A pound of corn provides about 1500 calories. A bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds. On average, an acre of United States cropland yields 170 bushels. Add that all up (multiply it, actually) and you find that a normal acre on a normal farm produces over fourteen million calories, significantly more than any other crop save potatoes. While tubers are bulky and difficult to store, corn can last for years, can be fed to animals, or can be refined in its constituent parts and formulated into a variety of human foods. If you want to know why so much of the modern food system is built on it, look no further than its combination of stability, productivity, and malleability.
The other member of the row crop duopoly is soy. An acre of soy will produce about 50 bushels, still a huge amount of food, though far less than an acre of corn. But soy has more than four times the protein and more than five times the fat of corn, meaning that between the two of them they can produce all three macronutrients.
The reason all food isn’t directly made out of corn and soy is that they don’t taste very good without a lot of processing. While no one wants to eat soybean oil or cornmeal by the spoonful, fry cornmeal in soybean oil, dust it with a generous layer of incandescently orange nacho cheese powder, and you’ve got Doritos. Corn syrup that makes its way into everything from soda to salad dressing, which also usually contains plenty of soybean oil.
But efforts to turn soy and corn into meat substitutes have been less effective, which is why huge amounts of both are fed to chickens, pigs, and cows. It is cheaper to produce a pound of soy protein than a pound of chicken or pork, but only the most committed vegans want to eat veggie burgers. (It’s telling that modern meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger use more expensive pea protein instead of soy.)
That may all change in the coming years. A company called Moolec has engineered soy plants to grow a significant amount of porcine — AKA pig — protein inside their beans. It’s not much of a leap for me to believe that a sausage substitute made from these soybeans would taste far better than one made from regular soy, or from pea protein for that matter. At least two companies are already using bioengineered bacteria and fungi to produce dairy protein.
I have been skeptical of lab grown meat’s commercial prospects for a while. I’ve come to believe the process is simply too complex to compete with industrial animal agriculture, at least for the foreseeable future. But I’d be much more hesitant to bet against Moolec’s approach. Tweaking a method of food production that is already robustly developed, the soy plant, virtually guarantees a low production cost and easy scalability.
Looking forward, I expect to see meat and milk substitutes that are convincing enough to get onto many supermarket shelves. But rather than novel products of bioreactors, like lab grown meat, I think these will mostly be processed foods, with constituent parts extracted from corn, soy, and fermentation. Advances in biotech will mean these parts can be actual beef, pork, or milk protein, combined with any number of more obscure flavor enhancers.
Though I wouldn’t be shocked if a synthetic milk indistinguishable from the real thing is on the market in the next decade, it’s unlikely fake burgers made from soy-grown animal protein will be able to fool anyone who’s paying attention. But I don’t think they will have to. Margarine isn’t exactly like butter, and almond milk isn’t that close to dairy, but both have captured significant shelfspace in the supermarket. A cheap, tasty, high protein patty that can be tossed on the grill or made into spaghetti sauce.
I don’t think a meat substitute will need to be a perfect replica of the real thing to succeed, anymore than commercially produced bread needed to be exactly like the homemade loaves it replaced. If some combination of soy porcine protein, flavor enhancers, and various other engineered ingredients can be formulated to taste really good, people will eat it. If it can be produced by harnessing the efficiency of corn and soy, meaning it can also be very cheap, it won’t take long before it’s crowding out the real thing.