Blog 12 Dec 2023 

The low-emission, environmentally friendly burger of the future

Here is how the burger of the future may look, using sustainable novel foods for a smaller environmental impact on our planet.

Kris Wadrop

Kris Wadrop

Managing Director, Materials

Billions of burgers are consumed every year. To cut greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental damage caused by their production, we’ve reimagined this iconic dish with sustainable novel food and materials. 

Whether fast food, BBQ or gourmet, there are not many other foods that induce as much mouth-watering anticipation as a burger. 

Roughly 2.5 billion burgers are eaten in the UK annually, and billions more are consumed in America. As tasty as they can be, they are very much a part of food production systems that are responsible for one third of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, two thirds of which come from agriculture, land use and changes in land use. 

With the global population set to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050, the environmental effects of the food system could increase by 50 – 90%.

Huge changes are needed across agriculture, food production and distribution to mitigate negative impacts on animal, plant and human health because of green-house gas (GHG) emissions, marine pollution, ecological damage and biodiversity loss. 

These changes could include: 

  • Switching to healthier, more plant-based diets as well as substituting some animal-based products with novel foods and alternative proteins 
  • Improvements in the technology used in agriculture for example use of drones to apply pesticides precisely on plants or the use of biostimulants to promote plant growth instead of inorganic (ammonia based) fertilisers 
  • Reductions in food loss and waste.

How can a reimagined burger contribute to this change? Let’s get between the buns to deconstruct one and find out. 

Burgers without the beef

We begin with the primary contributor. 87% of GHGs for a burger come from the patty. When looking at the environmental impact of just food production, animal-based food accounts for 57% of the GHG emissions.

Although the average daily consumption of meat in the UK saw a decline between 2008 and 2019, the overall demand for meat globally is going up. Much needs to be done to reduce the overall negative impact from livestock farming, whether it is animal welfare or harmful emissions and pollution. 

A possible solution is cultivated meat. This is a new way to produce meat products from animal cells, without intensive livestock farming and other processes involved in traditional meat production. It is a promising technology with the potential to be more sustainable and ethical than traditional meat production. The market is predicted to be valued at over $20 billion by 2032.

One study suggests that cultivated meat could have a carbon footprint 90% smaller than meat from beef cattle and less impact in terms of a variety of other environmental factors such as land and water use. Some literature studies suggest cultivated meat’s energy demands are greater than meat from livestock, this could be mitigated in part through the use of sustainable, renewable energy. 

Most research into cultivated meat also projects that producers will be able to develop and scale up more efficient and sustainable production methods than the current ones and use more widely available ingredients. This would reduce its environmental impact further. 

There are meat-free options being developed too. Alternative proteins produced by a CO2 fermentation process could one day form your vegan patty or end up piled on top in a bacon cheeseburger’. The process uses waste CO2 and renewable energy to produce a feedstock for microbial fermentation, in a process similar to traditional ways of making beer, wine, cheese and yoghurt. 

Low-impact, low-carbon crops

What about the burger bun, and the other toppings such as lettuce, tomato and onion? 

Grains, vegetables and other crops grown for human food are responsible for more than 25% of GHG emissions related to food production. This includes both crop production and land use. Many chemicals used in intensive crop farming to ensure high yields and to protect the plants are also harmful to the environment in other ways. 

Ammonia-based fertilisers release nitrous oxide and the runoff pollutes rivers and lakes, creating toxic algal blooms. In the Gulf of Mexico this has caused a dead zone greater than 3,000 square miles in area which equates to five times the size of Greater London. Replacing chemical fertilisers with natural bacteria-based nitrogen fixation can give the same growth benefits to crops without collateral harm. In increasing nitrogen-use efficiency and decarbonising fertiliser production, these natural products could play a part in reducing emissions by up to 84% by 2050.

Chemical pesticide use is a major source of biodiversity loss harming pollinating insects, non-crop plants and other wildlife. Chemical pesticide use is also linked to increased health risks in people, particularly farmers, children and the elderly. Additionally, they contribute to agricultural emissions throughout their production process and use, potentially more so than chemical fertilisers. Biological pesticides offer a viable solution. Inspired by nature, for example, biopesticides made using spider venom components can be targeted to specific pests without affecting other crops. This means that scaling up their use would help reduce pesticide use related harmful impact on the environment, its biodiversity and on human health. 

That’s a (better) wrap

Getting food out to consumers is an intensive process. 18% of food production emissions are related to the supply chain, and 5% of those are due to packaging. Packaging also contributes to plastic waste pollution.: 141 million tonnes of packaging items are produced globally every year, of which only 9% is recycled. Millions of tonnes end up in our oceans and waterways each year, harming fish and other marine life.

Scientists are developing compostable bio-packaging, including wrappers made from sustainably farmed seaweed. Innovations like these can help create a circular life cycle for packaging by returning nutrients to the soil. At the same time, they could contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 25% and reducing harmful waste plastic pollution. 

Investing in food for the future

From upscale gastropubs to fast food grabbed on the go, there’s a good chance that the burgers of the near future could have a much lower environmental impact at all stages of their production. 

New innovations in AgriTech and novel foods, such as cultivated meat and alternative proteins, could become part of a more sustainable food system. In fact, meals made with novel foods provide the same nutritional value as vegan and omnivore meals but with greatly reduced impacts across a range of environmental factors compared to meat, including 88% less global warming potential, 83% less land use and 87% less water use. 

With our expertise, Novel Food Innovation Centre and food safety accreditation we are helping bring the burger of the future to your table. Innovation can create a food system to sustainably nourish a growing population whilst maintaining the health of both people and planet. 

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