What if I tell you that in the future you will get to enjoy your beef, chicken and fish without harming a single animal?
Interesting thought, right? Know, however, that this is not anymore a vision or part of your imagination. This is already happening.
In 2013, the first ever laboratory-produced hamburger, otherwise known as “clean meat,” was cooked and eaten in London. The meat was cultured by scientist Mark Post of Maastricht University. In 2016, Memphis Meats cooked the first ever laboratory-made meatball. The same company has also been reported to have developed chicken and duck meat from the cells of animals, taken without killing or harming the animals. IndieBio, which calls itself the world’s largest seed biotech accelerator, is known for providing funding, mentorship and access to capital to start-ups such as Memphis Meats. While it funds other enterprises, its biggest program is centered on food. At the same time, there are individuals and other organizations that are focusing on this next big thing in the food industry. These include philanthropists and billionaires such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson and multinational corporations such as Nestle, Unilever and even Canadian company Maple Leaf Foods.
For many people, including you and me, eating cultured meat may not seem very palatable at this point. Who would want to eat meat created in a lab when we can have the real thing, right? The argument, however, is that this food revolution may address a number of sustainability issues, namely food security, environmental impact and climate change, and human health.
Here’s what we know about animal agriculture:
• The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that the demand for livestock products globally will surge to 70 percent more by the year 2050 in order to feed about 9.6 billion people. This has implications on land use and the ever-dwindling resources (water, plants, fossil fuels) that are absolutely needed to raise livestock. Data indicates that as much as 1.3 billion tons of grain are needed in order to grow livestock annually. Time Magazine notes that animals from developing countries require even more feed as compared to developed countries in North America or Europe due to poor feed quality and undernourishment issues. For example, a cow in sub-Saharan Africa would need 500 kg to 2,000 kg of grass or grain to produce a kilo of protein as compared to 75 kg to 300 kg needed by a cow in developed countries.
• The livestock sector contributes as much as 14.5 percent to greenhouse gas emissions according to the FAO. This does not take into consideration unaccounted greenhouse gas emissions of farm animals, such as livestock respiration, which can jack up the percentage of emissions attributable to the sector to as much as 51 percent reports the WorldWatch Institute. Statistics show that growing cattle and other ruminants in developing countries are responsible for at least 75 percent of global emissions while pigs and poultry are said to account for at least 56 percent.
• Conventional meat, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, serve as a common cause of fatal food infections due to the presence of pathogens. In addition, livestock are given antibiotics and growth hormones which can be harmful to the health of the people who eat them.
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It is the goal of the proponents of lab-grown meat to address these issues. “The aim is to ensure that people keep eating what they love, but to produce it in a way so it’s not damaging the planet,” Ryan Bethencourt, IndieBio’s co-founder said in an interview.
Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti quantifies the effects of switching to lab-grown meat: “If the U.S. switched to Memphis Meats beef, we would expect the greenhouse gas reduction to be like taking almost 23 million cars off the road. One burger could save the amount of water used in 51 showers.”
For his part, Branson encapsulates the benefits of lab-grown meat: “At scale Memphis Meats expect to have a much better calorie conversion; use a lot less water and land; produce less greenhouse gases, and be less expensive than conventional meat production. And it’s a huge step forward for animal welfare.”
In terms of health, lab-grown meat is free from antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones. A report from the Washington Post indicated that heme iron, which can cause colon cancer, and saturated fat thereby increasing the possibility of stroke or heart disease, may be removed from this laboratory-produced meat.
So how is lab-grown meat created?
This video from Memphis Meats explains the process of producing clean meat:
Valeti emphasizes that culturing meat in the laboratory is a pain-free process for the animals. Meat cells are extracted and fed with nutrients to enable them to grow into edible meat. In an interview, Valeti notes that they are looking into processes that will allow the meat to self-renew so that they will not have to go back to extracting cells from the animal. “Our goal is to entirely remove the animal from the meat production process,” she says.
At this point, the main drawback of lab-grown meat is the price. Currently, it costs about $18,000 per pound, quite stiff for regular consumers. It is being forecasted that scaling up production in the future will bring down the price significantly.
Branson estimates that in 30 years or so, all meat that will be consumed worldwide “will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.” One of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs may be correct. Research and investments into lab-grown meat may ensure its economic viability sooner than expected. And with 65 percent of people willing to try as per a 2017 survey, the ‘ick’ factor associated with lab-grown meat may not pose a challenge after all.
What about you? What do you think of lab-grown meat? And if you’re vegan particularly, would you eat it?