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A meat-free alternative for a sustainable future

As CEO of meat-alternative producer Fable, Michael Fox knows the scale of the challenge he is taking on.

Meat is one of the world’s largest industries, Fox told delegates at the Ozwater’21 conference, which is being held this week in Adelaide. It is also one with distinct sustainability challenges.

“It's worth US$2 trillion annually and 2.5% of global GDP,” he said.

“The UN forecasts that worldwide meat demand is going to increase by 50% between now and 2050. As nations like China become more wealthy, people in China are closing the gap between the 45kg of meat that they eat each year, and the 110kg of meat that Australians consume each year.”

But Fox’s effort to change this trajectory is equally ambitious.

“Meat is a fantastic food; it’s delicious, it’s high in calories, we evolved eating it,” he said.

“Our aim is to beat meat on taste, beat it on price, and beat it on convenience.”

His company’s product is based on shiitake mushrooms, and also includes coconut oil and tapioca flour. Co-founder Jim Fuller is a chef and chemical engineer who also studied agricultural science.

“He knows everything there is to know about how to grow mushrooms, the chemical compounds in mushrooms, and how to cook those to make them taste meaty and delicious,” Fox said.

The meat industry is related to the water industry, Fox told delegates.

“It’s responsible for 14.5% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions — more than all of transport combined,” he said. “It uses 38.5% of the world's habitable land mass.”

That’s because grass-fed, free-range farming requires large amounts of space, while the alternative — intensive factory farming — requires large quantities of antibiotics to keep the animals healthy, raising the risk of drug-resistant viruses and pandemic disease, such as COVID-19.

“The average cow needs to eat 12kg of plants to produce one kilogram of beef,” he said.

“For pigs, it’s eight kilograms of plants for one kilograms of pork, and chickens, the ratio is four to one. So today, more than half of the world's crops that are grown around the world are fed to animals rather than being directly fed to humans.”

But just as Ozwater’21 aims to reimagine the future of water, Fox and Fable hope to reimagine the future of meat.

“Australia is a leading agricultural nation, and hopefully we can continue in that position as the industry shifts over to a plant based and cultured meat future,” he said.

“Producing meat in the way that we imagine it can be produced will reduce global carbon emissions dramatically. We won’t need to slaughter animals for meat anymore.

“And we can return most of the world's landmass that's currently devoted to agriculture back to the forests.”

That, he said, could capture most of the anthropogenic carbon released into the atmosphere since industrialisation.

“Our mission is to reimagine the global meat industry.”