science and Technology David Welch has some answers. He took the stage at The Good Food Conference to explain:

In short, there’s a lot you didn’t know you didn’t know about plant-based meat. But I’ll let David tell you about it.

(Find a text distillation below)

We’re not being very smart about efficiency.

These are the two looming questions about our global food supply:

Here’s the current state of environmental and agricultural affairs: Just under 33% of earth’s surface is land. 71% of that land is habitable. We already use 50% of that 71% for agriculture. And over 75% of that is used for livestock production. Yet that land only produces 33% of our global protein supply. Does your brain hurt?  

Here’s what that looks like:

Land use for protein production adapted from our world in data data source fao
Adapted from and based on UN FAO statistics

Why is there such a discrepancy between the huge amount of land we allocate to livestock production and the relatively meager amount of protein calories we glean? Using animals as units of meat production is an inherently inefficient process.  

Take the chicken as an example. Chickens have been relentlessly bred to reach slaughter weight as fast as possible with the biggest chicken breast possible. Nevertheless, it still requires 9 calories of chicken feed to create 1 calorie of chicken meat. Even setting aside issues around animal welfare, antibiotic use, and food safety, the inherent limitations of feed conversion in this biological system make conventional animal agriculture unsustainable.  

Meat consumption is on the rise.  

Despite the rising awareness of these inefficiencies and the other deleterious effects of industrial-scale animal agriculture, the world will eat more meat per capita this year than ever before.  

As standards of living rise around the world, humans are eating more meat. Compounded with our growing global population, this adds extraordinary pressure to our already straining environment. From a land-use standpoint alone, by the year 2050, the demand for meat will have skyrocketed beyond what our planet is capable of producing.    

Global Demand for Meat 2005 vs 2050 (in tonnes) 

Meat demand in 2005 and 2050 data source fao
Data source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, ESA Working Paper No. 12-03, p.131

This is solvable!  

Plant-based and clean meat both offer ways to satisfy the growing demand for meat in a much more sustainable way. As these products become increasingly accessible, cost-competitive, and delicious, the market will shift. We’re already seeing this shift with plant-based meats.

What is plant-based meat?  

We’re so glad you asked! We define plant-based meat as a food derived from a plant or fungus—sorry to all the die-hard botanists out there—designed to replace animal-based meat either as a stand-alone or in a recipe.  

The process of creating plant-based meat breaks down into four basic technology areas:

Using the right crop for the job

Crops are where we get the raw materials for creating plant-based meats. (Key point: crops are also where livestock animals get all of their raw materials for creating muscle—plant-based meat just cuts the animal out of the process.)  

Today most plant-based meats on the market are made with soy and wheat because these ingredients are abundantly available. They are the byproducts of existing industries such as the livestock and biofuel industries. They are not necessarily the optimal crops for plant-based food production. Analytical tools like trait mapping and digital phenotyping can help us better understand not only wheat and soy but the countless other crops that are available to us. If we can identify which crops, and which varieties of a crop, are best to use for specific plant-based meats, we can make a better product.  

Similarly, we can optimize those crops, selecting for desirable traits to improve flavors, textures, and aromas, and simplify the production process down the line.

(We’re already doing that with bread—varied textures and flavors of different kinds of bread have origins in the breed of wheat that they’re made from. Scientists are already exploring how elements of deliciousness map back to the wheat’s genome. We can do the same for plant-based meats and sundry supply crops.)

Bread and wheat in a field

Isolating and functionalizing ingredients

Once we find the right crops we can use the myriad methods available to isolate the raw materials we need—e.g., proteins, oils, and starches—and functionalize them. Basically, this is how we make plants meaty using mechanical and/or chemical techniques. Just like a cow would chew (mechanical digestion) and use digestive enzymes (chemical digestion) in the process of turning grass or corn into muscle, we can do the same thing sans cow.  

By milling, pounding, soaking, extruding, applying enzymes, etc., we can coax plant proteins, which tend to be globular, into behaving like animal proteins, which are fibrous.

Solving backward

The key is thinking about the end product and working backward to figure out what the best processing method is and what the optimal raw materials are.  

Instead of retrofitting castoff materials of the animal agriculture and biofuel industries to create “mock meats” for vegetarians and vegans consumers, plant-based meat companies are starting at the end. They’re identifying the desired tastes, textures, smells, and structures of animal meat on a molecular level and working backward to figure out what raw materials from the plant kingdom can be functionalized and combined to satisfy any “meat tooth.”  

This new approach and the expertise of biochemists is enabling plant-based meat producers to:

This is just the beginning

We’ve only just scratched the surface with how we can turn plants into plant-based meat. Innovators are now approaching plant-based meat with this whole process in mind, thinking about:

In the next few years, we’ll see more and more plant-based meat products that are really indistinguishable from the meat people already know and love. Conventional animal agriculture is already as close to the far edge of optimization as it can get. There simply isn’t too much more efficiency to be squeezed out of livestock animals. With plant-based meats, however, we’re just at the very beginning of discovery. We have an extraordinary opportunity to meet the growing demand for meat while creating a more delicious, sustainable, and just food supply.


Mary allen

Mary Allen GFI ALUM

Mary Allen is a science writer, creative strategist, and GFI alum focused on the intersection of sustainability and emerging technology. Find more of her work at