Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment
Last decade, we proved that electricity from solar energy is more efficient than burning fossil fuels. Today, we may do something similar with our food. How can humans reduce their impact on the environment and increase the food supply in order to feed our growing population? Can we achieve meaningful cost reductions to plant proteins?
Can we convert solar energy into edible energy as we did with electricity?
A hectare of arable land yields about 8 metric tons of dry corn. Each kilogram eaten by humans provides 4200 calories. That means we get 33.6 million dietary calories for humans from a hectare of arable land.
That same field would also yield roughly 8 metric tons of corn stover (the cobs, stalks and leaves that remain after harvest). Every kilogram fed to cattle provides about 1740 dietary calories of metabolizable energy for the cow. In total, that field yields 13.9 million dietary calories for cattle.
If we assuming that 3% of that cow will eventually be eaten by humans as beef (Shepon 2016), because of things like skin and bones, that leaves only 417,000 dietary calories for human consumption.
That's Not that much, right?
Earth's growing population needs a more efficient technology to turn sunlight into edible energy:
What If we feed both the stover and the grain to the cattle?
The metabolizable energy from corn grain is 3127 dietary calories per kilogram of weight for cattle. Having the same 3% caloric efficiency from cattle feed, we'd get around 417,000 dietary calories of beef from the stover and an extra 751,000 dietary calories of beef from the grain. That's 1,168,000 dietary calories of beef in total.
- Plant agriculture = 33,600,000 dietary calories from one hectare (100% plant-based)
- Plant+animal agriculture = 34,017,000 dietary calories from one hectare (99% plant-based, 1% animal)
- Animal agriculture = 1,168,000 dietary calories from one hectare (100% animal)
Although we see 29x more efficiency from plants versus animal agriculture - it’s still only half of the work that needs to be done. I say half, because we still have about 50% grown energy processed with 3% efficiency… You can burn it with the same success as feeding animals.
What do we need to use 100% plants efficiently?
But before we start talking about tech, let me ask you: what kind of food do we need? Imagine you arrive in a new city, and hunger led you to a chain food trucks. What are your criteria for choosing what to eat? I think my meals should be tasty, healthy, and reasonably priced. If you share at least 2 of my criteria, read on.
The phrase "inedible by humans" basically means there's no cost-effective way to make something palatable and/or nutritious to humans. A typical example of something considered inedible to humans is corn stover - the stalks, leaves, and cobs of the corn plant.
This is distinct from the broader category of foods that humans could eat but choose not to because they're not as tasty as other options we have (e.g., wheat bran, potato peelings).
Zero Waste Diet
Some companies, like those seen below, have recently begun to make snacks from food waste.
Eat your beer
ReGrained recovers “spent” grains, the byproducts of the beer brewing process, from craft breweries and turns them into granola bars. ReGrained aims to expand to other grain-based products in the future. Currently, its bars are sold online and in several select stores around the US, as well as in partner breweries.
Drink Ugly Fruits
MISFIT Juicery aims to fight food waste by using tasteful but aesthetically unappealing fruits and vegetables in its juice products. MISFIT juices made with “ugly” produce that usually fills landfills because they don’t fit our grocery beauty ideals. You can find Misfit on the shelves of various retailers in DC and NYC.
Snack your waste
PLANETARIANS makes chips from discarded parts of plants and believes that by using 100% of plants, we are making meals wholesome, feeding a growing population and all around planet friendly. PLANETARIANS snacks have 300% more Protein, 200% more Fiber and 70% less Fat per serving than typical potato chips.
Are these three companies exceptions to the rule, or there is an opportunity to scale these types of solutions and go even further?
What technology can we use to turn 100% of the plant into tasty and healthy food?
We can use extrusion cooking to make snacks from the discarded parts of plants. Extrusion uses thermo-mechanical energy (think of a kitchen grinder) to cook oilseed meals at high temperature and high pressure, over a short term.
Minimal processing is not only energy efficient, but it also prevents the nutrient degradation that results from other cooking methods.
Extrusion technology works with ingredients as they are (high heat and pressure kills all possible contamination), and rapid cooking is energy efficient.
Although using extrusion technology to process the discarded parts of plants is still in its infancy, there are good early results for sunflower meal, orange peels, and coffee grounds.
What products can we make from the discarded parts of plants?
To get tasty snacks from the discarded parts of plants, you can pair them with other plant-based ingredients like grain flours, starches, oils.
Snacks like PLANETARIANS chips may contain similar or higher amounts of protein as animal products:
The price of many extruded snacks is comparable to beef. The wholesale price for 1 lb of grass-fed beef is $3.70. The wholesale price for extruded snacks is $4.25, which can be lowered to $2.34 using mass production.
One question is left: when we make snacks from 100% of the plant, can we say that they're wholesome? The answer to that is coming soon on our blog.
Founder and CEO of PLANETARIANS