A renaissance in meat production is upon us.
We’ve got a problem.
By 2050, it’s estimated that there will be close to 10 billion people on this planet. That’s 2 billion more people than today. And to feed them all, we’re going to need to raise and slaughter 70%-100% more animals.
At any given moment, there are about 3 times more chickens, cows, pigs, and sheep than people. But, that number pales in comparison to the number of animals we eat. About 50 billion chickens alone are slaughtered for food each year.
So, what’s the problem? After all, we’ve always eaten meat. As a species, we’ve raised and slaughtered animals for thousands of years. What’s so important about right now that makes it worth our time and effort to reconsider our long-standing relationship with meat?
This is a complicated question with a multifaceted answer. Here are some brief considerations:
- Rearing animals to eat is not an efficient method of feeding ourselves. Livestock provides 18% of our daily calories but uses 83% of the total farmland on Earth, largely due to the need to grow crops to feed them.
- We have an ethical obligation to these animals to ensure they’re not living hellish lives. Unfortunately, to meet the growing demand for meat, many of them are.
- About 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock production. The single largest driver of deforestation is the need for grazing land and to grow the feed these animals require.
- The discovery of antibiotics in 1928 paved the way for modern medicine. However, recent years have witnessed a decline in their efficacy due to overuse, which is leading to so-called “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics. Meat production accounts for 73% of the worldwide use of antibiotics and is strongly implicated in the creation of antibiotic-resistant strains of infectious diseases.
We need an alternative — one that gives people the taste and texture of the meat they love, but without all these messy problems. But, what is that alternative?
Introducing, “Cultivated” meat
Imagine you could take one cell from an animal, a chicken, say, and then multiply that cell in the lab to create a chicken breast. Or, take one cell from a cow and create a steak.
Imagine how the world would change if we could produce all the meat we needed without raising and slaughtering 70 billion animals every year.
This is the promise of a new industry that aims to grow meat in “bioreactors” rather than in pens and cages. In 2020, the company Eat Just received approval to sell cultivated chicken in Singapore, although it will remain significantly more expensive than regular chicken until production scales up.
How is cultivated, or cultured, meat created? You start with cells from a living animal, which can be acquired painlessly via a biopsy. Stem cells are generally used because they can change into any cell type. The stem cells are then immersed in a growth medium that provides the nutrients needed for the cells to multiply. For structured meat products, like a steak, the cells would be seeded onto a scaffold along which they would grow to simulate the structure of a real steak.
There are many benefits to producing cultivated meat. Life cycle assessments suggest that this method will use less land and water, emit fewer greenhouse gases, and reduce agriculture-related pollution and eutrophication compared to raising and slaughtering livestock.
However, the greatest advantage of cultivated meat is perhaps that it does not require the use of antibiotics. As mentioned, the meat industry is responsible for more than 70% of the world’s use of antibiotics and is driving antibiotic-resistance bacteria. If antibiotics become ineffective, this would result in a worldwide health crisis we haven’t seen in 100 years.
Lastly, by removing the animal from the process, cultivated meats spare living creatures the physical and emotional torture that often accompanies raising them. And considering that we slaughter 70 billion animals each year, and many of those creatures are surely experiencing tremendous suffering, this is no small matter.
Will you try cultivated meats?
So, what do you think? Does the idea of eating meat grown “in a lab” sound disgusting? Does it sound unnatural and unsafe?
Like with any new food product, there is sure to be some trepidation about the health consequences of eating cultivated meats. After all, no one wants to do themselves harm by eating something strange.
But, what if your co-workers try it? What if your friends start eating it? What if, when you try it, you find it tastes similar to real meat? What if it eventually becomes less expensive than real meat?
Within the next several years, these are questions we will all be asking. Are you ready to answer them?
Thanks for reading!