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Even vegetarians can rejoice over these new types of meat hitting the market. Here's why. USA TODAY

The meat industry, as it stands, leaves our planet vulnerable to a plethora of diseases and crises. Plant-based products could provide a safer future.

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Do you think pigs are magical?

We like pigs just as much as the next person, but we don’t think they are capable of magic. However, the National Pork Producers Council begs to differ. Their director of science and technology, Dan Kovich, has claimed that it is “impossible ... to make pork from plants.” 

But that is precisely what pigs do. We feed them plants, and they process those plants into their flesh — meat.

What Kovich would like us to believe is that there is no way to transform plants into meat other than through an animal. Fortunately for us and the planet, he is wrong, as has been proven in recent years by plant-based meat companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.

These companies started with the realization that there is nothing mysterious about how animals process plants into meat. Meat is simply a combination of amino acids, fats, water and minerals, all of which are found in plants. Bioconversion — breaking down feed and building muscle mass — is one way to achieve this transition, but other methods like protein enrichment can accomplish the same task through different means. Food technology has now advanced such that we can cut out the middleman (middle-pig?) and make meat directly from plants that cooks, smells and tastes just like legacy meat from an animal.

To protect ourselves, we have to find new ways of producing food.

This development in food technology comes at a critical time, because industrial animal agriculture is no longer able to feed the world safely and securely. And certainly not sustainably.

The most recent example of the inherent inefficiency and vulnerability of industrial animal agriculture is African swine fever. This latest epidemic has decimated herds around the world, sharply driving up food prices in affected countries while distorting global trade in both meat and feed crops. It has been estimated that up to a quarter of the globe’s pig population has fallen prey to this outbreak in the last 18 months, and it continues to ravage both small and large pig farms throughout a number of countries. 

This is not the first global disease to impact our food supply, and it won’t be the last. The stocking densities on today’s concentrated animal feeding operations, combined with the global nature of trade, make industrial animal agriculture inherently vulnerable to deadly viral and bacterial pandemics. This is why the majority of antibiotics produced are fed to farmed animals — an attempt to keep animals alive and growing in conditions that are intrinsically prone to rapidly spreading disease — with little regard to the massive public health threat of widespread antibiotic resistance. And for novel viral outbreaks, we have a disturbing limited arsenal for defense, as the African swine fever virus outbreak has made abundantly clear. 

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Making meat directly from plants could end our reliance on intensive animal farming operations, which are a hotbed for disease emergence. These diseases include zoonotic diseases that make the leap into human populations, such as the 2009 pandemic of H1N1 swine flu.

Removing animals from our food system also removes slaughterhouses, the source of much food contamination. With the USDA’s recent decision to allow increases in the speed of pig kill lines, slaughterhouses are also extremely dangerous for workers.

Reducing our footprint on the world

Plant-based meat is also vastly more efficient. It takes over 10 calories of crops fed to a pig to produce just one calorie of pork. By removing animals from the process and making meat directly from the crops themselves, we are able to produce more food per acre, increasing sustainability and decreasing environmental impacts, including climate change.

This safer, more secure and more efficient means of meeting global meat demand is also a significant benefit for food producers. By no longer relying on a vulnerable animal supply chain, they will no longer be at the mercy of the next pandemic or shift in consumer sentiment.

Let them eat steak: Hold the shame, red meat is not bad for you or climate change

The demand for better meat is clear. Retail sales of plant-based meats grew by nearly 10% between April of 2019 and April of 2018 and by over 25% the year before that. When these next-generation plant-based meats are introduced, like Impossible Foods’ new pork, they are wildly popular. When they hit grocery shelves and restaurant menus, they are best-sellers. For example, the introduction of the Impossible Whopper led Burger King to their most successful quarter in many years.

No wonder food and meat giants such as Hormel, Smithfield, Tyson and Nestle are rushing to get plant-based products to market.

It is not impossible to create a better food system. We have the ability right now. We just need to embrace it — the sooner, the better.

Caroline Bushnell and Liz Specht work for The Good Food Institute. Follow them on Twitter: @carolinebnell and @LizSpecht

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

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